When I graduated college, I got a dream job with a cultural-exchange/education program for international young adults that encompassed community service, a six month world tour and the performing arts (is that a mouthful or what?). I would be traveling all around the country, living in a different city every six weeks with a local host family. My job would be to prepare cities on the world tour for the 70+ participants by finding host families, managing their community service projects, promoting their musical show (oh yes, there was a show!), and coordinating their day-to-day logistics. I couldn’t ask for a more extraordinary opportunity out of college.
Well, like most things in life- it wasn’t quite how I pictured it.
For each city, the ideal scenario was that I had a sponsor or well-connected contact that would help me navigate the community and nail down everything the group of participants (“cast”) would need.
In my third city, I was dropped off in a city on the eastern shore of Maryland without a contact of any sort.
Or a place to live.
That’s right- this city was an unexpected addition to the tour so there was nothing ready for me, including a local host family. Instead I was dropped off at a hotel and told that I needed to find my own host family. And it had to be soon because as I worked for a non-profit, the program couldn’t afford to keep me in a hotel longer than a week. I was given a rental car but told that I needed to find a donated car from a community member or a dealership, as the program also couldn’t afford to pay for a rental car. Awesome. I was sent a list of local alumni from the organization and told more or less “good luck.”
The cast of 70+ participants was arriving to the city in five weeks.
To say I was stressed and scared is an understatement. I spent the better part of three days in my hotel room, curled up on the bed, attempting to not have a nervous breakdown. I felt alone and scared. How was I going to make this happen? I didn’t know a single soul in the city. I had 70 people counting on me. I had to find host families, community service projects, and people to come to their show and all I could do was lay there and feel helpless.
After five weeks, would you believe that nearly 800 people attended the show? Would you believe that I found community service projects with Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity and a 400-acre nature preserve? Would you believe that one of the host families wrote a letter to headquarters expressing their gratitude for the experience of hosting a program participant from China?
I didn’t wave a magic wand or sit there and pray. I didn’t have a manual to follow or someone giving me advice for what I should do.
So, instead I (eventually) unfurled myself from the fetal position and hustled.
1) Take A Step…Any Step. And use the resources readily available to you.
The first step I took (after the initial almost-nervous-breakdown) was to call every single local alumni in the city. The second person I called, an older gentleman answered.
Me: “Um, is Beth Smith there?”
Man: “No, she doesn’t live here anymore (DUH- because she did the program 10+ years ago). I’m her father. Who’s this?”
Me: “I work for (insert name of organization here) and I was wondering if I could speak with her because we are bringing a cast to (insert city name here) and I’d like to see how she’d like to help or be involved.”
Man: Well, like I said, she doesn’t live here anymore, but if you’d like, I can meet with you and see how I can help.
The next day I drove to this stranger man’s office in my soon-to-be-returned rental car and met with him. I tried to be calm and diplomatic but I told him that I was being given the impossible task of setting up this city with no resources. I didn’t even have a place to live. I needed the right contacts and resources to find host families, get a car AND GIVE ME EVERYTHING ELSE, PLEASE. The man gave me some contacts of people I could speak to that could be resourceful but then did the best thing he could have done.
He said “My wife and I will be your host family.”
I moved into their house the next day.
Lesson: You might feel like you don’t have resources to accomplish what you need, but you don’t have to look very far. Look at what you DO have and leverage it. In my case, I was given a list of strangers’ phone numbers.
2) Reach Out and (Boldly) Connect with People.
In order to promote the show that would be happening in five weeks, I had to build awareness in the community. One of the most effective ways to do that is through local media. Given that I had no relationships with anyone in the city, let alone with the local media, I had to be bold.
I walked into the office of the local newspaper and after introducing myself to the receptionist, I asked to speak with the publisher. The receptionist asked if I had an appointment (I didn’t). She put in a call to his office, checked his calendar and said that he wasn’t available at the moment but to come back later in the afternoon at a specific time.
I went into my meeting with the publisher not knowing what the hell I was doing. All I knew was that I needed to get him to connect with me and resonate with what the program was about. I told him the mission of the program, that we wanted to impact the community and bring joy with our show. He listened and nodded.
Somehow, I walked out of that office with a sponsorship deal where they would donate ad space for us to promote the show for four weeks.
Lesson: Boldly reach out to people that can help you. Connect with them. Yes, there is the chance they will tell you to get the hell away…but you will live. And they might be more willing to help you than you think.
3) Try Something Crazy.
My team partner* (thank GOD they sent someone to help me) and I felt stuck one day as to how we would reach out to the community and bring awareness about our need for host families. So, we got creative. We bought poster board and in black marker wrote “(insert name of organization) is coming to (insert city name) and is looking for host families!” And then we put our office phone number right below that sentence.
We took these pieces of poster board and stood in the town center street corner holding up the signs (this was a small town). We got a lot of weird looks from pedestrians and some onlookers in cars that would slow down to read the signs before driving off. A few people talked to us, curious whether our signs were for real.
After some time, a man pulled up in a truck and yelled over to us “I am an alum of (name of organization)!” Astonished, we quickly handed him a business card so he could call and get in touch. We would connect a few days later with him over lunch and learn that he was a a former participant of the program from 12 years ago. These days, he was an alpaca farmer in a neighboring town. Yes, an alpaca farmer. A lightbulb went off inside my head and I realized how great of an interest story this would be for the community. I could highlight a community member and make the connection between how the program empowered him as a young adult and taught him that he could do whatever he desired with his life. In his case, it was to be an alpaca farmer.
I wrote up a press release, asked this alum for a picture and sent it off to the paper a few days later. Yes, that same newspaper where I walked into the office and asked to speak to the publisher. The article was published later that week.
Our little experiment didn’t accomplish our original intent, but by trying something a little crazy, we were instead handed a different and interesting opportunity.
Lesson: When something isn’t working, step out of the norm and do something a little crazy. If it doesn’t work, try something else. If you don’t accomplish something, chances are, you will at least have an interesting story to tell.
Other amazing, impossible things happened that helped the city ultimately be a success. For example, a family I met trusted me enough to lend me their car for five weeks so I could return the rental (yes, for real). I also got the town mayor to greet and welcome the cast upon arrival to the city. After a few miracles happened, anything felt possible.
While I doubt (and hope!) you won’t be dropped off in a strange city sometime in your life, there will be times when you are handed a set of circumstances that make you think “that’s not fair.” You will want to shut down and blame whoever imparted this misery on you. Your body will want to refuse action and freeze.
Instead of doing that, hustle. Lay it all out there and get in the trenches. Take a step. Connect. Ask. You don’t need superpowers or magic tricks to make things happen because you have it in you already.
For the record, not all the cities with the program were so under-prepared. And even with all the years the experience of this city took off my life, I wouldn’t have changed anything because of how much I learned about myself and what is possible when you hustle and give something your all.
What is something you could accomplish if you hustled?
*A big shout-out to my former team partner for reading this over first!