It’s all about grit.

Having grit is a prerequisite for anyone who starts a successful nonprofit from the ground up. Lucky for me, I had grit in spades before I even knew the word for it. Like when I was 5. I had grit when I was 5. My sister Katie is a year and a half older than me. When she was going into second grade, I was going into kindergarten. As the first day of school got closer, I slowly realized that she was going to be TWO grades in front of me. I dug in my heels. Hard.

I didn’t need to go to kindergarten. Kindergarten was for babies. First grade was for big kids. My 5-year-old mind and heart told me I was ready. I plead my case and insisted that I be allowed into first grade. I was so insistent that my mom finally made a request to the school that I be admitted into first grade early. The school required I be evaluated by a psychologist who would have to determine that I would be psychologically damaged if I was forced to go to kindergarten. To the surprise of everyone (except me), the doctor signed off on my arguments. I was in! I walked into my classroom on that first day of school so proud. I shouldn’t have been able to make that happen, but I did.

For my whole life, I’ve been making things happen that probably shouldn’t have happened. Take my college experience. I was turned down at the University of Washington, coincidentally the only school that I applied to and wanted to attend. I discovered the barrier was my out-of-state student status. UW only admitted a very small percentage of out-of-state students. It was a total bummer. Considering other options was probably in order. Nope. Grit kicked in. Instead I moved to Washington, transferred the community college credits I had accrued to a community college in Seattle and got a second associate’s degree. An in-state associate’s degree automatically qualified me for acceptance into UW. Bingo. One year later and I was in.

When I graduated from college in 2006, I knew I wanted to work in prisoner reentry. Most of you remember the terrible state of the job market during that time. It was bad. I put myself through college waiting tables, but I made a promise to myself when I graduated that I would find a professional job no matter what it took. It ended up taking a lot. After three solid months of job searching, I finally landed an entry-level position as a case manager for a homeless shelter. Let’s just say I didn’t love it. I’d had my sights on working for the only major reentry social service organization in the area. When they finally posted an open position for a case manager, I knew it was the job for me. Except it wasn’t. I didn’t get it. Double bummer. Considering other options was probably in order. But you know I didn’t. Instead I called up the woman who interviewed me and pleaded my case. I wanted to work for her and the organization. Prisoner reentry was my passion. I would take another job within the organization if it became available. Please keep me in mind. And guess what? She did. A few months later I interviewed for another position and got it. Grit.

Then there’s Turning Leaf. Six months of calling and pleading my case to be allowed to volunteer in the jail. Three years of waiting tables by night while I worked on the nonprofit for free by day. The major setbacks of the organization’s first official year, which made me secretly want to lose funding so I could quit without admitting defeat. Pure grit, folks, along with a whole lotta luck and good timing – something I’ve also had in spades.

Turning Leaf probably shouldn’t have happened. It was too hard. There were too many barriers. No funding. Not enough support. I wasn’t born in Charleston, didn’t have connections or a master’s degree or life experiences that made me relatable to people in prison. But it did happen. And once I get a foothold, it’s not in my DNA to let go. At 5 years old I convinced my mom, a psychologist and a school district that I should skip a grade. Thirty-five years later, why shouldn’t I run the best reentry organization in the world?

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