“I’d made it. I was in my mid-20s, had my own tiny apartment to myself, an incredible group of friends, a job doing what I loved for a nonprofit I loved, and I was so proud of how I was crushing this whole “being an adult” thing. Looking back now, I see there was definitely something missing. That something was United Way Emerging Leaders.
I use my 20/20 hindsight and remember how it wasn’t as healthy as it could have been. Yes, I had my own apartment, but I lived just down the street from one of my best friends who worked for the same nonprofit I did. Actually, all of the friends that I boasted about earlier were work friends. And when I wasn’t doing things in the evening, I figured there was no harm in knocking out some extra work while watching TV. Soon, there was no escape. Everything I did revolved around work. Even my 2015 trip to Guatemala was a mission trip through the nonprofit. It’s no wonder I burnt out hard and needed to find a new position.
The new position was great, but what was even more significant was that it was at an organization that held a United Way Campaign each year. This was new to me, as my last organization didn’t. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I first heard about United Way’s work in our community. Something in me clicked; I didn’t know what it was or why I felt so drawn to learning more, but as soon as I was back at my desk, I was emailing United Way Fox Cities to learn more about this “Emerging Leaders” thing. Email led to coffee, which somehow led to me agreeing to be on the Emerging Leaders Committee. My first committee meeting was 400,000 emotions all at once. I felt like a high school freshman walking into an AP U.S. History class full of seniors on the first day. I was terrified to be surrounded by people who were so smart, so accomplished, so… adult. But I was more inspired by the greatness in the room. I was asked to be here. I must have something worth fostering if I was picked to join this group of leaders.
Soon, these leaders became my friends. I contributed thoughts and suggestions that mattered in serious conversations. I was trusted with tasks and championing groups. Quite quickly, I found myself accepting an offer to be chair of the events committee.
In the next few months, my life began to change. First, I started to learn who I was and what I could bring to the table outside of what I did in the office from 9-5. My worth wasn’t “make or break” or dependent on how well I performed at my job. I was a leader, a relationship builder, and a person that deserved a place at the table to help make our community the best it could be.
Second, I started making new friends that I didn’t work with. Instead of working at night and on the weekends, I started attending community events. I started volunteering for nonprofits and getting out of my comfort zone. Because of Emerging Leaders, I stepped up and applied for Fox Valley Sinfonia. Good thing, because the cute guy in the trombone section is now my husband.
This group has educated, developed, and given me opportunities beyond anything I could have imagined. It gave me the confidence to go back to school for my Master’s Degree in Health Communication and Advocacy, and it’s a huge reason I’m doing the work I do with ThedaCare. The situations I saw in my ThedaCare work and through United Way inspired love for the community and encouraged me to run for City Council. I’m now the Alderperson of District 10 in Appleton and can change lives on a scale I never thought was possible.
Yes. You should join Emerging Leaders (or LINC) because you’ll make friends. Yes, it will look good on your LinkedIn. Depending on your employer, it will make them look good, too. It will do all those things if you set your bar low. But if you open your mind, get out of your comfort zone, get engaged, and become open to what’s possible? It will change you in the best way. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
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By Vaya Jones, Vice-Chair, Emerging Leaders; Social Determinants of Health Lead, ThedaCare; Alderperson District 10, City of Appleton