I’ve always been a sucker for a good story. I think maybe it was because my dad had so many – the kind of stories that make you belly-laugh and spend the after-dinner portion of a holiday begging for a re-telling, if only to stave off that sink full of dishes for a half hour longer.
From ages sixteen to twenty-two I had the perfect job for collecting stories. I was a waitress at a tiny hotel, on a tiny college campus, in a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, central Ohio. It wasn’t always my favorite job, but it’s a place where I heard some of my favorite stories – and created some of my own. It holds a special place in my heart, this ten-table restaurant, for many reasons – but mostly because I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
When you work in the service industry, especially in food service, you hear a lot of stories, regardless of whether you want to or not. The option of declining to listen isn’t really an option anymore once that pressed white shirt and dull gold name tag are on for the night. It’s your job to be courteous and nice, to be a good listener. Truthfully, I didn’t mind much, and I heard a lot of stories over those six years – some I remember and some I don’t, but I loved them all anyway.
Usually, I was pretty open to striking up conversations with my tables, but not every shift is alike, and not every story is one I wanted to hear – especially if they were told during a Saturday morning shift.
I hated Saturday morning shifts. They started early and ended late, and I was the only server on staff. Meaning, of course, that I was either always bored, or always overwhelmed. Pawning those shifts off to other coworkers was a talent I strived to possess, but the summer after my freshman year of college I found myself in a situation that many young adults find themselves in during their college years – I needed money. For tuition, for a social life, for the fast food I insisted on eating every week. Saturday morning shifts just became something I needed to do.
Still, I approached these shifts with the same lack of enthusiasm that I always had. I came in tired, cranky, and unwilling to be a good sport. It was almost a goal for me to limit the words I exchanged with my guests. Just the perfunctory “good morning”, “cream or sugar?” and “have a nice day”. Tables were handled in four steps: take order, bring order, clear table, present check. It was a Saturday morning ritual. I was tired, they were tired, most people were on the same page as me: Minimal Interaction, Please. I liked it that way.
I’ve struggled with a lack of optimism in my life. I cut experiences and conversations and opportunities short because I’m fearful of the outcome, always expecting the worst. Saturday morning shifts were treated the same way, with skepticism and the idea that everything that could go wrong would go wrong.
It’s funny, though, the stories you’ll make when you have a good attitude. I learned that life-lesson on one of those summer Saturday’s.
I came into work happy. Maybe even joyful. I’d woken up with ease, the weather was lovely, and I was just excited to be alive, I guess. Sounds cheesy now that I write it down, but it’s truthful, and that’s all that matters.
We were slow that morning. No reservations on the books, a small number of hotel guests. I remember I’d brought a book with me to read during my downtime. I had one table that entire morning. Three hotel guests, seated at table 12, sitting smack-dab in the middle of our tiny restaurant.
I approached that table with a bounce in my step. I was happy to do something. I wanted to talk to people. I’d woken up with the social interaction bug, the one I so rarely caught, and I was excited to share that with others.
The table consisted of a mom, a dad, and their son. They were visiting the college with possible hopes of their son falling in love and spending four years of undergrad at this tiny, midwestern village, surrounded by fields of corn and cows, cows, cows. I’d served tables like this before, and sometimes I would get a kick out of asking the potential freshman what they were hoping to study if they choose this college. Usually this question was asked on a dinner shift when my moods were much more friendly, but like I said, this was a different Saturday morning, and so I asked.
All four of us talked at length about college choices, about career dreams and aspirations. Their son wanted to study creative writing, as did I. We spoke about that for awhile. I gave advice as if I had advice to give, and I remember laughing and smiling the whole time. I mentioned, on a whim, my interest in nonprofit work. I didn’t know what career I wanted. I’ve only known, all my life, that I wanted to write, but if I couldn’t make a career out of that then I wanted to help people. That was it, the vague way I planned my life: write or help others. They were the only two paths I was interested in.
I could have spent my whole shift talking to this family, but they had a campus tour to get to, so I printed their check, thanked them for everything, and wished them a good day. I stood at the front desk as they left the restaurant and headed to their hotel room, and I remember turning to the front desk employee to say something about how nice that family was, when I glanced back down the hallway to see the mother walking toward me. She didn’t stay long, just handed me a business card and said: “I’m the executive director of a nonprofit in Indianapolis, if you ever want an internship let me know.” Then she left, and I called my mom.
I remember being so happy I was close to tears. How could something like this even happen? Did life work this way? I hadn’t known it to.
I told my mom everything, having to repeat myself a few times because I was either talking too fast or she didn’t believe me. I hadn’t even looked at the business card yet. I just knew that whatever this nonprofit did, whatever their mission was, I wanted to be a part of it, simply because of how wonderful this family had been to me.
When I did look down I read the name Vivian Maley and the Joseph Maley Foundation for the first time in my life. I didn’t know at the time what those names would come to mean to me, or what the entire Maley family would come to mean to me, but I did know that I wanted nothing more than to spend the next summer interning for this organization.
I spent two summers at the Joseph Maley Foundation. I spent two summers learning more about love and loss and empathy than I ever have before. I learned how to take risks and how to be a better person. I met wonderful people every single day, and worked alongside some of the best people I’ve ever met.
In May of 2018 I graduated from The Ohio State University with a bachelor’s in English literature, but I knew months before that day that JMF is where I wanted to start my post-grad career. I’ve been a full-time staff member of the Joseph Maley Foundation since June 2018. I started as a Program Associate and worked under our disABILITY Awareness and HOPE programs. And now, I begin 2019 as the new Communications Associate.
With this new role comes a lot to learn, but I know that as an member of this foundation I will never want for support. JMF is family-focused, it’s supportive, loving, and generous. It is a job that I feel honored to have.
As the Joseph Maley Foundation closes out ten years of serving children of all abilities, we want to start this new decade by telling our stories. And by our stories, we also mean your stories. This is my story, but it’s just one amidst all of the incredible stories of our staff, our board, our donors, our volunteers, and the individuals we serve every day at the Joseph Maley Foundation.
We want to hear your stories. Your “why JMF”. The reasons you support us, the reasons you engage in our programs, the reasons you keep coming back. Tell us.
Like I said, I’m a sucker for a good story, and I can’t wait to hear yours.
If you’d like to share your JMF story, you can contact Communications Associate, Aubrey Wiest at email@example.com