Chasing Windmills

Helen looked around the university’s Phonathon Center. It was in the basement of the administration building; tucked away, but spacious enough for their needs. Campus security was great about stopping by and making them feel safe, even late in the evening when the rest of the building was deserted.

There were 20 caller cubicles but only 11 were staffed tonight, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Many of Helen’s student callers were already heading home. She was the Phonathon Director. It was a killer job that no one did for more than two or three years. The hours were just too tough. Helen hoped her dedication would be a stepping-stone to a “normal” development job in Alumni House across the Quad.

It was almost 10 p.m. Helen knew her team would be wrapping up their West Coast calls and sure enough, one by one, bleary-eyed students trooped up to her desk to deposit the evening’s paperwork. Helen would do the report in the morning and head to the airport herself.

She loved how the students chatted amongst themselves at the end of their shift. Who had the biggest gift, who had the most hang-ups. They didn’t take those personally. No good fundraiser takes the “no’s” personally, she always reminded them.

Tonight, the chatter was about going out for a beer. “Beth, are you coming?”

Beth was a senior and the best caller by far. She had a wonderful phone manner you just can’t teach, she had persistence, and she needed the money her 12 hours a week earned her.

“No thanks, you guys go ahead. Have a great holiday!”

As Beth called out over the top of her cubicle, Helen noticed that Beth’s smile was forced.

“You ready to head out?”

Helen had wrapped up for the night. Beth was still sitting at her workstation.

“I guess so.”

But she didn’t move.

Almost by instinct Helen pulled a chair up close to Beth’s and in a gentle but firm voice said, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

That was all it took. The floodgates opened. Tears streamed down Beth’s cheeks. She was sobbing. Beth was sobbing so hard she was shaking.

“I don’t know. It’s silly.”

She had to make an effort just to get the words out. Helen sat there, a foot away, stunned.

“Well, I’m here. It’s just us. Tell me.”

“Helen, I know this is stupid of me, but I am so scared! I mean, everything happening in our country and around the world these days! It’s craziness! I think about if I would ever get married some day and want children, but who in their right mind would want to bring children into a world like ours! Really! Where are we going!

“And this! (Beth made a sweeping motion with her arm around the room.) I mean, I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but what good is all this?

“What difference does it make? In the big picture, I mean? Do you ever think about it? Fundraising just seems so inconsequential to me right now.”

She reached out to Helen and touched her forearm.

“Helen, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it to come out like that. I know you want this to be your career. I think you are an amazing person. I mean, I guess I really just don’t know any more.”

Sometimes the moment in front of us calls us to be a greater person than who we think we are.

Helen reacted not with anger or disdain to the young woman still weeping next to her. She sat forward on her chair, clasped her hands in her lap, and reached out from her heart to the frightened woman eight inches away.

“Hey, listen. Can you look at me for a second?”

Beth was trying to avert her eyes but looked across through her tears to Helen.

“I’m just as nervous about all of this as you are. Everybody I know is shaken. We don’t know what’s next.  Things we thought we could count on, we’re not sure anymore. But then I think about my life, what we take for granted and I realize how lucky we are. How thankful we should be, about so much.

“I know what you mean about calling. It’s hard, night after night. But the amazing thing about life is we never know. We never know if someone you connect with might just be inspired to do something astounding. Here, or even someplace else. A kid whose scholarship is renewed because we raised the money for it? What do we know? That kid might someday figure out all the craziness in the world.

“You’re right about this career I want to have, you know!”

By now the sobs had stopped, tissues were out, and a panicked face was now a hopeful face. Helen continued.

“I had lunch last week with Connie. Do you know her? She’s amazing. She’s been doing major gifts here forever. What a lady. I could never be like her, but I’m going to try!” Helen grinned.

“Connie told me that if you ask any fundraiser; that is, if you could get them to tell you the truth, they would tell you they’re in this business for two reasons.

“First is, there will always be a need for people to do this work. If you can learn, if you’re any good at it, you’ll pretty much always be able to find a job. The pay’s not Silicon Valley, but it’s not flipping burgers, either.

“And the second is, she told me, every fundraiser has a little Don Quixote in them. Maybe we’re tilting at windmills, maybe not.

“But every fundraiser hopes, and believes, that he or she can make the world a better place. Even a little bit. Even if it’s just in their little corner of the world.

“That’s what Connie told me. And you know what? I’m in. I want that. If I have to work, that’s what I want my work to be about.

“If I really believe that fundraisers can at least try to make the world a better place, when all this craziness is going on, you better believe we’re not going to stop trying.

“And neither, my friend, are you.”

Helen stood up. Beth stood up. There was a hug that neither of them would soon forget.

Helen said, “Come on. Did I hear something about a beer?”

Happy Thanksgiving.