As I boarded the plane for my third Advisory Board PoP Field Trip, this time to Guatemala, I found myself questioning my being, my significance and relevance to the PoP organization, and whether I belonged and deserved to be a part of the PoP Family. On paper, one might regard my life as pretty great, but, just like the roads taken in order to get to most of the PoP schools — rocky, unpaved, cracked, crevice-filled — reality over the past year has felt far from perfect. Let’s just say it’s been a year-long journey of learning and appreciating who the real, authentic Brittany Michele Weeden is.
Seated next to one of my most favorite PoP Family and Advisory Board members, Astrid Womble, I thought, “Your Advisory Board commitment is coming to a close, so just try and enjoy this time in the field, time with Astrid, and simply take it all in.”
Every single moment over the course of the next three days inspired me — like these field trips always do—whereby when the last evening rolled around, with absolute gratefulness I announced the renewal of my Advisory Board seat to continue to grow with the organization for the next three years to come. Why? one might ask. Here’s why:
When you hear the word “family”, what does it mean to you? And, what feelings arise? For me, it’s not only those people related to me through blood or marriage, but just as important are those in my life that embody and, without having to ask, organically take on the role of a blood member.
In my book, the responsibilities and characteristics that come with being considered family are: loyalty, transparency, authenticity, empathy, supportiveness, encouragement, kindness, safety, warmheartedness, dedication, commitment, unconditional love and joy. When all these are met, cohesively, that’s when I feel in my heart the word family, I feel the word home. Pencils of Promise takes me to a home full of the most incredible and genuine family members.
During my time on the Advisory Board, I’ve been very fortunate to travel to all three offices in PoP’s countries of impact. First to Laos in 2015, then Ghana in 2016 and one month ago to Guatemala. Each country is vastly different, each with unique perspectives. When going into the field, you’re able to observe the interactions between the PoP teams, the government, and community officials and leaders, and between the PoP team and the PoP teachers and students. Through my in-country experiences, I’ve noticed that in all three countries there’s an aura in each classroom and around the school grounds, which I believe no other for-purpose organization embodies, or that very few do: FAMILY. It is by no coincidence that when you speak about PoP employees, you refer to them as “the PoP Family.”
Sure, the schools they build are absolutely wonderful. Yes, the Teacher Support and WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene) programs that they create and implement are some of the best of a for-purpose organization in the world. And indeed, the e-readers, literacy materials and monitoring & evaluation are helping shape the success of PoP outcomes. These are all tangible positive steps and results—but what isn’t captured in these outcomes is what lays the foundation of the organization: At its core, Pencils of Promise operates like a family. Their team-oriented, familial way of operation trickles out to each country’s PoP team, then into the teachers and students, and ultimately out into the partner communities.
The largest example of the latter took place during this last trip to Guatemala. We drove over two hours down one of those rocky roads to get to a nearly-completed PoP school that we were going to help paint. As we got closer to the school, kids, young and old, as well as adults lined both sides of the road. Pulling up to the parking area, we saw kids running all around the cars with smiles so large, and screams so loud, that you thought for a second you might be a celebrity! We parked the cars and started to walk toward the entrance area to the new school, swarmed now by hundreds of children and adults from the community. We turned the corner to see the most spectacular welcome any of us had ever witnessed: a carpet made out of flowers, leaves and branches from the surrounding nature that were laid out in magnificent patterns and even in shapes of a pencil! The students had taken gigantic palm leaves and used them as pillars to line the magnificent floral carpet. I don’t think there was one dry eye amongst our entire group. The appreciation was profound. The feeling of family all around, even between us Advisory Board members, was overwhelming.
Later that night over dinner, I thought about the appreciation that those kids, teachers and families had for us and for what Pencils of Promise has done for them and their community.
I realized I shared that same gratitude for PoP and for what the PoP Family has done for me over the last three years.
I noticed my brain fog and overload had lifted, the severe questioning of myself and of myself within the organization was gone, and in its place was an utmost appreciation and feeling of fullness. I realized that the unconditional familial support and encouragement the PoP team gives to their teachers and students, is also given to us advisors. It was at that dinner, looking around the table at my PoP Family, that the decision to stay in my role on the Advisory Board was confirmed.
Thank you PoP Family, for your dedication to reshaping the landscape of education and to creating a future where all children have the opportunity to succeed.