Organizing through heartache

By Anna Perng, OFA Fellows Leader, Philadelphia, PA

Last weekend, our group of volunteer OFA coaches in Philadelphia helped launch the fall 2017 class of the OFA Community Engagement Fellowship. Together, in cities and towns across the country, we welcomed the latest class of OFA fellows — budding activists who will be learning the foundations of effective community organizing over the next several weeks. In true organizer fashion, we met the challenges of the day with perseverance, inclusion, and empathy.

Lesson #1 of organizing: Success isn’t always seamless. Hiccups happen; how you deal with them can turn them into opportunities for bringing people together.

On the morning of our orientation here in Philadelphia, we ran into some mishaps … our coach Samantha had ordered boxes of coffee, but the coffee shop didn’t have them ready when she arrived. Our coach Mani had brought every supply on our checklist, except for an extension cord. Our Lyft drivers got lost in spite of having a GPS. Fellows texted me at the last minute to say they were going to be 15–30 minutes late while we had already started giving our welcome presentation. Late arrivals meant that Samantha had to repeatedly run downstairs to let them into the locked building. But, despite the setbacks and troubleshooting, Team Philly pulled through like champs. And just to show you how much heart we have …

When LuQman — one of our fellows leaders — walked in, I noticed immediately that something was wrong. He looked hurt. Our new fellows were arriving, and LuQman was scheduled to lead the welcome & intro remarks, but I had a gut feeling that I should ask if everything was OK.

It wasn’t. LuQman told me that his sister was dying. She had been in rehabilitation, but the morning of our orientation, his mother called him to say she was transferred to hospice care overnight and that she might not make it through the day. With LuQman’s permission, I informed our other coaches, told him to take the day to be with his family, and started to prepare to take over for him. But LuQman changed his mind. He decided to stay. And I was blown away as he gave his full energy and whatever positivity he had to welcoming the new fellows. We led an icebreaker, and after we finished, LuQman still didn’t leave. He told me, “I feel like I need to be here. This is giving something back to me.”

“ I feel like I need to be here. This is giving something back to me.” — LuQman

There were others who made Team Philly’s weekend a success, too. Hassan, an OFA coach from the summer, stepped up to help with our fall orientation. He was our food coordinator, our cheerleader, and our photographer. He pitched in wherever he could and encouraged everyone who was presenting for the first time. He even had the foresight to buy toilet paper for our 5-hour orientation! Hassan was so key to our success, even though he, too, has been having a tough time lately. His son is in dire need of a liver transplant, and although he’s had the opportunity to get a transplant three times, the doctors said it was important to get the right one. When Hassan sat with us for the dry run earlier in the week and told us about his son — his hero — I could tell that things were tough. The Make-a-Wish Foundation had already granted his son’s wish to go to Disneyland. But as much as he loves his son and wants to spend each minute with his family, for Hassan, volunteering with OFA and working to save Obamacare and Medicaid means just as much. The two paths are one. We will take care of each other on this journey.

Throughout the orientation, the new class of fellows started to open up because each of us coaches had already shared something personal with the group. Our coach Reuben led a powerful discussion where he shared his own story as someone who experienced homelessness. Today, he helps formerly incarcerated people with their re-entry back into society, including finding employment.

In many ways, the fellows we chose reflect elements of our own stories: We have fellows who experienced homelessness as children and throughout their lives. We have fellows who know what it’s like to be so hungry, they cannot think about what challenges tomorrow may bring. We have fellows who were placed in foster care or were orphaned. We have fellows who are passionate about erasing the stigma against depression and anxiety. We have fellows who raised their siblings or took care of their parents. We have survived on free school lunches, food stamps, or just $5 a week. We have fellows who have had jobs cleaning toilets or have had to beg for help to survive. Many of us — coaches and fellows alike — have been at the mercy of a sometimes heartless system, but through it all, we never let that pain turn our hearts bitter. Instead, we turned that pain into light.

Many of us — coaches and fellows alike — have been at the mercy of a sometimes heartless system, but through it all, we never let that pain turn our hearts bitter.

Because of the OFA Fellowship, we were all lucky enough to find each other. I saw perfect strangers shedding tears, holding each other, laughing together, and learning from each other. The night of our orientation, one of our new fellows posted on Instagram that the folks she met through OFA had already changed her life. And looking at LuQman, Hassan, and those of us who currently are experiencing our own heartache and crises, I truly believe that OFA is the kind of community where you get back tenfold what you give — in love, light, and generosity. That’s the power of OFA. That’s the power of community. There is simply nothing else like it.

So, to close out an incredible week of orientations, I just want to end with a quick thank you to OFA — the staff, the volunteers, the supporters, and our partner organizations — for ALL that you do to sustain this movement. I have never once regretted a minute that I have spent with my OFA family. I love you all. Thank you for lifting all of us up, and for helping us bring change to our communities.

Anna Perng is an OFA Fellows Leader in Philadelphia, PA. This fall, she is volunteering with her fellow Philly teammates LuQman A., Samantha A., Reuben J., and Mani S.

Originally published at