Last week I received a severe drubbing from a program officer for unintentionally breaching protocols with her foundation while seeking funding for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which I chair. I’ll explain the whole thing later in my book “Unicorns, Equity, and General Operating Funds: Quest of the Nonprofit Warriors.” (It’s a working title). Suffice to say, I apologized profusely and left the lunch meeting feeling very much like crap.
On the way back to the office, I walked by Panha, an elderly Cambodian woman who sells fish and vegetables on the sidewalk. Seven days a week she is out under a makeshift tarp awning, sitting on a short stool, her eyes framed by crows’ feet and greying hair. “Yellow mushrooms yet?” I asked. She shook her head. “Not yet!” For the past several weeks I have been waiting for the chanterelle mushrooms that Panha’s friend harvests for her to sell. Despite the heavy rain, still no signs of them. “You buy leaf?” she asked. Panha speaks broken English and does not know the vocabulary for many of the vegetables laid out in front of her. All the greens—kale, collards, bok choy—are “leaf” to her. She pointed at some greens that I did not recognize. “What can I do with them?” I asked, knowing what the answer will be, since she does not have vocabulary like sautee, braise, steam, etc.
“Make soup!” she said, and we both cracked up. It has become an inside joke between us.
In my cubicle, I composed a short email reiterating my apologies to the program officer, then started working on some grants that were due, thinking of how nice it would be to have four solid days off for Thanksgiving. I was still feeling pretty crappy.
Then I thought about Panha sitting out there in the rain and cold, like my mother may have once sat long ago, selling her wares at the market, which we transported for miles on her bicycle. It made me realize what an ingrate I was being. I started thinking about the things for which I am thankful. They range from small things (wine, The Walking Dead), to big things, like friends and family and good health and shelter. I am thankful for all these blessings.
But I am also very thankful for my work. In all the daily craziness, I forget sometimes how lucky I am to be able to wake up each day and be engaged in meaningful work. Three decades ago I was a kid growing up in a small mountain village in Vietnam. The War had recently ended and my parents would struggle to feed us. In my fractured memories of that time are images of our wood-burning stove, the dirt floor, the smell of pine and red earth, and the monsoon rain that battered our rusty, leaking tin roof.
It was luck, or Fate, or maybe Karma, that brought us to the US. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if we had not made it here. I was a frail and timid little kid. I did not know anything of the War or what it did to our family. Now I realize that my father’s role as a soldier on the losing side of this War would ensure that none of us kids would be able to make it into college. We would end up repairing bicycles or farming a tiny plot of land or, if we were lucky and clever enough to navigate the network of corrupt officials, maybe opening a small business. All noble occupations, and we might have even been happy.
But I like the work that I am doing now. I don’t think many people in the world get to do what they find fulfilling. This work, strengthening a nonprofit, advancing a community, is challenging and often crazy driving. We face obstacles constantly. There are days when I get bad news from a funder, or an elder lectures me for an hour on what I did wrong, or our cashflow is awful because a reimbursement-based grant payment is delayed and we might not be able to make payroll.
But there are also days like this Saturday, when I dropped by our SES program to find 80 kids experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time in their life. It was also moving to see two VFA board members there, serving these kids their inaugural portion of turkey. Later in the same day, at a different location, our Youth Jobs Initiative program brought in guest speakers with different occupations to inspire a different set of our bright kids who face so many barriers.
The work is constantly challenging, oftentimes aggravating, and infinitely rewarding. I get to meet and collaborate with awesome, dedicated people all the time. I have the best and most amazing team in the world. And my actions, perhaps in just a small way, may be helping to make a difference in the world, to make it better. For the chance to do that, I am very thankful.
I took a break from grantwriting and ran downstairs to get Panha some Vietnamese coffee. She loves Vietnamese coffee, steaming hot, with condensed milk. The rain still fell, and she was huddled under her blue tarp awning when I approached her. “Oh, thank you, honey,” she said, her eyes lighting up when I handed her the coffee. I asked her how business was going. “Not good,” she said, “raining, raining too much. Nobody buy.” The winter would be worse for Panha. But she is always in good spirit. “You buy pumpkin?” she said, gesturing at some green squash. What can I do with it, I asked.
“Make soup!” she said, and we laughed, and I went back to my office.