It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since my co-worker Brad asked me a seemingly innocent question, “Would you like to come help me at the haunted house this weekend?” It was the Oshkosh Jaycees haunted house, and two nights spent there were the start of a journey I could never have imagined.
So I went to this haunted house and met a ton of fun people. I had a great time. I scared the crap out of people. I laughed. I made friends (whom I still talk to to this day). Brad invited me to their membership meeting the next month and I went, but wasn’t too excited. Agendas? Budgets? Elections? What was this? Where was the fun?
The next summer, Brad asked me to help out with the haunted house again, but this time he wanted to know if I wanted to help design and build it. YES. So I did. We started the last weekend of August and worked through October. I even sat through a couple more of those meetings. As I spent hours every week next to Jaycees, learning about what they did, who they were, and why they joined, I realized this could be really good for me. I didn’t have a lot of friends since I left the punk life and got my act together. These people seemed to really have their shit together. So I scraped the money together to pay my dues and in November 2003 I joined the Jaycees.
I found out they did a lot more than build and run a haunted house. They visited a low-income elementary school with Santa and handed out cookies. They played Ice Golf in February. They had a beer festival every July. They got together on weekends to grill out and have beers. They raised $10,000 to add a sand play area to the local community pool. They helped each other get jobs.
I started helping. Sure, I can be on the committee for the haunted house. And the Easter Egg Hunt. I volunteered at Brews n’ Blues. Then I made a big step: I ran for the Board of Directors. I had never been involved in anything like this. I wasn’t the girl that was on student council in high school, or involved in any other civic groups. I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet or why we had to take minutes. All I knew was that this group was making a difference in the lives of people in the community, for the better, and I wanted to be part of it.
I caught on. I learned about agendas and minutes and motions and seconds and approvals. I learned how to read a balance sheet, and write a budget.
As time went on, my involvement increased. I went from just being a board member to Membership Vice President, then President, then Secretary. I chaired the haunted house, the Easter Egg Hunt, and the Children’s Day Parade. I started a school supplies drive for our local elementary school, then a hats and mittens drive for them the following year. I started a brand new event, Oshquerade. I won Project of the Year twice, and Jaycee of the Year twice.
I learned leadership skills. I learned what it means to mentor people. I met success, and I faced failure. Project management and budgeting have been invaluable at work. I could never, ever have run my first SQL Saturday in Madison without the knowledge of budgeting and chairing an event. I have the confidence to share ideas with peers, and have them accepted – or rejected. I am not afraid to try new things.
And I made life-long friends. Some of my Jaycees are more like family, brothers and sisters, than just friends. I can’t even put this into words.
There are millions of memories. Traveling to other haunted houses with JB and Nicki. Dan peeing under the bridge at Ice Golf and falling through the ice. A Brews n’ Blues so hot we all thought we were going to die. Scaring people senseless in the haunted house and haunted woods. Celebrating birthdays, weddings, babies, and new jobs. Having lunch with German Jaycees who were visiting our state on our exchange program. Working the VIP tent with Jay. Stef as the Easter Bunny. The year the Easter Bunny almost didn’t win the race and Kate had to clothesline MacGruff so the bunny did.
But two stories stick with me the most:
At the Children’s Day Parade each year, we raffle bikes. After the raffle, a woman walked up to me, in tears, and hugged me. She explained that her 12-year-old daughter had outgrown her bike that summer, but because she was a single mom, she couldn’t afford a new one for her. The girl had won a bike. She was grinning ear-to-ear. This reminded me that what I was doing really affected people. It really helped them.
For seven years, I’ve collected school supplies for a local, low-income elementary school. I deliver them the week before school starts, and the principal and secretary distribute them as needed. Two years ago, the principal emailed me a few days later to thank me. A refugee family had just moved to Oshkosh and was attending the school. They had no supplies and no money for them, but thanks to us, the four kids were set for the year. Again, I was reminded that I can help people, even in a small way.
I don’t tweet or blog about the Jaycees a lot. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been doing that far longer than I’ve been doing this, and I assume everyone knows about it. But sitting at the Jaycee meeting on Tuesday night, talking about the annual school supplies drive, I wanted to write it all down. So I could remember it, and share it.
What The Heck Are The Jaycees?
The Jaycees are a local, state, national, and international organization dedicated to preparing the next generation of leaders. They are young professionals who come together to learn leadership skills, network, and perform community service. Presidents, CEOs, and athletes are Jaycees. And me, little old me. If you’re between 21 and 40, I highly recommend you find a local group and join it. At the very least, support their events in your community. They do so much good.