I have re-worked this entry in my head many times. My inclination was to respond to the election and its implications on our work, and thank Former First Lady Michelle Obama for her leadership in our space. I have some pretty fierce and passionate opinions on the subject, but others have done a much better job articulating these points. I was particularly attracted to commentary by two advocates, Bettina Siegel, and Chef Ann, who outline the progress achieved over the past eight years, and our former First Lady’s intelligence and grace while navigating the seas of the political fray.
I then considered writing what I shared with the WITS team during our January staff training. The training was auspiciously sandwiched between the day we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day our country inaugurated a new president; or perhaps more importantly, the day millions of Americans marched in peaceful protest. I took a moment to pause on the meaning of these events and what they had to do with our work. My answer was everything. Now more than ever our voices need to be heard. Now more than ever our children need their good health, to grow into productive adults. We serve children of color, immigrant children, children who may never have a voice if we do not take care of them now. We recognize the relationship between wellness and success in life and now more than ever is the work of WITS relevant.
I could end here, but then I joined my former colleagues and students at a reunion on February 1st that most certainly gave me more reason to pause and reflect on the value and meaning of this work, and frankly, on this life. Twenty years ago I started a school on the Lower East Side. We served the toughest bunch of middle school students I have ever met (still, to this day). They were 11, I was 29. They are now older than I was when I taught them. And, I always felt we never gave them enough. If you have followed the WITS origin story, you would feel like you know these kids. They were the ones with the orange fingers and tongues (thanks to orange soda and chips). They were the kids who could not walk a flight of stairs without stopping to catch their breaths. And (perhaps the most powerful one for me) Rene Polanco was the kid whose story I share when training our chefs on behavior management strategies. I saw Rene at the reunion and with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes, I shared his story: on day two of my teaching career, Rene yelled out in the middle of my lesson – “miss, how long have you been teaching?” Without pause, I turned to him and blurted, “10 years”. And, while I am not advocating for dishonesty, it was probably the smartest knee-jerk reaction in my entire career. I showed confidence even though I was shaking underneath. I took charge, even if I was clueless. I would not let that little – intimidate me! Well, Rene grew up and while his life has not been easy, he is now in security at the World Trade Center. Among the former students I spoke to last week, there were multiple “Rene” stories and tales of success and heartbreak. And, tales of how they have informed my career. Among them are chefs (!), teachers, law enforcement agents, lots of parents. These are kids who never, ever had it easy but who never, ever gave up.
What were my takeaways? Besides the rollercoaster of emotion, I reflected on two life lessons:
1) The hardest work days are the most rewarding. I feel incredibly fortunate to do this work every day. To serve, to empower others, to do my very little part to make this world a better place. And, it is hard. It is even harder for my team in the schools every day. It is damn hard. And, damn rewarding.
2) Life is formed through relationships. Let us continue to build those relationships. To build bridges to a better world.
So, I was supposed to reflect on 2016 and share my hopes and dreams for this coming year in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions. While this may not achieve that goal, my reflections most certainly take the form of resolutions as I think about what is most important in life. I should also share here what I expressed to my team in January: I am excited about more of the same. We do great work. I want to dive deeper and do even greater work. Where are we not meeting our goals? How can we support each other to do so? I am also excited about what is ahead: CookCamp, FIT BIT Training for teachers, and developing a more sophisticated tracking system to highlight our impact. I am excited about our national growth. There is much to be proud of and still much more to accomplish. I take moment to pause and thank all of you who have made this journey possible – from the WITS team to our donors to our many supportive partners. Let us make this another powerful year. It is an important one.