Run for WIT: A Cleveland Story

The Governor’s office called in 2014 while I was completing my double masters and asked if I would serve as Trustee on the Board of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Cleveland, Ohio. In that moment, I remembered. I remembered parts of my life like scenes from a movie but instead of the happiest moments of my life, it was the moments where I believed every limiting belief about myself. I remembered my family in drab government buildings, with muted brown and green furniture, dirty floors smeared with cigarette butts and pride and grime that seemed to stick to you. I remembered harsh, florescent lighting that gave even the most vibrant person a sickly pallor and even the food stamps we waited for were a muted version of the furniture. I remembered the classes my mother attended at Tri-C in 1980, then called Displaced Homemakers, and how down on herself she was. I remembered the cold, concrete walls of the classrooms but I also remembered the warm, brief moments of encouragement when she believed she just might be ok. But mainly, I remembered how often people told her she should never have kept my brother and I, or that it was too late for her to go to school or she was too old; too much, too this, too that. It was just too late.

I remembered as she found her courage, completing the program and working her way off of welfare. I remembered when I slowly began to lose my courage. I’d dropped of out high school, spent some time homeless. I was on public assistance with the children I was told I shouldn’t have had. I remembered jumping from low-paying job to the next low paying job. I could still feel how cold it was when there was no money for heat and how hungry we were when there was no food. I remembered the moment I decided to go back to finish high school in my 30’s and how my friends told me it was too late. They said I was too old, to let it go. I remembered being told to accept where I was in life. I remembered all of the words that discouraged me, that limited me, that scared me. And then the drabness of my life gave way to a little light. The light was of the few that encouraged me. I saw the friend that asked the barmaid in front of him “What are you doing Rachel? You can do so much more.” I could see my children that looked at me with pride when I came home from work to do my homework with them. I could see my husband who reminded me that I could accomplish anything I set my heart too. And with all of these memories and voices in my head, I gathered myself and responded with “I’d be honored.”

When I joined the Board of Trustees in spring of 2014, I was a mother, wife, designer and masters student. I hurriedly looked up the other members of the Board and saw Vice Presidents, CEO’s, Doctors, and Executive Directors. The Board was full of senior level executives and then there was me. I had no initials in front of or behind my name but with that phone call, I became an advocate for over 60,000 students. Silently, because I was not that far removed from being hungry and cold, I began to return my board travel reimbursements to several campus food banks. This wasn’t something the other Board members knew about but it wasn’t really anything to tell. How do you casually mention to your governance peers that you aren’t that far removed from being hungry?

But I knew there was more to being on the Board for me. There was the program I remembered as a child, only now it was called Women in Transition (WIT). It was a program that took women and took my mother during transitional moments of their lives and provided 6 weeks of tuition-free sessions to help develop self esteem, identify marketable skills, research careers options for career and job training and even the welcome doorway to an associates degree education. While I knew my role was for the entire Tri-C community, I couldn’t help but have a soft spot for this program. How could I ignore what they did for my family and when I was ready, for me? From that moment, every moment of growth, every act of self-realization, became an opportunity to contribute to WIT.

My first WIT opportunity came when I learned about the children of WIT. As women are working, going to school, trying to make ends meet, sometimes the children don’t get to participate in holiday activities. Since I’d joined the Board that spring, I was right in time to gather donations for the Easter bunny. But this had a twist. Instead of making baskets filled with candy, my WIT partners and I, made baskets filled with creative items. We learned the ages of each woman’s child and put together baskets with crayons and paints and sketchpads; anything we could think of to encourage creativity. The baskets were a huge hit and the thank you notes I received meant the world. In my first 2 years on the Board, I collected over $1000 and handmade 65 baskets for the children of WIT. And while the baskets were fun to make and were greatly appreciated, I knew there was so much more to do.

My next opportunity came by way of an invitation to again serve the WIT community, but this time it was as keynote speaker for their graduation ceremony. After an accelerated 6 weeks, WITsters, as they are affectionately known, celebrate the courage and the work during their time in the program. Here they take a moment to look forward to their next steps; employment, a high school diploma, a college education, and long-term goals, but more importantly, they celebrate each other and the family; the network they’ve become. I was so excited to be a part of it. During that keynote, I shared my own story of transition, my continued story of transition. But what that ceremony taught me was it wasn’t about my journey, it was the time I spent after the ceremony just listening. The graduates wanted me to hear their stories; they wanted me to know their journey so I could share in the spaces where decisions were being made on their behalf. They didn’t need to hear me, they needed to be heard. And I listened.

Surprisingly, I was reminded of those stories again in my closet! I’d heard how difficult it was to show up to an interview without professional clothing or shoes. I realized that here was career clothing that could go to WIT. But of course my clothes were not enough for everyone, so I engaged with the Women’s Network at Westfield, my employers resource group, and began a full-blown clothing drive. We collected enough items that Tri-C held an open event, not only benefitting WIT, but other adult groups in need.

Even after these efforts, baskets, donations and clothes weren’t enough to support WIT based on what I’d heard at graduation. Again, I engaged with my company’s employee resource group and created a program called Pathway’s to Possibilities. For two years, Westfield brought WIT to its expansive campus for professional development workshops. The objective was for Women to see the opportunities available to them in an insurance career, but more importantly, for the women at our insurance company to see that no matter their background, education, socio-economic status, as women, we all have the same questions: how to juggle a career and family? How can I be the best mom I can be and still have time for my personal growth? On both occasions, the volunteers for this event came with the very best intentions, to hold space. But what I know for a fact is that they were all, volunteers and WITsters, forever changed. Everyone was heard that day and a few friendships, mentorships, and even a job interview bore fruit.

Then I ran. I ran for myself and ran for WIT. I ran first, to get into shape and challenge myself. I’d always hated running as a child thanks’ to Nancy Reagan’s ‘80’s fitness initiative. I was horribly embarrassed by taking 15 minutes to finish running a mile while all of the other students were done in half the time. But I was an adult now and wanted to try it but I needed a goal. So why not just go for it and try a half marathon — but not only did I start with a big goal, I decided to use it as a way to collect money for scholarships benefitting WIT. One of the things that I remember most from conversations with the WITsters and from my Board work was tuition; the costs of education and the barriers many students felt. So while the WIT program prepares women to ask for more of themselves, often the next step is the pursuit of an associate’s degree. But often, even with financial aid, school just isn’t an option. Maybe there’s only enough for your kids to eat. Or the choice is electricity or food. Classes don’t make it to the decision tree and I know first hand what this feels like. Why can’t you eat and attend college? Running for WIT became a no brainer. And there’s that fear of failing in front of a large group of people, which kept me focused on my training. That helped too.

When I starting sharing my Run for WIT, I swear I heard every reason why it was a bad idea. It was oddly familiar. I was too old, too big, “what about your knees?” and my favorite, “Isn’t a half marathon too far?” I began to notice everyone’s limiting belief about themselves, became the reason to discourage me from running. Weren’t these the same comments I heard when I said I wanted to go back to school as a 30+-year-old mom. “It’s too late — what about the kids — they’re most important now.” Unsurprisingly, these are also the exact same projections WITsters hear. So now not only did I want to run but I had to. To prove everyone wrong and to very literally show people how running for WIT was a metaphor for their ongoing journey; their personal marathon. My very first half marathon raised over $6000 and every single dollar was used to help support women in their community college journey.

That following year, I signed up for the full marathon before I’d even discussed it with my husband. The training was tough — especially with a family, a full time job and Board activities but as my running coach always reminded me I had to “respect the miles” and complete the training. Honestly I was afraid of 26.2 miles but I couldn’t let WIT down. Or myself. That spring, I ran my very first, and according to my husband, last marathon. We raised almost $11,000 and the following year my next half marathon brought in $10,000. I was so honored to turn those big checks over to WIT but even more so by the thank you notes. Most notably, a thank you note from a 66-year-old grandmother who would be the first in her family to attend college. She was on the road to a career as an art therapist. She closed with “At 66, my husband, kids and grandkids see all new possibilities with going back to school.”

Which brings us to my final year on the board. I didn’t know it would be my last at the time but my final activity, before moving to Tennessee to continue to grow in my own life, was as host for a tea to celebrate 40 years of Women in Transition. Unlike my very first engagement for WIT, I didn’t talk about myself because I was armed with four years of stories from Women in Transition. However, I think it worth noting that the location of the tea was at The Union Club; a very private, captains of industry conclave, which 14 short years ago was a block away from my Section 8 housing. They’ve since turned those apartments into condos and we can talk about where the poor people moved later. For now, know that when I spoke, I told stories about WIT. I reminded all of the women in the room that every data point they read about is a person with a dream and a story and WIT provides the training grounds and network for those women. I spoke of running and how important it is to have a cheer section at every stop along your run. WIT is that cheer station for each woman. And I spoke about how they changed their story. About how they were the mirrors for the next group of women brave enough to change and grow. I spoke about how you never need important letters in front of or behind your name to make a difference. That was my work for Tri-C and Women in Transition. That is the work I’d like to continue with an endowment specifically for WIT. This is why I write today.

When I think about WIT, it never felt like a handout. I simply worked with my community to invest in women, in our children’s leaders; beyond anger and protests and marches and pussy hats. We sent women to school and we listened. That’s the legacy I’d like to continue to build. I’d like to continue to invest in the “too late” women.

So, I’ve “humble-bragged” my way through this entire submission but the truth is, it was never about what I did for the college, it’s about what people did for me when the world was saying I was too old, it was too late, I was too heavy, insert every limiting belief we tell ourselves and each other. Rather, my work at Tri-C was about honoring the few mentors and loves in my life that reflected the very best of me so one day I could reflect the best of of other women back to them. I’m on to the next Chapter.

Stories of people & perspectives that inspire me. With moments of black & white and the good gray in between.