My Southern Legitimacy Statement: Born and raised in Southern California and smart enough to marry a man from Abilene, Texas who has fostered my love of hush puppies, collard greens, and, DUH, barbecue!
The Wrong Job at the Right Time
“We’re really going to need your magic wand for this one!” Leslie’s email arrived with the red exclamation point indicating it was urgent. The dream request qualified as emergency which meant the prognosis of the dream recipient was less than a month. For this twenty-one-year-old man, it was likely only days. His dream was to receive a personal video message from his favorite film actor who was from his hometown. Charlie, our dreamer, had studied acting and hoped to pursue a career after college so a message from his idol would be uplifting in his difficult, final days. I wrote Leslie back, “I’ll give it a go. It would be tricky in this timeframe under the best circumstances, but Hollywood is about to close down for the holidays in a couple days and we’ve never had a request for this actor before so it’s basically a cold call. Fingers crossed!”
My title at Dream Foundation, the first and only national organization providing end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults, is Special Projects Manager. More specifically, I coordinate the celebrity-related dream requests. My career in non-profit started in 1990 as Celebrity Wish Coordinator for Make-A-Wish Foundation and I’ve been at Dream Foundation since 2003. As with most in non-profit, I have worn many hats over the years: development, events and fundraising but I’ve been focused in this area since 2010.
The first order of business for me with Charlie’s dream is to see if we have any connection to the actor through an agent or publicist who we already work with. A quick search through our database proved fruitless so I embarked on the basic google search, which yielded a contact. My email consisted of a brief description of Charlie’s condition, why this request was meaningful to him and emphasizing the “emergency” aspect. In most cases, with celebrity requests, I will hear back within a week, but in Charlie’s case that was too long, so, as soon as I hit send, I started researching other avenues we might be able to pursue. About ten minutes later, as I was wrapping up my day, my in-box chirped. Surprisingly, the contact had replied. “Hi Trish. Thanks for reaching out. Working on this. Will be in touch.” While this was the most hopeful version of a reply, it was just vague enough to leave me a bit unsettled. “Thank you for getting back. Will look forward to hearing from you soon,” I closed my laptop and tucked it away at the desk in the kitchen which serves as my office since Dream Foundation is based in Santa Barbara and I live in Los Angeles.
The next day, as I do every morning, I opened my computer before making the coffee and my kids’ breakfast. From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the little red circle above the mail icon in the dock on my screen. While the coffee finished percolating, I went to check. The contact had emailed. “Here you go. Thank you for the good work you are doing for Charlie and the others you help.” Attached to the email was a video of Charlie’s favorite actor, greeting him, sending him love and thanking him for supporting his career. I could not believe it. I had never received a response and a fulfillment of a dream request that quickly. It was awesome. I immediately sent it on to Leslie with the same “high priority” exclamation point and a few of my own that followed my all caps OMG! Sometime after eight, Leslie wrote back, “This is amazing. Charlie and his family will be so happy. Thank you!”
Often when my colleagues say thank you, I want to say, “Oh, it was nothing.” Of course, I know it’s not nothing but the feeling that I have about my job, the practical part, not the emotionally challenging part, is that it feels easy, there is an effortlessness to it that has, at times, confused me. For many years, before my career in non-profit, I truly believed that a job was only meaningful if it made you miserable and you suffered for it. It took a long time to realize that I didn’t have to be unhappy or in a perpetual state of needing to prove my worth at Make-A-Wish or Dream Foundation. There is an ease I enjoy and never take for granted, which comes from the fact that I am being fulfilled by a job that I am meant to be doing. Without consciously setting my sights on it, I have achieved “flow in the workplace” which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “…working at a peak level of efficiency and productivity — and doing so with a high level of satisfaction.” It wasn’t always this way.
In late Spring, 1990, I dropped a couple of dimes in the pay phone and called my brand-new boyfriend at his work. I fumed the whole way from the office to the Santa Monica Place Mall where I’d been sent to buy a gift for my boss’s wife to give him on Father’s Day. The idea of the errand itself wasn’t infuriating, it was a fundamental part of my job description doing things my boss and his business partner didn’t have time to do. Typically, that included getting a car washed, picking up dry cleaning and ordering lunch. After three years, however, I’d grown bitter and resentful. While I waited on hold for my boyfriend, the anger continued to build, when he finally got on the line I burst into tears.
“I’m at the mall buying a stupid Nintendo for Father’s Day. I hate this. I can’t do it anymore. This job is going nowhere.” My boyfriend was quiet while I simultaneously tried not to cry harder and wipe the mascara from under my eyes on the inside sleeve of my shirt.
“Sorry,” I said into the receiver, “hang on a sec,” I turned my back to the shoppers who were passing me on their way into the mall, “I’ll pull it together now.”
“Seems like it’s time to look for another job.” he said, “If it’s not making you happy anymore.” I started to cry again, then laughed at the irony.
“Yeah, but I’ve put in so much time here; am I giving up? Am I being irrational, quitting just because I don’t like some dumb errand, they sent me on?”
“It’s not just this one errand, though, is it?” His voice was measured and calm.
“Not really, no.”
“I believe you were made for greater things,” he said sincerely, before he had to hang up. I wanted to believe that was true-that I was made for something greater- but the truth was I had no idea what that greater thing might be.
I was five years in, following a semi-formed plan of moving my way up the ladder from Administrative Assistant to Development Executive in the entertainment industry. I appeared fully committed; two years at my entry level job as receptionist and now three years as an assistant. I was definitely on the right track for achieving those career goals, but my longevity proved to be less of an asset as it became evident to me and everyone else that I lacked the passion and fire necessary to get to where I supposedly wanted to go. The longer I was there the more ambivalent I became. When my boyfriend declared that I was made for something greater it finally occurred to me that up until that point I never stopped to consider if I was driven to pursue the path I had plotted.
Years earlier, when I needed a job, I took advantage of the access I had through friends and family that lead to an entry level spot as a “go-fer” in a production office, that lead to the receptionist gig and so on. I took these positions without a great deal of thought or consideration and ultimately, by the time I’d risen to Administrative Assistant, it showed. Because I had not taken the time to investigate who I was and what I was interested in, having flailed around a bit in college, I chose to latch on to something that looked like a job a person my age should want to have. Many of my friends were pursuing careers in the arts and several close family members were successful executives and producers in the entertainment industry. Why not me, too? These positions sort of fell into my lap. It was easy. Until it wasn’t.
What I failed to recognize was that there was a lot of competition for jobs like this. My employers had an expectation that I would go beyond the basic description of my duties in order to impress them and then be rewarded with more responsibility. The general work ethic I demonstrated was showing up on time and doing a satisfactory job. I did not realize that other assistants who came to work early, ate lunch at their desks and stayed late were showing me up. It seemed I was doing well enough that my bosses wanted me to succeed. I received several pep talks which were designed to show me how lucky I was to have the job and how I needed to just work harder so I could be good at it. At that point it became less about whether or not I wanted the job and more about pleasing the bosses who were dissatisfied with me. From their perspective, the employment gods had smiled on me and I was ignorant to the good fortune they bestowed. My attitude, then, became one of atoning for my lack of enthusiasm and gratitude. It didn’t make my job any easier or more intuitive for me, so I adopted the point of view that the struggle was good. I thought the lesson was that if I enjoyed my job, or found it easy, it probably wasn’t worthwhile. Three years later, on a pay phone in a mall parking lot, it appeared I reached my limit.
Faced with the notion I could let my Administrative Assistant position go and pursue something that was more meaningful to me was tricky. I was filled with hopeful optimism that quickly became tempered with what I thought was reality. Could I love a job? Was that possible? Would it count if it wasn’t hard and I wasn’t miserable? How would I even look for a job I would love?
There is an evening on the playground in 1974 that stays with me. I often tagged along with Janie’s family after dinner in the summer months when they were vacationing; staying in the apartment across the street from our house in Newport Beach, California. Janie and I held hands with her little brother Tommy, and her mom held her older sister Linda’s hand as we crossed busy Balboa Boulevard. The playground belonged to Newport Elementary, a school that was literally on the beach. Its blacktop and play structures rooted in the sand with no fences or boundaries. It was usually empty around sundown, so we had the whole area to ourselves. We climbed the dome-shaped jungle gym, took trips down the long metal slide and pretended we were Olympic gymnasts as we swung across the monkey bars. Though no one ever asked me to, I always kept my eye on Linda. At twelve, she was three years older than me and a couple inches taller, but due to a severe reaction to a vaccine she had as a baby, she was mentally disabled. Her cognitive age was closer to six or seven. Something about her sweetness and innocence inspired me to protect her. Linda liked the rings but had trouble navigating them, so I followed her over to help. I held the rings steady for her as she swung across and caught view of a couple of boys who stood off to the side. I assumed they were waiting their turn but quickly felt their eyes on Linda as she slowly made her away from ring to ring. Their presence made me uneasy. When she finally reached the end, she jumped off with a joyful laugh. She turned around, ready to do it all over and as I started to follow her, one of the boys spoke up, “There’s something wrong with her, right?” I tried to play dumb.
“Is she retarded?” he asked plainly. His tone was not nasty, it was sincerely curious. My heart raced. I was completely unsure of what to do or say. I pictured Linda eating the baby food with pills her mom smashed into it every night before bed, while Janie and I played cards at the kitchen table. Mrs. Altman had explained how important the pills were, because they kept Linda from having seizures.
“No. She just has to take medicine that makes her a little slower” I stated, with as much authority as a nine-year-old could muster. I didn’t want him to ask more questions, so I turned my back and trotted in Linda’s direction. My exchange with the playground stranger had overwhelmed me. I worked hard to ignore the tears that were simmering just below the surface, but the interaction left an impression, its importance a mystery.
While I quietly pursued “something greater” by making lists of dream jobs and reading want ads, Make-A-Wish Foundation reached out to my boss, a successful movie writer and actor, with a request. In 1990 the mission of the organization was to fulfill the wishes of children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses. The Foundation had received a request from a boy who wanted to meet my boss. Because the boy was too ill to travel to Los Angeles, we arranged for a Foundation staff member to come to our office and record a video message. Ann, from Make-A-Wish arrived like a breath of fresh air. She stood, camcorder in hand, across from my boss’s desk and taped the special message. I was transfixed by her ease and the effortless way she moved through the deeply meaningful assignment that was her job. I wanted what she had, but it was more than jealousy. The longing was an echo, something oddly familiar, as if I was remembering something I’d forgotten. There was a deep desire in me to help people. That was the work I wanted to be doing.
“Hi, I’m Debbie from Make-A-Wish,” I said. As the words popped unevenly out of my mouth, I could see from the corner of my eye actual Debbie was smiling.
“Oh, I mean, this is Debbie,” I said, pointing to my right.
“I’m Trish,” I put my hand on my chest to emphasize the point. Gregory’s mom opened her front door a little wider and invited us in. It was one of my first days at my new job. Ann from the Foundation had called to let me know she was leaving, just a month or so after we’d worked on the wish. I asked to be considered as her replacement and within a few weeks I was hired. This was my first official “wish interview.” Debbie was the seasoned volunteer assigned to accompany me and Gregory was the nine-year old boy with AIDS that we were interviewing. I was nervous and a little embarrassed at my faux pas, but more than anything I was eager and enthusiastic. Debbie and I sat side by side on the sofa. Gregory sat with his fraternal twin Anthony in a club chair across from us. Anthony was chubby with olive skin and dark hair, like their mother. He munched loudly on grapes as we talked with Gregory who was much smaller than his brother, with light blonde hair and a pale complexion. I couldn’t help but think about my own young nieces and nephews. Debbie and I listened as Gregory shared his wish to meet his favorite comedian. Without making any promises, we let him know we would get to work on his request.
The Make-A-Wish office was one large room with five desks for the three full time and two part time employees. Five women shared two computers and one printer between us. The white board above my desk was filled with wishes in progress that required my attention and follow up. Along with Gregory’s wish, I was also working on a request from Jeannie, a young girl in Oregon who wanted to meet her favorite teen-idol, and a couple of requests from other girls who wanted to go to meet the members of a popular boy band. It would have been easy to be overwhelmed, especially since it was my first week on the job. However, with every to-do list item, with every call that needed to be returned or fax that needed to be sent, I felt empowered. This was a new sensation. I was, by nature, a procrastinator; inclined to give tomorrow the benefit of what I didn’t feel like doing today. Before, the only thing at stake was an angry boss. I was in new territory now. Now I held the wishes of terminally ill children in my hands. I was grateful that more would be required of me.
The polite dinner party small talk had moved from Donald Trump’s reelection chances to careers. My husband’s colleague’s wife leaned in so she could hear me over the noise of their boss’s fiftieth birthday.
“I work for Dream Foundation,” I said, “We’re a small non-profit that provides end-of-life dreams to terminally ill adults.”
“Wow,” she answered, “That’s wonderful. What do you do there?”
“I coordinate the celebrity dream requests.”
“Gosh, that must be very sad. And hard. Have you been there long?”
“I’ve been with Dream Foundation since 2003, and before that I worked at Make-A-Wish Foundation.”
“It’s such important work,” she smiled sincerely. I have had many versions of this conversation over twenty years. Her compliment conjured many happy memories for me: the letters I exchanged with Julie long after her visit to the set of “Growing Pains,” the lingering hug from Donna who’s husband met his favorite TV comedian and Courtney whose face lit up when the film star she admired surprised her with a visit. While there may be bittersweet undertones, I am always left with such a full heart.
When I didn’t do the other jobs well, I figured it was because there was something wrong with me. People had to point out that I should want to do a better job. I had no ambition of my own in that regard. Long ago, I only wanted my bosses and colleagues to like me. I reasoned that I had a lesson to learn, I needed to prove myself worthy of those jobs and if I was unhappy or miserable, but successful, then that was a job well done. The idea that I wasn’t right for those jobs, or them for me, seemed too simple an explanation.
I have shown up for this job whether in an office at Make-A-Wish or now working remotely from the small desk in my kitchen. Working to fulfill dreams involves ticking off the items on my to-do list, updating a database and doing my best to coordinate the requests I am assigned. Although I still may need to remind myself about the importance of not procrastinating, I appreciated this conversational reminder that what I am doing is important. Serving terminally children and adults is hugely rewarding. The emotional component notwithstanding, I also do not suffer in this job, which does not make it any less valuable. I am good it and it and it is the thing I am meant to be doing. I could not have known then, that even as I was whining to my boyfriend (now husband) on the payphone in the mall, I was allowing for the possibility of the “something greater.” Fulfillment of my own dreams and aspirations has led me to work that also brings fulfillment to others.