2017 look back, 2018 outlook

Clearly, I’m unconventional. I’m looking back at 2017 about six weeks later than I probably should have. But with what I tried to achieve at the beginning of this year, there are many reasons why.
Since I am the kind of person who writes to do lists for just about everything, I actually have what 2016 me wanted 2017 me to do which I get to share now:
  • Travel internationally at least one: Check. In fact, I did it twice, to Montreal, Canada, as well as Puerto Penasco, Mexico. I got the entirety of North America covered in 2017. This also led to me having three different kinds of currencies in my purse at one time. The plight of an international traveler. It also checks off a bigger mission of mine to just learn more about the world than I have known before. This is one of those longer term and recurring goals, to always be escaping the country, learning more about other places, other people and therefore, more about myself.
  • Take four vacations minimum: Check times infinity. I went to about 30 cities/national parks across seven different states and two different countries last year. I backpacked across the Southwest, camping in Utah, California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. I went back to New Orleans for the first time in seven years and remembered how much I love it, one of the great American cities in my opinion. I went to concerts, live shows and weddings in LA, ate pizza and saw improv in Chicago, watched the sunrise from beaches and forests both at home and abroad, had my passport checked at border crossing and airport security lines and also got the chance to expand my mind by seeing how others live.
  • Start a Roth IRA: Check. This one took some doing, but I transferred an old Roth 401(k) from a previous employer to a Roth IRA. Working in financial services taught me more in two years than I had learned in the previous 20 about the way money works in the world. And one of the things I was sure I wanted to do, however I could, was start two paths toward retirement income — one of which was pre-tax (like a traditional 401(k)) and one of which was post-tax (like a Roth IRA). A job change allowed me to do this in a really easy way. But there are plenty of other ways to have a non-employer sponsored retirement fund. Even if I contribute nothing to the initial (relatively small) amount I rolled over into my Roth IRA, I would still come out with more than $100K in tax-free retirement money. (Thank you compound interest!)
  • Create LLC for freelance business: Check. I started Berry Media LLC this year, a small consultancy aimed at providing marketing communication services to SMBs and solopreneurs. Although I started the consultancy with an aim of making five figures this year, I did fall a bits short of that goal. But I learned a lot and still 5x my freelance income from the previous year. I also through trial and error learned a lot about the type of clients I want to take on, what I can honestly promise freelance and how to balance that with all the other things I want to do this year
  • Get above $X in savings for emergencies and large purchases: Check and almost check again. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, my trusty first car, the 1998 Saturn SL2, bit the dust in the dog days of summer 2017. Luckily I had made my savings goal and was able to buy a new-to-me car with cash. Since that big summer purchase I have been building back up to that and although it was technically January 2018 when I hit it, I made it back up and over that emergency/slush fund goal. (How? Well, I’m thrifty! Despite all the traveling above making it seem like that can’t be true. In fact, I only paid for two AirBnBs and a hotel room across all those trips. Many were drives so I only paid for gas and the most expensive flight cost me round trip less than $500.)
I’ll admit, I didn’t have this to do list taped next to my mirror or anything. But all of these goals were close to my heart so they were easy to hit.
I have closely related goals for 2018, scaled back due to the fact that I’ll have one big factor taking up time and energy next year: starting graduate study. (Finishing will be my 2019 goal.)
But here’s the list as it stands today:
  • Gain accreditation in public relations: I actually just today officially achieved this. (Most of the reason why my look back at last year is in February and not January.) This is a year-long process that involves an official approval from a worldwide accreditation board to begin, a questionnaire, a 2 hour panel presentation and a 3.5 hour written examination to pass. However, I did it!
  • Max out 401(k) contributions: Get as close to getting the max I can into my 401(k) this year.
  • Get to $X in IRA savings: I’m trying to get to the next round number for contributions. Something small and attainable considering most of my extra money will be going to grad school.
  • Keep $X in savings: Grad school is no excuse to not have an emergency fund. I’ll be keeping that emergency fund level in my savings as I save throughout the year and the rest goes to big purchases (e.g. books, tuition, drinks for long writing nights).
  • Successfully start and stay in grad school: Going back to school while working is a big challenge. But I worked all through my undergrad. It’s just channeling the youthful energy that felt endless when I was 19 now that I am … definitely no longer an age that starts with 1. I started. Just have to stay.
  • Do one thing “for me” at least every other month: What 2016 and 2017 taught me is so much of what makes me happy is taking in new things. Despite being in grad school, I still am carving out time to do the things I love — concerts, shows, travel. I’ve done decently well with a lovely concert in January and have some ideas for travel in April, June and October. I can’t do as much as last year (#researchpapers), but I want to still keep joy in my life despite trying to develop professionally as much as possible.
2019 will be the culmination of a lot of big goals for me so 2018, much like the second Matrix movie, is basically a big drumroll to those: finishing grad school, saving for a home (maybe!), moving, growing, changing, etc., etc., etc. It’s also a reminder that you can have it all, but maybe not all at once — and that that’s more than OK.
What big things are you trying to achieve?

When Will We Be Better To Each Other?

When will we be better to each other?

I breathed a big sigh of relief as my mother picked up the phone in Las Vegas this morning. “This never used to happen here,” she said. My mom has lived in Las Vegas on and off since the mid ‘70s. She knows the city well.

I’d love to say that this is the first time I’ve woken up to the news of a mass shooting in a city in which I’ve lived and had to hold my breath to see if a family member, a friend, a colleague was caught in the crossfire.

It’s not.

I lived in Tucson in 2011. (You’d might have forgotten about that one. Don’t worry, sometimes it retreats into the recesses of my brain too until another one comes up and I remember.)

Men, women, children, students, innocents were gunned down exercising their free rights. At the time, I was a journalist, so instead of shock and mourning, I — along with my colleagues — called someone to let us into the newsroom so we could ask what would happen to the beginning of the school year, get dates for Obama’s speech, verify whether Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was alive or dead on the operating table. This time I at least get to make calls to ensure my parents are safe, old friends aren’t harmed, that the city I learned to drive in, I had my first kiss in, I refer to as “home” when people ask me where I’m going for Thanksgiving, might be OK.

When will we be better to each other?

Even though I was lucky last night, I’ve lost family members to gun violence in the past. So, my mother’s voice had extra knowing in it when she croaked out, “Please stay safe,” between what I know were welling tears.

I’ve been to concerts on the Strip. To Safeways in Tucson. To movie theaters in Colorado.

It’s also a time in the world where violence happens whether you are in the wrong place at the wrong time or not. Where gun violence isn’t always relegated to senseless tragedy, but at times to the reality of daily life. Where we have new #PrayFor____  hashtags seemingly every week.

When will we be better to each other?

I get to rest easy tonight, but hundreds of people aren’t so lucky. I’ve sat in an ICU wondering if a family member is going to die. I wouldn’t wish that on even my worst enemy.

I don‘t know when the right time is to discuss it. I don’t know what the right bill to pass is.

All I know is that there has to be a space between disagreement and mass destruction. There has to be help before it’s too late. There has to be something better than these headlines happening so often that they start to dull our senses.

When will we be better to each other?

I wish I knew.

Blue Screen of Death

There are few things I dread more than that moment. Click. Click. Click. Then the mouse turns into a spinning wheel and you begin to really worry. Then …

Your computer ran into a problem and needs to restart.

I’ve lost emails to friends and whole pieces of my college thesis to this blue screen. (Luckily I pulled a couple of almost all nighters to salvage a B and my degree from this.) But the nice thing about a roadblock in your way is that it proves to you that you can start again.

My dad hit his own blue screen about a decade ago.

He flew to Tucson from Las Vegas on a Thursday and was fine. He flew back on a Saturday with a scratchy throat and within 48 hours was in the ER.

Blue screen.

But he, like your computer, restarted.

Now he eats healthier, loves harder and my family hits our metaphorical save button a lot more to savor the moments we have with him.

Because really the most important thing about the blue screen is not really the moment, or the screen, but the what comes next.

It’s about the starting over.

“The death of a dream can in fact serve as the vehicle that endows it with new form, with reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalized color. In short, the power of a certain kind of dream is such that death need not indicate finality at all but rather signify a metaphysical and metaphorical leap forward.” 

Things I Learned Way After I Should Have: Pay Yourself First

Former President Barack Obama got a lot of flack from both sides of the aisle for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street bank. Now I heard his daughter is going to Harvard and that can’t be cheap so I’m guessing he’s got a good reason for taking that check.

But my guess is that the pushback isn’t so much political as it is ideological: money moves the world and can bring the world crashing down. We saw it almost grind life as we know it to a halt in 2008 with the financial crisis. Because of that, the American public’s already looming distrust of big corporations like banks and Wolf of Wall Street characters manifested in Occupy Wall Street, the backlash of “Too Big to Fail” and now this – Wall Street as an easy target for outrage.

What do I have to say about it?

Wall Street Isn’t Evil, If You Do It Right.

They say it takes 10,000 hours or a little less than 14 straight months of sleepless practice to get good at something. Who has that time if it’s not for your biggest passion or hobby?

But money, even though it runs our lives, is something we tend not to take the time to understand.

Nine out of 10 people didn’t know how much those under 55 could contribute to their 401(k) per year? (It’s $18,000, by the way.) Even of 2015 survey takers who were self-described as “financially savvy,” nearly half didn’t even known the APR of their own credit cards. (APR is annualized percentage rate … basically interest.)

Hence, the movement toward financial literacy: teach people to do the right things with money via a seminar or class and we won’t be staring down trillions in student loan or credit card debt.

There’s just one problem – financial literacy doesn’t work. A 2014 recent study published in the journal Management Science found that studying financial literacy has a “negligible” impact on future behavior and that within 20 months almost everyone who has taken a financial literacy class has forgotten what they learned.

We don’t trust the banks. We don’t know enough not to need the banks. And the little bit of learning we do have available tends not to work long-term.

No wonder people hate Wall Street.

So what can we do?

Here’s my simple solution: pay yourself first.

There’s even a simple formula to do this: save one hour of your salary a day. For a $50,000 salary, that means saving about $25 every business day.

It won’t make you money fast. But that’s where people lose trust in Wall Street because they follow people like Bernie Madoff.

It won’t necessitate a lot of learning. Take your salary and divide by 52, then by 5, then by 8. (Weeks, then days, then hours.) That should stem the tide of a financial literacy trap that sounds good but doesn’t turn into action.

It doesn’t require you to put all your money into envelopes to change the habit, or start two side businesses to increase revenue to make your wealth grow.

Save an hour of your pay a day. Pay yourself first through retirement savings, emergency savings and investments in a balanced low cost index fund like Vanguard or Betterment’s offerings. It’s not fast, but it will allow you to beat the highs and lows of Wall Street.

Slow and steady wins the race, even the Wall Street rat race.

Pause Pause Frugal

I’m a natural saver. So much so that my mom loving calls me [pause] [pause] frugal all the time. The pause pause part is important here.

I’ll tell her I would buy a new car but I’m trying to pay off my student loan first. I would move into a nicer part of town but I’m trying to build up my emergency savings. I would live a struggling writer’s life and eat ramen to get by but I’m trying to have a plentifully funded retirement account.

And every time we have one of these conversations she’ll say, “Jazmine, I love it you just so ___ ___ frugal and you always have been.” Not just frugal, but pause pause frugal. Part of the pauses are always her trying not to say a scrooge, or a grinch. Instead, because of my mom’s unfailing kindness, I turn into pause pause frugal.

I’m here to encourage you to save. But not just because it’s good for you but because I want you to spend. Yes, I want you to spend – but not on all the frivolous stuff that gets built into our lives. Spend on experiences.

It’s true – I’ve always been a bit frugal in my pursuit of saving. In fact, I used to say that I invented crowdfunding because I used to ask classmates for extra quarters if they had them and when I’d collected a couple dollars I would spend that on lunch rather than the money my parents gave me and I’d pocket the difference.

Although technically the inception of modern day crowdfunding began in 1997 through a platform called ArtistShare that allowed a British rock band to fund their reunion tour through online donations from fans, Irish loan funds in the 1700s were the original crowdfund.

Founded by author Jonathan Swift, Irish Loan Funds were basically microfinancing loans given to low-income families in rural Ireland. By the 1800s, more than 300 programs in Ireland gave out small sums of money for short-term loans. In fact, at its peak 1 in 5 Irish families used these crowdfunding programs.

Now Ireland and I have something else in common – other than inventing crowdfunding and loving a potato based diet that without it famine might ensue. A 2011 study found that Ireland, despite being hit hard by the recession, was No. 1 in personal savings. That’s despite having generally low household wealth and a country with a lot of its own debt. In fact, the study found that the percentage of savings most Irish citizens had: 19.3%.

Now I was crowdfunding in order to pocket the lunch money I got from my parents. Why? Well, my parents told me that if I saved up for half of a senior choir trip to California that they would pay for the other half.

And I savored every hot dog I ate on Venice Beach and every ride I went on in Disneyland because I not only got to travel with my friends, but I also earned that travel.

That’s what savings does.

It allows you to experience. Research shows that we can really like our material goods. I mean, I got a great deal on this outfit and I love this necklace. But our material goods remain separate from how we identify ourselves. Whereas experiences are integrated into who we are. Even a bad experience can turn into a good story, another fabric in the woven tapestry of our identity.

About two years ago, I decided on three things: 1) finish paying off my student loans sooner rather than later, 2) finally start that emergency fund and 3) travel more … like a lot more.

Now vacations and savings usually don’t go together. But I knew that I wanted to be frugal but only so I could live the life I truly wanted to – and paying down debt at the same time would just accelerate that process.

Plus, a little-known fact: student loan debt is the only kind of debt that can’t be forgiven during bankruptcy. So you will be paying it forever if you let it.

And, a recent CNBC study found that 66 million Americans have no emergency savings. That’s right, 1 in 5 Americans would have to tap a credit card or a family member or friend for an unexpected $500 expense.

So, do I still have my first car, a lovely Saturn SL2 who’s AC is definitely on its last legs? Sure. Am I still saving for a house rather than putting down a down payment? Absolutely.

But I’m in my mid-20s and guess what? I just put in my last student loan payment.

That emergency fund: I just got it up to five digits last month.


Oh, and as for experiences: I’ve had a few. I’ve hiked to a waterfall and mountain lake outside Seattle, eaten fish tacos on the beach in Mexico, walked 15 miles around Boston in one day, touched the Atlantic ocean for the first time, fallen in love with the mural mile in Philadelphia, found out Minneapolis is actually really cool and gone to both the nation’s capital and one of the fashion capitals of the world – twice.

I don’t think of savings as something that takes away from my quality of life now. I think of it as something that gives me a quality life forever.

So don’t save to save. Save to spend. And don’t worry – if you need to feel better about being pause pause frugal, just call my mom. She’ll make you feel a lot better about it, trust me.


I make things

I’ve been asked a lot lately how to describe myself and I keep coming back to one important center in my life: I make things.

Professionally, I write. Sometimes, I write lots of fun things. Sometimes, they even let me touch a video.

Or write a fun little quiz.

CheckYourCattitudeBut at home, I like making things too: poorly conceived recipes I have to rescue and then put in Tupperware to bring for lunch, small essays on the things I’ve yet to truly work through that stay logged in my Google Docs, even crochet scarves that I started as holiday gifts in 2014 and have yet to finish.

I love when I look at something that’s a void, a vacuum, a space to which no characteristics can be attributed and in the after it’s a thing that makes people laugh or share or think.

That spark of something you’ve made that does something good for the world, for a moment or a lifetime, is half the reason that I get up in the morning.

Well, that and mini Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Finding my voice through the words of another

I could talk about understanding how lucky I was to have a whole, intact, lovely family as a kid who let me tromp around as an artist as a child and continue to pursue creativity as an adult – and how long it took me to understand and grow more empathy for others who didn’t have that background. To understand that even as a multiple minority, I’m privileged in ways that I still am reckoning with.

Or, I could have said, “Don’t let [your privilege] blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.” (Thanks, Chimamanda.) (Oh, she probably would also add, on the choice to boldly choose your own path, that “we cannot always bend the world into the shapes we want but we can try, we can make a concerted and real and true effort. Always just try. Because you never know.”)

I could pontificate about how life makes you take your bold statements and value judgments and twist them up and spit them out into other versions of thought. That all the things you judged people on you’d be doing in a year, eating all of the humble pie your 22-year-old body could handle because of a chance meeting outside a sub shop. Another subject I’m still reckoning with, I could have said all of this.

Or, this: “Your standardized ideologies will not always fit your life. Because life is messy.” (Another Adichie masterpiece.)

I could lament the different ways being, well different, makes life more challenging. How many times I’ve been told that I have a bold or dominating personality because I tend to project a level of comfort with who I am that some people (including myself) don’t always feel.

But a wiser woman than I would say, “Our time on earth is short and each moment that we are not our truest selves, each moment we pretend to be what we are not, each moment we say what we do not mean because we imagine that is what somebody wants us to say, then we are wasting our time on earth.” (You wondering who said this? Yeah, it’s a Chimamanda. She also said: “Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are.”)

I could wonder about taking a different path in life, one that led me more directly in pursuit of what I thought I wanted in a career at 20. I could talk through dealing with the looks I’ve gotten based on the choices I’ve made, the rolling eyes and you-poor-dear stares from others when I moved through the world answering to the only person who has to live my life: me.

But an easier way would be to say: “Minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get your hands dirty way.” (Don’t ask who said it. You know.)

I could talk about the plurality of achievement of success as a woman that I’ve grappled and continue to grapple with. What having it all means – and whether or not I want it. But I could leave discussions of womanhood in the modern age to a few more thoughts by a superhero of a person. (Say it with me now: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.)

“Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms.”

“Never ever accept ‘because you are a woman’ as a reason for doing or not doing anything.”

“Girls are often raised to see love only as giving. Women are praised for their love when that love is an act of giving. But to love is to give and to take. Please love by giving and by taking. Give and be given. If you are only giving and not taking, you’ll know. You’ll know from that small and true voice inside you that we females are so often socialized to silence. Don’t silence that voice. Dare to take.”

Take a minute (or 20) of your life to watch this advice from an honorary big sister.

Misadventures of a (Former) Megacommuter

When I first moved back to Phoenix as an “adult” (and I put that in quotes because the other day I definitely ate Hot Cheetos for dinner without remorse), I moved to Mesa. Now I learned to love some things about Mesa. I lived next to the orange groves and seeing things that aren’t cacti growing out of the ground is a welcome respite. There’s an amazing Latin American restaurant that sells empanadas that are to die for.

But there was one thing that became the tipping point for Mesa: the commute.

I had originally moved to Mesa because I had a tech writing and communications gig in Chandler. It was less than 10 miles between my apartment and my job. No sweat. I resigned my lease in Mesa at the beginning of April 2014. I interviewed for the job I have now two weeks later.

And thus, the commute began.

On a good day, an hour and forty-five minutes, on a bad day (or a 100-year flood day), two and a half hours driving 75 miles roundtrip from Mesa to North Phoenix. This is not my idea of a good time. In fact, most of the time I’d rather walk or bike than drive.

That’s how I became one of the 8% of Americans that commute at least an hour each way a day. That percentage is more like 10 when you move into big metro areas like Phoenix, as reported by USA Today. I just counted myself lucky that it was only a couples days a month where I’d join 600,000 fellow megacommuters and spend 90 minutes one way in the car. There are only so many segments of NPR Morning Edition to learn from, only so many songs on the soft rock station you can get nostalgic about, and only so many audiobooks you can really afford (I mean come on Audible, really!) to fill up the time.

But when did people start to, as the Atlantic reported in 2013, waste an average of 38 hours and $818 of gas stuck in traffic each year?

Before you all go blaming Henry Ford first, the term commuting traces its roots back to the early days of traveling by rail, where suburban workers would travel by train and then pay a reduced or “commuted” fare to get into the city, according to a 2009 New Yorker article on commuting. Before the mid-1800s, people usually lived walking distance from jobs, but the advent of railways allowed for these “commuted” tickets, which functioned like a modern train or bus pass, allowing workers to repeat certain journeys over and over during their period of validity. Henry Ford’s revolutionary ideas that made cars accessible to the average family then fueled the suburban flames, flames which spread like wildfire with the expansion of the Federal Housing Administration’s insurance of mortgages in the 1930s and the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

So maybe you can blame Henry Ford for the scourge of the modern commuter.

But the interesting part of today is that the tides are turning on the impulse to hop in the car and drive an hour each way to work.

The Census found that American commutes, after a sharp uptick in the 1990s, aren’t getting any worse. Part of that is because people are flocking toward urban life in droves. (In fact, I moved into downtown Phoenix, where my 20-25 minute commute matches the national average of 25.4 minutes almost spot on.) Part of that is also because, like we do here, more people have the opportunity to telecommute into work, whether that be all the time or some of the time.

Now my waistline would love if I hopped on the latest trend in commuting with 800,000 other workers: biking. But until the distance to work is less 20 miles and more 2, I’ll stick with the car.

Because if I’m being honest, when I think of my commute time in the morning now, the name of my current audiobook favorite and my mood about the journey converge brilliantly: Yes, Please.

The Layover

One of the most dreaded parts of any last minute trip to me is getting through the unpleasantness of airport travel. Of taking off shoes and walking through detectors and standing in lines. But my least favorite part is the dreaded plane change.

Yes, I had a layover on this trip to Philadelphia on the way back. I made sure I knew the airport (Dallas-Fort Worth) and that I had two hours (enough time to account for a delay) in between flights. Things were going pretty well, I had time to eat dinner and we were even boarding the plane early when the line stops cold in its track.

The murmurs of people who are stuck in an airport at nearly 9 p.m. on a Sunday begin. “What’s happening?” “Why’d we stop boarding?” Then, over the intercom: “The crew on the plane has told us to hold the boarding. We should start again in about 10 minutes.” Then, without missing a beat, blue lights start flashing and an alarm like a middle school fire drill goes off. Bomp. Bomp. Bomp.

In my head I immediately thought, “This is why I plan ahead so I don’t have layovers.”

I’m a miraculously non-spontaneous person. Here’s an example. I took what I would call an incredibly last minute three day trip to Philadelphia earlier in April.

The point was to have a free, fun, relaxing vacation. That means I oooooonly: looked up the restaurants within walking distance, made sure there was a used bookstore nearby, packed in one small carry-on to make traveling through the airport easier, and researched the highest-ranking free four hour walking tour of the city.

There are all these sayings about the thrill of impulse, that spontaneity breeds authenticity and that organization just sets you up for disappointment. Sheryl Crow wants me to Soak Up The Sun. Tim McGraw wants me to Live Like I Was Dying. In the words of the philosopher Jon Bon Jovi, “it’s my life, it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever, I just want to live while I’m alive.”

But as Oscar Wilde puts briefly “spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art” and as Malcolm Gladwell further explains, “Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice–perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again … spontaneity isn’t random.”

That’s the feeling I subscribe to: that planning allows for impulse.

This is of course the rationale of a crazy person – me – but I do all this planning to avoid unpleasantness. And this is what I’m thinking during the Bomp. Bomp. Bomp. that tells us all we’re getting delayed. Now we eventually board another plane and take off for Phoenix but in that time we’re all refugees of that U.S. Airways Flight 468, talking about all the other times we’ve had disastrous layovers. And I realize that each story I’m telling is a slight bit of unplanned chaos before a transformative experience. I once had a delay that had me running through Dallas-Fort Worth with five minutes between the moment my plane landed and the next one took off. But that flight got me to a two-week fellowship in New Orleans that gave me some of my great friends, one of which I saw for the first time in four years on this trip to Philadelphia.

So, like the good word nerd I am, I looked up layover, and this definition will make me rethink my overplanning ways. A layover can be seen as an inconvenience, but really all it is, is a period of rest or waiting before a further stage in a journey.

Or at the very least, it’s a fun story to tell your friends.

What am I doing for others?

In life, I feel like there are moments that smack you in the face and give you the opportunity to be the person you actually want to be.

Ten years ago I had one of those moments.

In the summer of 2005, both my family and my cousin’s family both moved to Las Vegas.

For us, my father had taken a new job in the company and that meant moving to Las Vegas. I was of course against it. I had spent five years fooling a handful of people that I was worth being friends with. I had just tried out for a dance company. Instead of the life I thought I’d have, I was shoved headfirst into starting high school in a new state with zero friends. I was resentful, angry, didn’t understand why we had to go?

The same summer, 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans on August 29. 140 mile per hour winds stretched across 400 miles. The storm was horrifically damaging – and then levees broke.  It was catastrophic, causing more than $100 billion in damage. That was the reason my cousins had to move to Las Vegas. It wasn’t just moving schools that they were worried about. It was everything they’d held dear ripped away in a second. That’s why they had to go.

When I thought about charity, I think about this duality. I think about how charity helped my cousins begin to make a new life and come out the other side. I also think about how easy it is to become ungrateful, involved in the things you need and want and can’t have and do have but they are already two gens out of date and you want a new one.

Do I want to be here to collect things for myself or to do things for others?

So when I think about what I do for others, or try to, I really think about the lucky happenstance that brought me to this job. How did I get here? It’s pretty simple – and luckily it begins with family.

  1. My father taught me the value of changing a pet’s life

The first time I met a beautiful black lab named Georgie, she didn’t have a name, and I didn’t have a clue. I was frightened, frankly. My family moved so much that we hadn’t gotten another pet since my father’s Doberman Friday died, so when Georgie stood up on her hind legs, she grew to match my diminutive seventh grade height easily.

I ran up the stairs, hearing her run behind. I figured under the bed would be the best place to hide. Then, I saw her eyes. I heard her panting. I felt her lick the side of my face and kiss me. I petted her and she nuzzled me, and I knew I was in love.

So when I saw the opportunity to work in animal welfare, I knew I identified with it.

  1. My sister taught me that work in nonprofits was attainable

My sister is about three and a half years older than me, and since I’m the baby of the family, I made it my life’s mission to annoy her. But it was mostly because I wanted to be cool like her so badly when I was a kid – and I can’t say that that want has changed as an adult.

She sold me on going to the University of Arizona with her own pursuit of a degree there and by working at the American Red Cross and the Girl Scouts, she showed me a path toward companies that do things for their communities.

My sister taught me that at any age, you can dedicate your time and efforts to helping, even if you are young and green and probably still need some help yourself.

  1. My mother taught me the rewards of helping others.

My mom has always been an incredible artist. She’s had some exhibitions in local Phoenix galleries, even in a couple bookstores, and was really making a name for herself in Arizona when we made the aforementioned move to Vegas.

But instead of letting it fall by the wayside, instead she began to volunteer, doing art therapy with the seniors at a care center down the street from our new home.

The center was so impressed by how these people with dementia and Alzheimer’s came to life when she was there that they begged her to work there full-time, a job she’s had for a decade and loves with all of her heart.

When I started volunteering and working beside her in high school, having people pull me aside to tell me how much my mother meant to them, well that let me know that doing something for others pays you back dividends, even if they aren’t monetary.

So when I ruminate on the topic of doing things for others: I think of my father, my sister, my mother; I think of my cousins coming to Las Vegas; I think of all the great stories I get to tell every day, and I think, what I am doing to help pets and the people who care for them is important.

But I also think, man, I’m so lucky that Ralph Waldo Emerson was right: “It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

I’m lucky I get to do that every day.