Katelyn didn’t have a corner office on the top floor of a skyscraper in New York City, not anymore at least. She had given up those cushy accommodations and a six figure salary for the disheveled environment now surrounding her. The leaky roof left puddles on the unfinished cement floor. The occasional rat would use this shallow pool as a drinking fountain. It used to be Katelyn was aggravated by the lack of supercomputing power from her laptop. Now, she was fortunate if she was provided with an assortment of pencils to complete her work. It was a difficult transition, but one that Katelyn felt compelled to make on her accord.
Working for the inner city juvenile homeless shelter, Katelyn had seen countless numbers of young boys and girls arrive on her doorstep – some beaten, some famished, many both. She had crossed paths with many of these same individuals in her previous corporate America life. She was just completely oblivious to their existence. She recognized them as much as she noticed the miniscule ants navigating the cracks in the sidewalk beneath her.
It wasn’t until her company’s annual food drive that she was able to remove the blinders from her eyes. Like a racehorse sprinting for the finish line, her company had kept her focus on the straight and narrow: reduction in expenses, increase in revenues, and larger profit margins, nothing more. In a stroke of serendipity cast upon Katelyn, she had been volunteered to serve as the chairperson of this year’s drive. Although she tried to talk her way out of it, her management chain looked upon this opportunity as a check box to fulfill her charitable obligations set forth by her contract, duties which she had consciously neglected due to their perceived irrelevance to her primary goal, making money.
It’s not as if serving as chairperson entailed any significant piece of her time. A soft copy of the flyers that were provided by the corporate office showed up in her inbox. With a few clicks of her mouse, twenty-five copies were forwarded to the color printer. Navigating her way around the corridors, the cubicles she passed were a fraction of the size of her spacious corner office. Katelyn forgot how tiny and impersonal these workspaces really were. They were akin to tiny cages without a door. The mice inside were enticed to remain through the occasional piece of cheese tossed electronically through the payroll department and into their bank account. Katelyn had been there in her earlier days, the profit sharing aspect of the company culture driving her to excel in roles that would eventually land her in the corner office she now occupied.
Taping the last of the bulletins up on the end of the final aisle, she inspected the message displayed on them. With some cleverly placed clip art and an assortment of eye-catching colors, Katelyn recognized the marketing tactics that she knew would do their job. The same strategy had served her quite well with even the most obstinate clients. It was amazing how the manner in which one chose to portray a message seemed to be more important than the message itself. Two weeks, she told herself. That was the length of the food drive. After that, she could return to her normally chaotic life.
As the first few days turned into a week, Katelyn received confirmation that the campaign advertisements were indeed successful. The mounting pile of non-perishable items accumulating in the corner was beginning to impinge on her professional space. Partially out of her obsession with order and categorization, but more so because she found it minimized the impact on her working environment, Katelyn arranged each donation into separate piles: canned goods, boxed goods, single items, bulk items. She even went so far as to begin grouping offerings into potential meal pairings.
When the three jars of spaghetti sauce arrived at her door in the hands of one of her colleagues, Katelyn eagerly accepted the donation and placed the glass containers with the boxes of pasta. Over the span of the food drive, her attitude had become more engaging and cooperative. It was almost like a version of a jigsaw puzzle being constructed before her eyes, the donations supplied by her colleagues the individual pieces.
The final day of the food drive arrived sooner than Katelyn expected. She had not entered into this endeavor with the healthiest of temperaments, but she arrived at the far side of it with a much more obliging demeanor. The final detail of her responsibility as chairperson was to deliver the donated food to the juvenile shelter the following morning.
After a week filled with meetings, phone calls, status reports, and marketing slides, Katelyn looked forward to a leisurely cup of morning coffee on Saturday morning while overlooking the wide expanse of Central Park from her luxury apartment in the sky. However, it was not going to be casual and unhurried on this particular weekend morning. Grabbing a large cappuccino from the drive thru, her coffee was consumed on the go while the several hundred pounds of food traveled in tow en route to the shelter.
As she turned left off the busy street, she double checked her GPS to be sure that she hadn’t misheard the instructions from the voice behind the purple route path on the display screen. With one turn off the main thoroughfare bustling with city traffic, she seemed to have entered a different world. Katelyn instinctively checked the locks on her car doors to be sure they were engaged. It didn’t look like the best part of town. As the toneless voice of her navigational unit indicated arrival at her destination, Katelyn was surprised that the message wasn’t accompanied by an additional warning – exit at your own risk.
As she rolled to a stop, she looked left to find the dilapidated building that was her final destination. The weathered sign was hanging at an angle, being held by a single nail on one side and a strand of twine looped around the other corner and tied off to the bars over a second floor window. Her recently purchased luxury SUV stuck out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood. The smiling face that greeted her at the curb emerged from the door beneath the ram shackled sign with a large shopping cart.
“Hi, my name is Steve. You must be Katelyn,” said the young man as he extended his hand in greeting. “Thank you for supporting us again this year. Your company is always so gracious in helping us and we really appreciate it,” he continued as Katelyn opened the trunk of her vehicle.
“No problem, it is our pleasure to help out such a worthy cause,” offered Katelyn. She said all the right things, the things she was taught were proper to say in these situations, but she didn’t have any real emotion behind them. As she followed Steve through the doorframe and into the establishment, if you could call it that, she was immediately struck with a strong pang of guilt and compassion. One might say that crossing that threshold had opened up a new door in the life of Katelyn. Left behind were the corner executive offices, the high rise apartments, the overpriced cappuccinos, and the luxury sport utility vehicles. Gone was the obsession with target sales numbers and profit margins. They were replaced with an intense devotion to the lives of the young faces gazing back at her.
The tattered excuse for clothes hanging from their famished bodies was the least of her concerns. The facial expression characterized by despair, anguish, and distress left Katelyn feeling the same. One by one, as the children began to recognize the good fortune being cast upon them on this weekend morning, their little faces were transformed into tentative smiles of hope. Katelyn had frivolously tossed a five dollar bill at her barista this morning in exchange for a jolt of caffeine in her coffee. The caffeine had done its job, but the shock to her system from these young faces was much more profound and impactful. When a sleeve of salted crackers is viewed as a special treat, Katelyn could not rationalize the purchase and consumption of coffee that could provide a hot meal and smiling face to one of these boys or girls.
It was that day and that moment that led Katelyn to change courses in her life. It was because she begrudgingly accepted the responsibility for the role as chairperson that she was given a glimpse into the lives of those she chose to subconsciously ignore in the past.
As she sat at her new workspace, she had learned creative ways to keep the spirits of these young faces on the rise. Looking at the ledger, she realized that last month had been the first in three years where the shelter had been able to provide adequately for every youth that had passed through the door. The marketing flyers that she hung as an executive had been revised with a little extra punch, and they seemed to be working quite well.
“What do we have on the schedule today,” called Katelyn across the room to Steve who was looking at the calendar on the wall. “Looks like we have a donation to be delivered by the big wig accounting firm downtown,” replied Steve.
As the unfamiliar car rolled up to the curb, Katelyn caught sight of it through the window. “I got this one,” she said to Steve as she proceeded outside to greet the visitor. “Hi, you must be Jon. My name is Katelyn. Thank you so much for your company’s kind donation. You have no idea how much it helps,” offered Katelyn as she walked alongside Jon to the trunk of his vehicle. The response she got back was just what she would have expected, “No problem at all, it’s our pleasure to help out such a worthy cause.”
As the two of them walked through the front door carrying an assortment of donated clothing and food items, she saw that look again, the recognition she had perceived through her eyes but a few months earlier, except this time Katelyn saw it in the eyes of their latest visitor. It was as if that transition from city street into juvenile shelter was a magic portal into the soul. Glancing over at Steve, Katelyn could see the grin of acknowledgement on his face. Surely they could squeeze one more desk in here if they tried hard enough. It was one problem that they hoped would require their attention.