Monday, October 10, 2011

Girl Changes Her World

You may have noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the under-layers of that eternally provocative question—“why are we here?” Maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason for everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But isn’t it nice to have a reason for something as important as our existence? At a fundamental level, think of how much more reliable and motivated you are when someone else is counting on you for something. Showing up for someone else feels good, right? So is that where we might locate some of our reason for being, our purpose?

I was reminded of this in a stark way reading Leymah Gbowee’s, Mighty Be Our Powers, about coming into her womanhood and finding her strength and activist core in Liberia during the brutal civil war in that country. At one point, speaking about coming out of a long depression (brought on by an abusive relationship, not to mention the horrors of the violence in Liberia), she begins to feel the power of meaning in her life, “I wasn’t sitting home thinking endlessly about what a failure I was; I was doing something, something that actually helped people. The more I did, the more I could do, the more I wanted to do, the more I saw needed to be done.”

Leymah’s story is a we-shall-overcome tale, if ever there was one. But most of us, thankfully (!), do not face such overwhelming challenges. Our worlds are relatively peaceful and easy. Complacence is natural. Nothing in our direct field of vision seems to “need” us. Yet, that feeling Leymah had is, I think, still familiar. Most of us have days we sit at home feeling like failures, then something demands our presence, and I don’t mean just physically, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and there’s no space left for despondency.

I spoke to one young woman who found her opportunity to contribute in her own backyard. Paloma Wiggins is a junior in high school in Yellow Springs, Ohio (pop. 3200). She started running in the 7th grade, when one of her friends encouraged her to join the cross-country team. The distances seemed crazy long at first, but it didn’t take much time before Paloma had fallen in love with running over hill and dale, with the feeling that comes with being involved in a sport.

When the small team of five girls got to high school, they decided they at least needed t-shirts, so people would know they existed. The boys’ team had shirts, oh yes, and other PR perks, like free frosties at meets. Paloma, passing over the bake sale, suggested the team organize a 5k event in town for girls and women only, as a way of fundraising for their team. 150 women turned out the first year. “I realized, this was about more than raising money for my cross-country team,” Paloma says. “I saw how invigorating and powerful and supportive it was to have a women-only event. And hearing the women’s stories, ‘this is my first 5k’ or ‘this is my first run since my husband’s death,’ well it was amazing to feel that I was helping women through things in their lives, and helping them feel active, healthy and productive.”

Paloma founded Simply Women Ohio three years ago, after that first 5k event. Although the 5k is the main event of the year (217 women and girls showed up this year—a huge turnout for the size of the community), her organization embraces a broader mission. Simply Women has also established a leadership in athletics award, which will be presented each year to the graduating senior female athlete at the Yellow Springs high school who best demonstrates an enduring model of leadership and a lasting commitment to female athletics. In other words, not necessarily the best athlete, but the girl who is a team player, who encourages others and gives back into sports, not to mention taking her studies seriously.

Paloma’s mission, through Simply Women, is to create broader support structures in the Yellow Springs community for young women participating in sports and other healthy activities. In the short term, Paloma is already searching for her successor, because after next year, she’ll be off to university and she needs someone on the ground in Yellow Springs to carry on the day-to-day work. Any takers?

Not all of us find our purpose so early in life. And that’s perfectly fine. If we’re listening, our minds, our spirits, our bodies even will let us know what to do when the time is right. Start simple. What things get you up happy in the morning? Notice what makes you feel good. Explore those avenues and you just might find your Simply Women Ohio opportunity.

This post appeared on the Huffington Post under a different title.