There’s an African proverb that says : “It takes a village to raise a child.” According to Wikipedia, this saying originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture and proverb “Ora na azu nwa” which means it takes the community/village to raise a child. The Igbo’s also name their children “Nwa ora” which means child of the community. I believe whole heartedly that our children are part of the community and that we have a moral obligation to provide opportunities for them to succeed.
This past fall was the fourth Girls on the Run team that I had the privilege to help coach, and my fifth 5k run in support of this amazing program. Girls on the Run is a non-profit after school program that encourages pre-teen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through leadership training and running. I first heard of the program through a group called Spark, another non-profit group who “seeks to build a community of young, global citizens who are invested in changing patterns of inequality that impact women throughout the world”. It was from their website that I fell in love with the beautiful children of my community and understood that it wasn’t enough for me to be financially supportive, but also to be wholly present. Mind, body, spirit.
It never felt like a burden, or work, to volunteer in this capacity. But, then again, my life had intertwined with only team after team of articulate, self-motivated, positive kids that wanted as much for themselves as I did for them. It is easy to come to practice each week with a joyful heart and abundant energy when you are received with openness and work with kids who try their hardest. This season was a little different. There were a couple of girls who really needed more attention. There was a mixture of learning disabilities, personality conflicts and pessimism. My energy level slowly escaped me week after week as I tried to find ways to really connect with these kids. Couldn’t they see how great they were? Couldn’t they give me the same level of attention and respect that I gave them? I came prepared and pleasant every practice. I tried my best not to let my frustration hinder my ability to lead and support the group as a whole, but after each practice I still felt like I wasn’t as enthusiastic or as encouraging as I had been in the past. I gave myself little pep-talks to convince myself that my efforts were not falling on deaf ears, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t so sure.
I just kept showing up.
All the girls just kept showing up.
It was a clear, crisp morning of our big 5k event. We had spent weeks preparing both physically and mentally, yet all I could do was wonder if everyone was really going to finish. Selfishly, I was worried how this would reflect on me. What kind of coach was I if not all “my” kids made it to the finish line?
A wave of orange t-shirts rushed over the pavement, mile after mile. Spectators cheered on the breathless participants, both young and old. I saw a few of my girls along the way and shouted out, “GOOD JOB” or “WAY TO GO”, but not once did I see the couple of girls that really challenged me.
I was a little disappointed.
After I crossed the finish line, I spent my time congratulating the girls whose times far surpassed mine and waited for the rest to come rolling in behind. Most of us ran just minutes apart. All the girls were laughing and smiling, parents were beaming with pride. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Coach Emily, ” a small voice spoke.
I turned around in disbelief. Standing behind me was a very red-cheeked, sweaty little girl.
“I did what you said. I didn’t quit,” the little voice quivered.
Then I looked over at the mom. She was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed, surprised to see so many tears.
“Nothing is wrong,” said the mom, hugging her little girl, “Everything is right.”
I was stunned, speechless. I really hadn’t expected her to finish. The mom must have been reading my mind because she added:
“This is the first time she has ever finished anything. Thank you.”
My eyes filled with tears, but not just because I was so proud of this little girl, but out of embarrassment that I had been so selfish. I had made this about me instead of focusing on the needs of each individual. My heart grieved for all the times I begrudgingly gave more attention to one child over another, for all the times that it felt more like work than like fun. I cried because I had to be reminded that I don’t volunteer for my benefit, but for the benefit of others.
It was a valuable lesson not just as a volunteer, but as a parent. There are many days that I wake up with my head in a fog, thinking about all the things that need to get done. Especially this time of year. I’m not always as present as I should be and when my kids are more needy than usual, I am easily agitated and impatient. There are days that I wish someone else could teach the lesson, or answer the unending amount of questions. There are days that I forget that they are just little children trying to find their way in life.
Life is like our big 5k event, it really doesn’t matter how or when you cross the finish line. It only matters that you finish.
Thank goodness, that in spite of ourselves, sometimes just showing up is enough.