My mom always told me that I could try anything out that I wanted. She never forced me to stay in anything growing up, although she encouraged me to be a finisher always. She said that she just wanted me to find “MY THING” and sometimes that took trying out lots of different things. This carried throughout my whole life, thus far. I went from tee-ball, to dance and gymnastics, to basketball, track, fast-pitch softball and volleyball, to cheerleading, swim team, DIVING team and then dance team. I changed my major 6 times in college, did a study away program with internship, moved every single year of my college career, ran a ½ marathon, chaired events, ran for student government, learned music, worked at summer camp, lead music, golf, etc.
The list of my random acts of trying could probably go on, but what I found in each of those things were the uniqueness of people that I came across and how much I wanted to just “hear their story.” Why were they here, why this choice, what’s next, ultimate dreams and ambitions, road blocks they’ve encountered, etc. In search for my own likes, dislikes, ambitions and journey, I found that it’s in talking to and helping others reach that place that is my passion.
I was born in a small town in east Texas and had a fairly normal upbringing. My story really begins, in my opinion, when I was 10 and my dad passed away from brain cancer. In less than 9 months, this difficult disease took him both from our family and from an entire community. To this very day, it is the hardest thing I’ve gone through. I still miss him and feel as though I was robbed a little from really getting to know him. But in a heart-to-heart talk with my Mom after I graduated high school, she said that she didn’t think I would be who I am without going through that loss. In fact, she said she thought I might be a little snobby. How sweet.
But even as a young girl, I found the worth in every person and how great they were to reach out to us in our times of need that it just seemed right to reciprocate. Thus started my passion for giving back.
The question of “Why did you come to Nashville” was and always is a funny question to me. Most people assume that I wanted to make it in music or wanted to "be in the industry," and that I would find my lucky break here. Actually that is the farthest thing from what I wanted to do. When I graduated college and was trying to figure things out there were 3 things that I considered:
1) Move to Lake Tahoe with my friend Robyn and become a ski instructor. I still would like to do that.
2) move to Barcelona and become an ESL teacher. Sounded like a great idea and Barcelona was my favorite out of all the countries and locales I had been. And I'd still like to do that.
3) Move to Nashville, TN and see what transpires. (Keep in mind; I had only been here once in my life…) Somehow Nashville won out. Within a month of making that decision, I was here. Jobless, virtually friendless, and completely lost. Literally. I could NOT figure out which direction Old Hickory really went! When I was going North, I really thought I was heading East or South. I needed landmarks people! Luckily, I made it.
After a few different part time jobs and a position at Thomas Nelson Publishing I was offered my current position at United Way. While I didn’t know it a year ago when I started, I know now that this is a way as a young professional to truly make a difference. My job, my role, is to educate people about the needs in the community. In educating you, I have educated myself more and more about the stories in which we all come from. My passion. You see, no matter where you are, what you are doing, whether you love your job, you hate your job or you are looking for the next thing, where we are as young professionals is important; Important to us, our families and important to our community.
One thing I say in every single meeting that I walk into is that YOU are United Way. The way to live united is to reach out and help the person next to us or the person down the street not because we have to or because anyone is forcing us to, but because that is the right thing to do. If I were down, the last thing I would want you to do is come and drop kick me. And I have been down before: In college after failing a test and falling UP the stairs (yes it is possible!) in front of HUNDREDS of people, I later fell with my lunch in hand in front of a table full of fraternity boys. Lunch was no longer in HAND! (Talk about being drop kicked while I was down!) While they did snicker and I turned red (if not a random shade of purple) they offered me their hand to help me up.
You see our community and how it IS and how it operates is similar to a mutual fund. It is all of us coming together, despite our role and age and whether we are at the bottom or the top, coming together to do what we can to make a difference. The KEYWORD being DO WHAT WE CAN. The truth of the matter is that we ALL have a dollar, an hour, some clothes to give, a meal to give, SOMETHING that we can give back and that is where our mutual fund is. It is ONE connecting with another, and another, and another, and another.
I should add to the list of my “have-dones” that I “majored” (or focused) in high school (if you can really major or focus in anything in high school) in broadcast journalism. I. loved. it. I realized how much I loved being the center of attention;. WOOPS. I MEAN, telling a story to someone. And I wouldn’t do any reports unless I had participated in what I was talking about. If it was a report on powder puff football, then I played. If it was a story on skipping class, then I tried it out. I wouldn’t come here and talk to you or anyone without knowing what I was talking about or rather WHO I was talking about. When I first started my job at United Way, it was important to me to know the people, the agencies, and the programs that I was representing. While I could tell you story after story today about the lives that I saw affected positively here in our community, my time is limited and so I will only tell a couple:
There is a 33 acre farm heading towards Leaper’s Fork called The Center for Living and Learning. This residential and vocational program was started by Fran Clippard and her family when they saw her brother Donald go thru the beginning stages of schizophrenia. Seeing anyone that we love go thru anything difficult is always hard (we can all attest to that), but when they are more or less shunned from society, misunderstood and “professionals” say the only cure is really for them to be put away, I can imagine it’s even more difficult. This center was created for individuals who deal with progressive and consistent struggles such as schizophrenia and severe bi-polarism and have somewhat lost the ability to do things on their own. So in this residential and vocational program, they teach them the skills they need to hold a job, they teach them horticulture, how to be diligent workers, to live in community with each other, how to take care of themselves again, etc. As I was walking around with Fran seeing the grounds, the house, the green houses, the gardens, the job training building, the barns, the location for the new housing so that they can help more people, we were talking and Fran started to cry. She said, “Jenna, there is NO WAY. Absolutely NO WAY we would be able to do this if it weren’t for our community, United Way donors, who gives back. We would not exist. These people, MY BROTHER, would be who knows where with no one helping them, no one looking out for them or even treating them or giving them the life they deserves; that we all deserve.”
Second story: An apartment complex in Franklin called me last September and said “We want to do something. We have a small staff and can’t expend much time, but we want to be able to do something. Can you connect us?” Of course I can! So I connected their staff with Meals on Wheels. For those of you who don’t know, Meals on Wheels provides nutritious meals, even pet food and books, to homebound seniors and others to help them maintain dignity, restore and maintain good health and help them remain in their own home as long as possible. So Abby and her crew went to the Meals on Wheels kitchen, helped prepare all the meals and loaded up to deliver on the routes. She called me later that evening crying. She said “Jenna, I had no idea the needs that are right here in our back yard!” She said “We were in the middle of tons of beautiful homes and pulled up to a house that looked a little run down. We went to the front door, and saw a man living on essentially a dirt floor. He came to the door with nothing but a shirt on and we talked to him for a few and he said that the last meal he ate was when Meals on Wheels came the last time. 2 days ago.” Breaks your heart to know that there are people going hungry right here in our backyards. But people like you provide HOPE. Every single day.
I feel as though we have lost some of the passing down of being philanthropic. With every generation, we become more and more about ME. We don’t become givers to our community until we have kids that are running around or when our parents are considered elderly or when tragedy hits us or close to us. The "giving back" isn’t ingrained into our character. And character isn’t something that we are born with. You create your character just like you create your reputation. The truth is that an apple tree does not eat the apples that it produces. It produces the apples for someone or something else. Same goes for you. Your giftings, talents, abilities and even your passions really aren’t FOR you (while you might enjoy them.) You are to use them for someone else. Why not infuse what you have to give with improving our community every day? Why not take the things that we have to share and do just that: share. Character is the inward motivation to do what is right. As young professionals in our companies, our families and our communities, we have the ability to make a difference and to do what is right but so many times that opportunity passes us by. Don't let it pass you by.
I close with this: connect that thing that you are passionate about with the greater need that lies in our community. You have a voice. You have a say so. You can make a difference whether big or small and sometimes we need to be reminded of that. You matter. Each and every one of us, no matter where we are in life’s journey or what our economic level or role in our companies have hopes that tomorrow will bring something brighter for those we care about and for ourselves. I believe that hope comes from seeing opportunities that if accepted can lead to the realization of those hopes and dreams. We all win when children succeed in school, neighborhoods get turned around, families have good health and everyone has a solid job. Whatever it is that drives you, that excites you, that you desire to do and make a difference, you can do it. Connect that with wherever you are. Rally up with your neighbors and know that you have a story to share with someone. You just have to do it.
(you just read a speech i made for the Young Professionals Council on connecting your passion to the community.)