Retiring after 29 years at United Way, with seven years as Executive Director of our 211 helpline, there’s an expectation that you’ll give some parting words of wisdom. At my send-off party, I drew mine from a story my granddaughter shared with me:
Several monks came upon a village that had been victimized by famine and war. The monks were hungry and tired and knocked on doors for help – but no one answered. The villagers, suffering from the effects of their recent calamities lived in fear, isolated almost in hiding. The monks placed three stones in a pot and built a fire under it. A little girl ventured from her home and asked what they were doing. They said, “We’re preparing to feed the village.”
The girl ran into her house for a bigger cauldron. Then an old man, extremely curious, ventured out and returned moments later to contribute some salt and pepper to the bubbling concoction. Word traveled. Villagers brought potatoes, broccoli, noodles, and spices. As the soup cooked, the smells drew even more people, and before long, the whole village was there. With everyone’s contribution, the community was able to feast on a hearty soup.
This story reminds me of my time at United Way. Like the monks, United Way has a big vision – to cut Bay Area poverty in half by 2020. We collectively work with “villagers” across the Bay Area to pursue big goals to create significant change even if, or, perhaps, especially when it seems impossible. We do so because it is necessary and right.
Our 211 Bay Area helpline is on the front lines of our war on poverty. People call when they don’t know where to turn, and we connect them to services that provide food, shelter, child care, jobs and other basic needs, which are the foundation for self-sufficiency. Getting 211 up and running throughout the Bay Area took collaboration of many people and organizations – much like the monks. We needed the entire community to be involved and see the value. Once we had buy-in, it took hard work to co-create a database of services and then get the system operating. It was the right thing to do, and helping to establish 211 across 11 Bay Area counties is an accomplishment that I am very proud of.
I also sit on the Board of 211 California, which is leading the expansion and integration of 211 across the whole state. Some independent 211 centers have voluntarily signed an agreement to make the technological and program changes that would establish a more efficient, effective and universal 211 system for all who need it – in times of personal crisis and public emergency. This commits each individual 211 center to work as one to overcome the significant financial, technical and programmatic challenges; and we all know it’s the right thing to do for our community.
Looking back over my 29 years, these are two achievements of which I am particularly proud. They both required a little bit of soup-making. Like the monks, we embraced a big, very challenging goal. We did not wait for a blueprint that would guarantee success. We had faith that our first steps would encourage others to join and together, we would find a path. We reached out to include the ideas and assistance of everyone. Together, we are on the way to creating a great meal that will nourish many in need.
As I leave my long career at United Way, I look forward to spending time with my grandkids who tell wise stories and to continue to help make 211 successful and sustainable here and throughout California. I think the value I have held highest at United Way and throughout my career has been collaboration. The Bay Area, the state and the nation are in desperate need of a hearty meal. If I can offer one parting thought it would be – collaborate. Our problems loom large, but if we each contribute something toward our goals, we will have a soup to feed our village.
Finally, I want to thank you for the amazing send off last week. To be recognized by the United Way Board and staff, community leaders, both public and business sector organizations and nonprofit executives meant the world to me.
Click here to read the Making Stone Soup Principles based on both my experiences and the story.