The power of quiet, everyday courage

Jon Fine, President and CEO of United Way of King County, on what courage means to him.
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Jon Fine, President and CEO of United Way of King County

Jon Fine, President and CEO of United Way of King County, on what courage means to him.

What does it mean to have courage? I stand in awe of the kind of courage a firefighter shows. Or a first responder in a disaster like Oso.

But I’m also moved by a quieter, everyday kind of courage that I see in my work through United Way. It’s the courage of people who have been weighed down by great adversity, but still manage to hope, still manage to strive.

United Way works to end homelessness, and recently I had the opportunity to spend time with homeless and formerly homeless young people participating in The Mockingbird Society, an innovative youth advocacy organization. What these kids have gone through can make you cry: abuse, neglect, pinballing among foster homes, long nights on the street, exploitation by “friends,” the harsh judgment of strangers.

I ask myself, how do you overcome all that? And the truth is that it isn’t easy. Yet it’s exactly what these kids are doing.

For Dominique it meant showing up for school utterly exhausted, because he was staying in a noisy shelter, barely able to sleep. But he was determined to graduate from high school — and he did, doing his homework even though he had no home.

For 20-year-old Lamar it meant lugging along a heavy backpack, since he had no place else to stow it. But he took it with him on every job interview, ignoring the hard, quizzical looks.

Roel, survivor of 14 separate foster homes, is now in the competitive Year Up job training program. Violet has gotten public-speaking training and is bringing her story to legislators, telling them that youth who experience homelessness have the same high potential as all young people — if only they can gain their footing.

Where do they all get the courage to keep trying and reach higher? Clearly they have great inner strength. And there is also the role of the community. People and organizations reached out, offered a hand up, provided encouragement. I’m glad to be part of one such organization, United Way, which every year does that for hundreds of thousands of people struggling in this community.

But back to that powerful word: encouragement, i.e. giving courage. That’s a role available to all of us, and perhaps one of the most gratifyingroles we can ever have. Each of us, in our neighborhoods, in our philanthropy, in our interpersonal dealings, can encourage and embolden people who need it, with far-reaching ripple effects.

Soon, I fully expect to see some of the young people I’ve met in new roles — entrepreneur, teacher, social worker — inspiring and encouraging others.


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