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Your Part in the Story

One of my book club friends always reads the last page of the book first. Scandalous!

But, I understand her desire to know how it turns out. If we know the ending, it makes it easier to get through the tough parts.

As nonprofit staff and volunteers, we don’t know how the story will end. We often meet folks at a moment when they have profound needs or challenges:

  • at a hospital during a medical crisis

  • at a food pantry when inflation means people are struggling to buy food even though they're employed

  • at an afterschool program helping kids in divested communities get access to tutoring supports and enrichment activities to curtail intergenerational poverty

  • at a therapy group for individuals experiencing a mental health or substance abuse challenge and trying to make it through each day

  • at a refugee center welcoming those who have experienced untold horrors and are now displaced in a foreign land with an unknown language and different customs

We try—in these difficult moments—to meet urgent needs and offer a listening ear. Yet, we rarely know what happens after that moment, or that program, or that year.

Recently, I had the rare and beautiful opportunity to hear and see the impact of a nonprofit’s support—in essence, the end of the story. Let me share it with you. After all, you may have been one of the individuals who poured into this person’s life…

Snapshots from a Life Forever Changed

Mario’s story could be turned into a movie. Immigrant family, hoping to make a better life. Worked hard and dreamed big. Then, the father was killed by a drunk driver. The loss shattered the family. Home became less safe as untreated trauma bubbled up and came out in unhealthy ways. Mario stumbled into gangs, drugs, and street violence. Several years in prison were worse than you can imagine. He emerged broke and broken. No hope and no plans.

One day, Mario started playing basketball at a local nonprofit. Eventually, they helped him obtain his GED. Then, they reconnected him with his passion for the arts. He found employment as a photographer. He moved across the country for a fresh start. Like many young adults, Mario experienced ups and downs over the next few years, but he never gave up.

Now, years later, Mario is a husband, father, employee, and nonprofit mentor. He’s a professional photographer and uses his free time to mentor local youth with backgrounds like his. In addition to his full-time job, Mario picks up Uber shifts to help pay for college for his kids and step-kids. He is their biggest champion. His voice breaks and his eyes grow misty as he talks about his wife and kids.

Although he still bears the scars from several gunshot wounds, Mario has benefited from counseling to deal with the emotional wounds. He has forgiven his family—acknowledging that they didn’t have the internal resources to parent him well.

The Middle of the Story

The nonprofit organization that provided a basketball court, GED tutoring, and career encouragement for Mario is more than 2,000 miles away from where he currently lives. They’ll likely never know the details of how his life turned out.

Similarly, as nonprofit professionals and volunteers, we may never know the end of the story for those whom we interact with every day. We choose to hope and believe that our efforts are worthwhile. But, sometimes it feels too hard and we wonder if it’s worth it.

My Wish for You

As 2023 comes to a close and we dream and plan for 2024, I hope you will feel seen and appreciated for all of the work you do within the nonprofit sector. Your work matters. You may never hear the “end of the story,” but I hope you will have faith and persevere.

My Uber driver, Mario, helped re-energize my work within the nonprofit sector. I hope his story will do the same for you. After all, the people you meet through your nonprofit today will be sharing their stories with others in the future. You have a role to play in that story.

Book photo by Fang-Wei Lin on Unsplash.


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