Sometimes we can see the determination of a lifetime in a single moment. This happened to me about six months ago at JVS. I had just moved cross-country and my first contract job involved overseeing and revitalizing JVS’s EXCEL program, a model program beautifully aligned with the JVS motto, Work Transforms Lives. EXCEL, in partnership with University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and San Francisco’s Human Services Agency provides training for people on public assistance, a paid internship at UCSF and for many graduates, a good wage career job at UCSF or other institution thereafter. In fact, an independent evaluator of this program found that within 6 months of completing this program, graduates had gone from relying on public assistance to earning an average annual salary of nearly $40k. Although I can give you many examples of courage and transformation in this program – there is one moment that I had honor of witnessing, a defining and inspiring moment that I will always remember.

It was only my second day leading the 7th cohort of EXCEL. The new participants had already done massive paperwork, testing and interviews for these coveted spots. It was break time and one of the participants, Tam*, asked if I could help her with an important legal document for her caseworker. I told her what to do. It involved more documentation, faxing and all those wonderfully taxing things that can send anyone over the edge. It was at this point that she froze up and stood gazing at me.

In that moment her eyes revealed to me a lifetime of struggle and pain at a depth I could not touch. Part of me wanted to grab the document and do it for her, to ease her burden – but something stopped me. I could see that this was a determining moment for her, and for me. Then, in an instant I saw a complete transformation – from what looked like sorrow and defeat turned into fierce determination. Like a lion emerging proud and strong, she shot up and literally came alive with enthusiasm to say she would do it.

From that day forward, Tam was just about the most positive and proactive participant I had ever witnessed. Always stepping up and volunteering especially when she was frightened. She was not comfortable with her English, or familiar with dominant culture and most of all – of speaking publicly. Role plays, presentations and the PowerPoint presentation for the graduation ceremony – all of these Tam volunteered for and often led. She challenged herself to do what she was most afraid to do.

Moving from public assistance to a full-time internship and then temporary or career position is no easy feat. Imagine the difficulties in this economy when you lack money, skills and resources. The stakes are impossibly high, your schedule rigorous and childcare difficult especially when your child is ill. Moving up requires absolute determination and a positive attitude, and even then it is still challenging. I am proud to be affiliated with JVS, an organization that like Tam does not shy away from what is difficult – that reaches out to those in need and works at state and local levels to change the conditions that lead to a city divided.

It is not surprising that Tam is doing so well at her internship. I have no doubt that she along with many of the other wonderful EXCEL graduates will be employed by UCSF or another facility. But it is not this I remember when I think of Tam; I think of that intense moment when against all odds she was determined to succeed. I feel inspired by her and the other participants to face my own demons, to do those things that I am afraid to do and to believe that it is always possible to move forward and make personal, organizational and social change.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity

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