Celebrating student leadership and the power of coincidence

On a Saturday a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of celebrating the Rockingham County Community Foundation’s Outstanding Student Awards. Four students from each high school were chosen for their outstanding volunteer service. Each winner received a contribution in her name to be made to a nonprofit of  her choice. This was the brainchild of our local affiliate foundation board members who knew that recognizing young people for giving back to their communities was something that would resonate with the Rockingham area.

As the students and their families were greeted and congratulated by the RCCF advisory board members, I could feel the pride and sense of community all around. It had all the makings of a special day.

What I didn’t know was how deeply personal it was going to be. This is a lesson in life that you never know how and when deeply important things circle back…that the values we hold dear make themselves known and felt when we sometimes least expect it…that we sew together threads in our lives without realizing we’re weaving a beautiful tapestry.

On with my story: Dr. Rodney Shotwell, the superintendent of Rockingham County Schools, was a special guest speaker. He shared his own personal story about growing up in Rockingham County and that times were tough for his mother as a single parent. He told the audience he thought he was poor but was afforded an experience that helped him learn what poverty really was. He explained that for several summers, his church youth group went to Robeson County where they repaired and painted homes of people who were living in poverty. Speaking from the heart, he said that giving back doesn’t require money; it takes passion like the kind these students had for their community. And then he mentioned the organization responsible for his powerful learning experience — the Robeson County Church and Community Center.

I sat there trying to catch my breath. Did I really hear him correctly? Because you see, what brought me to North Carolina many years ago was the Robeson County Church and Community Center! I was a VISTA Volunteer in the Center’s adult literacy program, going into the homes of adults who needed tutoring for basic reading and writing. In that year of service, I would learn lessons about myself personally and professionally that I still draw upon – threads interwoven throughout my career working with North Carolina’s communities.

Was it just a coincidence or was it fate that I chose to attend the awards event that Saturday? The answer isn’t what’s important. What matters is that years ago I began a journey I didn’t or perhaps couldn’t know at the time. I just knew that I was learning so much about myself and about the incredible generosity and spirit of “living in community.” And now I have been afforded the privilege of working with our affiliate foundation leaders in communities across the state, learning from them what it means to inspire people to make meaningful contributions in the places they call home.