It started when I was five years old. By “it” I mean my determination for equity in quality of life and more specifically in community service. My mom was constantly searching for free things my brother and I could do. She remembered that, prior to my father’s departure, his employment allowed us to go to a country club in Greensboro. The facility had tons of recreational options that would allow us to play on our own terms. At the time we had no real income outside of good will and government subsidy, so my mother thought this would be a pleasant surprise. My brother’s mobility was limited as he had just been upgraded from a wheelchair to leg braces that he would have to learn how to use for some years to come. We loaded up into the beige station wagon with the cool lay-down seat in the back end. Then, we headed into the city, watching the road in reverse as if we were leaving all our troubles behind.
When we got to the entrance of the facility, we were filled with excitement. I loved seeing the joy on my brother’s face upon our arrival. He had often endured the ignorance of small minded people who had less aptitude for seeing the beauty within others who may seem or look different than themselves. Even my mother’s face filled with delight knowing she would succeed in taking us away from all the small town gossip and rumors that surrounded my family, even if for just a day. We didn’t mirror the expectation of normalcy in our community. We were so different that I often thought everyone else was strange instead. Seeing the happiness on her face made me feel like she had forgotten the daily challenge of how to provide food or shield us from the awful truths that surrounded us. She had dealt with an abusive, alcoholic, former spouse and my other siblings who had fallen prey to the temptations of the world for so long. It was nothing short of a miracle that she still wanted to get up in the morning, much less make sure we had some type of fun.
I loved playing of any kind. My father had been a local, star athlete and I often thought if I could match his success I would get the attention I wanted from him. Being outdoors was my sanity. I ran away to the woods almost every day. The wildlife I encountered were my best friends and they never betrayed me. Our destination that day would offer all of this and so much more. This place was a childhood Shangri-La if ever there was one. It was to be our day! Nothing could interfere with the happiness that would find its way to the fraction of what was left of our family.
Pulling into a parking space with this much anticipation always felt like a bad slow-motion sequence from a movie. As I peeked out the window I could see the top of the clubhouse. I admired it as if it was the entrance to see the Wizard of Oz. Once we got inside, the Wizard would take all our troubles away and all our future paths would be yellow brick roads. I saw the faces of people coming in and out, and everyone was happy. For a brief moment my anxiety rose, fearing they would detect or smell our lack of culture, financial stability or normalcy that was needed to blend in. Then I remembered that nothing bad ever happens in this happy place. My mother opened the back door. Freedom!!! No matter what pace my brother moved at, I always chose to move at the same. I was so proud to be his brother that I never wanted anyone to mistake that we weren’t related. We walked in sync following our mother to the front door of the clubhouse.
Mom ran up ahead of us to be greeted by someone staffing the entrance. Oddly the exchange looked less than happy. No happy faces, just a look of disgust and then a look of shame on my mother’s face. She walked back over to both of us tearfully and broke the bad news. “We aren’t members here anymore,” she said with a whisper. I didn’t understand. What in the world was a member, and why did I need to be one to play? Why did my brother need a membership? Had he not paid his dues in so many other ways? “A membership is what we have to have to play here,” my mother said. “When your father left, he revoked our privileges, along with any hopes of income,” she murmured. We stood there in astonishment. Suddenly she gathered herself and with an award winning performance, pepped up and said with as much energy as she could muster, “but I negotiated the opportunity for you all to play in the front yard. I brought a ball with us and you all can throw it back and forth.” We did just that.
That day would be defining one for all of us. My mother became very assertive and creative, hoping to avoid what would end up being many more like situations for us over the years come. My brother developed a wicked sense of humor with a strong desire to be financially successful. As for me, well that took awhile to work itself out. At the very least I recognized that we could always make the best of every situation. The way I felt that day and many other days to come, really didn’t bother me half as much as the way I felt when I saw their faces, or how I felt when I thought how much it must have hurt them to not even have the simple right to play on the terms that we wanted. Through the eyes of a child we often have an innate sense of right and wrong, and in this case it just felt wrong. In my later youth, my behavior declined. I became aggressive, introverted and, dare I say, vengeful toward all those who I thought had influence or money. You know the story. Mine isn’t isolated.
Many years later, while attending college, I took a job with the local parks and recreation department. I worked in athletics and the role I had was eventually contracted out to a commercial operator. For three whole months I worked in the private sector and gritted my teeth behind the smile of serving individuals who treated me as if they needed to wipe me off their shoes after every encounter. I called my old boss in parks and recreation and asked for anything they had to get back to serving in a more intrinsically fulfilling fashion. She laughed and said, “How are you with a cash register?” I responded, “I am a quick study.” What she said next though moved my stomach to the lower part of my knees and even as I write this still makes me feel that way. She asked me if I was familiar with the old country club. I whispered back an unenthusiastic yes. She said, “Well it is a public facility now as a part of the company’s liquidation of assets and we are out here trying to give the public the best of what is left here.” “I am in,” I finally said after a long period of processing. I was to return to the very facility I was turned away from so many years earlier.
That call and the previous childhood experience marked the start of what became my obsession. I worked at that facility morning and night, and every day in some capacity. I gave everything I had to make sure we provided the best, most affordable services to everyone who wished to participate. Over the years we negotiated deals, worked for support, and assembled a like-minded team to provide what eventually became the best park/event center asset in the system in many regards. When we left we had close to a million visits a year with hundreds of recreational opportunities. My passion grew to work with many more facilities and services as an eventual director of parks and recreation. I believed so much in the work we did that I applied to become an assistant city manager where I reside today. I am still using those experiences from my younger years as guiding principles day in and day out. Ironically, every position I ever held was not about a promotion or even salary for me. Instead, it was a larger opportunity to provide what everyone should have access to. I never charted the path I was on. I did decide to keep going though, finding that all paths can be a little more“yellow brick” in some fashion for others, and someone has to care enough to make it that way. That’s what public servants do, we epitomize that sentiment. If we do for others, and we do it well, they will rarely know how it all comes together or even what the story is that brought us there. This a small portion of my story. There are many more impactful stories out there amongst us. Remember your story every day and you will never lose your path, even if it was uncharted.