Learning Life Lessons
By: Joshua Shoemaker
It was just a few weeks ago that I started my internship at FAN. I knew this was a tremendous opportunity for me and that FAN had a very important mission and provided services nobody else offered. I expected to learn how a non-profit organization operates, raises money and markets their programs.
But that does not begin to cover what I am gaining from this experience. I have seen and learned more than I thought possible and, while I hope I am making some real contributions here, I know that I am the one who is gaining the most from this relationship. My experience here is not only teaching me how to apply my education in a business environment, it is making me a more compassionate and aware person.
I find myself thinking about this a lot – the things I am doing, seeing, learning and the tremendous amount that needs to be done to help FAN’s kids. So I’d like to share with you a few of the important lessons I have learned this summer.
Lesson #1: “Nia the Great”
I’ve never met anyone like her. Nia West-Bey, the co-founder/executive director of FAN, is the heart and soul of this organization and the reason FAN has been able to survive and provide such great services to the foster youth community. She started FAN in 2005 and went unpaid for the first two years. Nia does it all here at FAN and sets the standard for what it takes to start, build and sustain a
non-profit organization while working with a shoestring budget. She writes grant proposals, plans fundraisers, organizes events, hires board members, hires and trains the staff, mentors the youth and volunteers, shares information using Facebook and social media, maintains financial records, meets with various organizations throughout the city, and gets it all done in time to pick up her children from daycare, make them dinner and spend her evenings focused on them. She is a modest and soft-spoken person and just does what needs to be done without seeking recognition.
It has truly been a privilege to work with Nia. Through her actions, she has taught me to appreciate what I have and that nothing important comes easily; if you want something then you must be willing to work hard to make it happen. As a student I am often around people who are concerned about their starting salary when they graduate or where the high paying jobs are. But Nia broadened my perspective and showed me that you must follow your dreams and do what you are passionate about. Nia’s passion is helping children who don’t have the things most of us have always taken for granted.
Lesson #2: Giving Back
The mentors in our after-school program are amazing. They work with and relate to the kids so effectively, they give so much of themselves, and they use their talents and knowledge to teach skills like cooking, art, music, and sports. The most amazing thing about these mentors is that some of them came up through the FAN program. They were foster kids who relied on FAN to provide a safe place after school where they felt loved and where they could get the support needed to prepare for the future. Now they are giving back to the next generation of foster kids. The very same kids who were mentored several years ago are now mentoring others, giving the kids direction and showing them the positive things they can do with their lives if they believe in themselves. They are teaching them to have hope for the future even though their current lives are not easy. What more is there to say; FAN is the program that keeps on giving. The children being helped today will be back to help others in the future. As I observe the program in action, I am absolutely certain this legacy will continue.
Lesson #3: Home is Where the Heart Is
Sometimes life is just not fair; that is certainly the case for many of FAN’s kids. Many of these foster youth have very difficult living situations. They frequently move to new homes which means they must frequently adjust to new families, attend new schools where they may not know anyone, make new neighborhood friends and leave the old ones behind, and start over with new social workers. FAN provides the one constant in their lives; it provides an after school home, and family and friends they can rely on. When they are at FAN they can relax, feel safe, have fun and learn new things. It’s a nurturing environment, they have friends with similar living situations, there are adults who truly care and want to help them, and there are always people they can talk to about their lives. It’s the closest thing to a real family many of them have ever known. It’s all the things I took for granted throughout my life because I have a loving family. FAN is their home and family; it’s the one thing they can count on.
Lesson #4: Raising Money Can Be Fun
A few weeks ago, I participated in a FAN fundraiser. FAN staff members and volunteers raised money by working concessions at the PGA Golf tournament at Congressional Country Club. I worked in a tent with Nia and two other FAN volunteers.
I knew it the weather would be warm and I assumed it was going to be a hard day. But we all found a way to have fun and make it fun for our customers. Whether we were selling beer to an avid golf fan who probably did not need another one, or chips to child who wanted all the junk food in sight, we laughed, made our customers smile and helped our own cause. I learned a lot that day; fundraising is very important and it requires hard work but by working together and making the best of it we all grew closer as a team. We knew this event was important to FAN, we shared a common goal and we were all there to make this a success. Once again, through her actions Nia showed us how to do important things in a way that was enjoyable and productive.
These four lessons don’t begin to cover all the things I am learning this summer. I began this internship with certain objectives for myself and I am meeting those objectives. I am putting my education to work as I help with grant proposals, develop a press kit, learn programming skills used on our website, use social media to increase awareness of FAN’s programs, etc. But these things are so much less important than the real lessons I am learning at FAN. Working with Nia, the mentors, and the kids has changed my outlook and goals. It has helped me better appreciate how fortunate I am and it has caused me to think about what I really want to do with my future. I have developed a passion for non-profit work, particularly with organizations that serve young people in need. My time with FAN will soon come to an end and I will return to school, but this experience and the lessons I have learned will last a lifetime.