By Michelle Day
At 23, there are many things I’m not good at. I’m probably the worst dancer in the universe, but I refuse to let that stop me from singing and dancing along to every Taylor Swift song as if my life depends on it while my friends stand in the background, pretending they have no idea who I am. I also still get lost every time I go into Center City by myself; a few weeks ago I spent a good 20 minutes wandering the streets with a (wonderful and patient) group of friends searching for my car because I had no idea where I had parked.
It’s easy for me to laugh at myself when I fail at something I’m terrible at. What I’m learning is that when I fail at something I know in my heart that I was created to do, the bruises left from a small mistake can quickly turn into bitter scars if I give in to the deception of defeat.
Since day one in North Philly, I’ve tried to be honest and open about my experiences. There have been moments filled with unadulterated laughter and joy, and others filled with tears, frustration, and brokenness. Some days I wake up and feel like I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do, and there are other days that I seriously question my sanity and my ability to live up to the challenges placed before me on a daily basis.
When January rolled around I felt rejuvenated and prepared myself as best as I could for a fresh start. I worked hard to focus on taking care of myself so that I could embrace every day to the fullest, and for a few weeks, it seemed to work. My heart felt lighter than it had in years, and I made it an entire month without having a mental or emotional breakdown at school. I thought that if I could just make it through winter—the dark, cold, and weary months—I could do anything.
Then one particularly chaotic day, I couldn’t help a student who needed me. Several others needed help with a project, and in that moment, I chose to help the masses, ignoring the student who was crying and throwing pencils across the room. As an adult, I understand that many people needed help, and in that moment, I couldn’t be in two places at once. But an eleven year old doesn’t understand that. In a moment of panic, all they can see is someone they trust abandoning them.
In an instant, a relationship that had taken months to build was broken. After that day, that particular student refused to work with me. They moved their desk as far away from me as possible in class, said negative things right to my face, and ignored me when I tried to continue to be polite and friendly with them. I tried to stay positive and focus on the other students who I worked well with, but little by little, it started to eat away at me.
A few weeks later, the explosion came. In that moment, every last ounce that I had been fighting to keep together broke, and I ran out of the building sobbing, the door slamming behind me. I acted in a less than graceful way, and the results left me angry, hurt, frustrated, and humiliated.
In the days that followed, I completely questioned whether I really was cut out to do this job, or if I’d made a major mistake in pursuing my dreams. Everything I had worked so hard for had fallen apart and smacked me in the face. For a while I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened. If anything, I wanted to crawl under a rock and escape reality. Instead though, I found myself praying several times a day—for peace, for grace, for the broken relationships, and for God to show His work in this big mess.
Exactly one day after the student returned to school, they saw me in the hallway and asked to speak to me. Not knowing what to expect, I stopped. The eleven year old looked up at me, eyes wide, and said, “I’m sorry for what I did. Can you forgive me?”
Instantly my heart melted, and the anger, hurt, and frustration were swept away. I nodded my head vigorously, offering my hand for a handshake and said that I was sorry too, that I never wanted them to feel abandoned by me, that I wanted them to know that I would always be with them even when it doesn’t feel like it. Then I asked if we could wash the slate clean and start over. The student smiled, whispering, “I would like that.”
Something has changed since the day I decided to let go of my insecurities and mistakes, using them instead to grow into a better educator and a better person. I’m not so worn down by the student who throws pencils at the wall when they don’t get their way. I’m able to smile at the child who screams and yells because they don’t know how to express the hurt and pain they’ve seen, or the joy they so desperately want. I thrive in situations where students need encouragement and kind words, and I’m learning to let the words of others impact me only when they provide me with ways to grow or cause me to laugh and grin from ear to ear. I’m no longer clinging to the idea of perfection or success. Instead, I’m doing my best to use my idiosyncrasies and my gifts to embrace failure and success with grace.
Michelle serves as an Instructional Assistant at St. James School.
By Chris Neville
When I was applying to colleges, I toured a few of those located in Philadelphia. At each one, my tour guide said something along the lines of, “Philadelphia is a big city, but it’s really a big college town.” Working at St. Peter’s, I have definitely found this to be true. Relationships with the various institutions of higher learning in this city have been highly beneficial to me during my time at St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.
As might be expected, these institutions have been an unfailing source of volunteers. I receive emails weekly from individual students or student groups who want to serve at St. Peter’s. During my tenure here, we have had volunteer groups from Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University, and Bryn Mawr College. In addition, the universities of Philadelphia have provided me with skilled volunteers who help me to improve the food cupboard. Every autumn, we partner with the Intercultural Communication master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, which provides us with five to seven students who volunteer at the food cupboard every Saturday for an entire semester, helping us to discover and overcome cultural barriers between us and our clients. Many of these students are able to provide the indispensable service of interpreting between Mandarin and English. Another skilled volunteer is Claire, a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University who chose to do her community internship with us, studying food security in Philadelphia. Claire has brought skills that enable her to serve in food cupboard leadership positions and to review and edit our grant applications.
Encouraged by these partnerships that basically fell into my lap, I began actively seeking more relationships with Philadelphia universities. At the suggestion of one of my board members, I contacted a group of Temple MBA students, requesting that they analyze how the food cupboard functions and suggest changes that could help us to operate more smoothly. We recently had an initial meeting with these students, who are excited to put their coursework into practice to help us out. I am also contacting various student groups in search of volunteer Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese interpreters.
Aside from volunteers, relationships with Philadelphia universities have provided me with amazing networking opportunities. When I mentioned that I am considering looking for a job in biological research at the close of my Servant Year term, multiple volunteers offered to help me connect with researchers at their respective institutions. Additionally, my official Servant Year mentor is a very well-connected visiting professor at the Wharton School of Business. Every time we meet, he offers to connect me with someone interesting or potentially helpful.
When talking about networking, Lindsay, our program director, once told me, “Philadelphia is a big city, but you’ll find it’s really a small town. Everyone knows everyone.” This, too, I have found to be true. Philadelphia has skyscrapers, a subway system, and 1.5 million inhabitants, but it’s also a small college town full of well-resourced people who are eager to serve their community.
Chris Serves as Manager of the St. Peter's Food Cupboard