Let me back up.
It was late 2006, and New Orleans was still deep in recovery from Hurricane Katrina. As leader of the city's afterschool intermediary, I had been so fortunate to experience the outpouring of support from afterschool programs all over the country in the immediate aftermath of the storm. But, it was now over a year later and most people had—understandably so—moved on in their thoughts and in their giving. Yet programs were still struggling to recover, and program leaders were weary and discouraged.
One afternoon, the phone in our office rang. It was a program leader from Iowa or Idaho. (I truly wish I could remember which one!) She was asking if there was still a need for donations. Yes! That question alone was a truly welcome one. But the next question was even more welcome—she asked us what was really needed.
(You see, here's a quick lesson about help: Sometimes it's about the giver, but to be truly powerful, it should be more about the receiver. Clearly, this was an afterschool professional who knew and practiced that!)
We told her almost immediately what was really needed—not books, not school supplies, not shoes, but rather Wal-Mart gift cards. We wanted to be able to give gift cards to program leaders, who could then decide how to use the funds. They could use them to buy program supplies. They could use them to buy snacks for their program. They could give them as gifts to staff they knew really needed a small "thank you." Almost two weeks later, $400 in gift cards arrived in the mail.
You're likely asking yourself: What does this have to do with NAA Convention?
At this point, not much—but stay with me!
I mentioned that, by this time, many afterschool program leaders were feeling weary and discouraged. My staff was no exception. So when the opportunity to spend a few days in sunny Phoenix at the NAA Convention presented itself, I suggested that my program director attend. She quickly agreed, and was excited for some time away to learn new things and enjoy a much-needed change of scenery. (Remind me to write a later post about how needing a mental recharge is a perfectly valid reason for attending an NAA Convention!)
Unfortunately, once she got to Convention, she found herself overwhelmed and depressed about the state of afterschool back home. Sure, it was inspiring to hear about what was happening in other places and exciting to learn about programs and projects from other cities and states. But she just couldn't shake the sadness that we were years away from getting back to normal in our own city.
She climbed wearily into a cab for the ride to the airport. Because afterschool staff are always looking to save our precious funds, she found herself sharing the cab with another Convention attendee. The other rider noticed her sadness and asked where she was heading. When my colleague answered "New Orleans," the other rider quickly said, "Oh, how are things there? Our program donated some Wal-Mart gift cards to some programs there a few months ago."
Cue. The. Tears.
Thousands of miles from New Orleans and Iowa (or Idaho!), two afterschool professionals met in a cab at an NAA Convention and truly experienced a sense of community—of both belonging and support.
To say there is an unspoken bond that brings us together as afterschool professionals would be an understatement. When the days are long and the kids (or parents!) have been a handful, we know that the only people who truly understand our frustration, our exhaustion and our determination are other afterschool professionals. On the good days—the days that the kids (and parents!) are amazing and awesome and appreciative—we know that the only people who truly understand are other afterschool professionals.
To be a part of NAA is to be a part of a community. And the NAA Convention is the chance to come together with others in our community—to celebrate, to create, to collaborate, to commiserate. I can't promise that every interaction at an NAA Convention will be as emotionally rewarding as the one I've shared. But this is the story that I hold in my mind and my heart when I—and the whole NAA team—envision what we want the NAA Convention experience to be for each of you. We want you to feel and experience what it means to be a part of a community of professionals who understand, appreciate and celebrate the work that we all do, every day.
Written by Gina Warner, president and CEO of NAA.