By Mary McManus, AmeriCorps member on the McDonough Elementary School Team
"I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making. Not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark." – Raymond Carver
Of all of the pieces of City Year culture at City Year New Hampshire, Community Meetings are far and away my favorite. Once a month, we gather together as a beloved community and center ourselves on a certain theme: things like tradition, gratitude, service, perseverance, etc. Each of our 8 school teams gets the opportunity to plan their own community meeting. It is a chance for teams to showcase themselves as a team and as individuals. Teams have the chance to share stories, thoughts, and talents. We have a moment to step out of in-school service and bask in each other's humanity. Each Community Meeting is different, but every month I leave feeling reignited and inspired by the beautiful people I have the privilege of surrounding myself with.
My team, the McDonough team, was in charge of December's Community Meeting. Our overarching theme was tradition and we decided to structure our meeting around the idea of "walking down memory lane." We each planned on speaking about traditions in some capacity. Some of us had stories to tell about generational traditions while others felt passionate about the personal traditions they'd created for themselves. We were going to literally create a "memory lane" that would have different "houses" representing each of us to be displayed on a wall. We spent weeks getting our plans and speeches ready. We were nervous but excited.
A week before we were supposed to hold our Community Meeting, our team got hit with difficult news: one of our teammates would no longer be serving with us. We were surprised, angry, confused, hurt, and deeply saddened for a teammate and ourselves. Speaking candidly we were one cohesive unit that literally was broken. How were we supposed to put on the same community meeting we'd planned if we weren't the same team we were before?
We entered the next week feeling unable, even unwilling to hold our Community Meeting. We wanted to wait a few weeks, gather ourselves and continue. But through conversations with one another and upon reflection of our experiences as a team, we decided it would be a disservice to ourselves and to our site to withhold what we'd learned. At the very base of what we were feeling it was a profound love for one another and an intense need to show the people around us how much we appreciated them.
We had a week to plan our new community meeting and we decided our goal was to have people leave feeling appreciated and loved. Most of all we wanted an opportunity to tell our story and share ourselves. We had an open mic style structure wherein we all had the opportunity to talk about who we are as individuals and who we are as a team and more importantly how were feeling in that moment. We gave people materials to write letters to people they appreciate, learn more about each others’ childhoods, and speak on love in their own lives. I can say with complete confidence that we literally gave all we had and presented the most authentic, genuine versions of ourselves. Attempting to guide a team through an event as difficult as losing a corps member was overwhelming and intense and frankly not something I thought I could handle. What ended up happening, however, was a beautiful metamorphosis; we all guided each other and emerged not necessarily healed, but definitely stronger.
It was my job to close out our community meeting. That week of planning, I gave everything I had left to my team. I was sick, and tired, and had no voice but it was important to me that I participate. I spent a lot of that week trying to find the perfect healing words within myself, but I realized I didn't have them. What I had instead was a poem I always come back to in trying times: Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. One line in particular unleashed a knot I had in my chest. "Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here."
I feel so proud to be able to serve alongside a team of individuals who remind me daily to be gentle with myself, and that I have a right to be here. City year tells you when you join that you'll be serving a diverse team of your peers, but I've found myself among family.