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Never lose sight of the trees

Can’t see the forest for the trees. We all know the saying about not seeing the forest for the trees. While that certainly has merit for us to ponder at times, I believe the opposite is of equal concern. I think it’s ever too easy to begin to see the forest and forget that what makes it up, what creates the forest, are individual and unique trees. In our work in this community, we often face the forest. We look from the 30,000 mile aerial view with constant reinforcement to look at the “big picture “.

There is certainly a time and place for the big picture. The big picture forest is something we are cognizant of every day in every step we take. We talk about the big numbers of dollars raised and the big numbers of impact dollars invested in this community. We speak of grandiose numbers of people served by the programs we support. We talk about unfathomably large numbers when we discuss the very critical needs of this community. The big scale forest helps us be strategic in our planning. It drives us forward. It creates measurables. The understanding and awareness of that forest is integral to our continued success. What we can never forget is that the forest is made up of trees. Trees both giant and diminutive. Ancient towering trees and young fragile saplings. The trees do not look the same. The trees do not thrive in exactly the same conditions. Some of the trees have stood and will continue to stand the test of time. Some of the trees are nebulous and delicate and vulnerable. Yet all of the trees are part of the forest; every tree plays a role in the bigger picture.

My morning drive to work it’s probably much like many of yours. It can become a bit of an auto pilot experience. Point A to point B, redundantly mundane, a bit mindless even. Aware that it had become so unintentionally routine, I began challenging myself several months ago to shake up the morning routine a few times a week. I decided rather than driving from point A to point B that I would prompt myself take an alternate route to reach my office. If I am tasked with the challenge of serving this community then I need to be sure that I am keeping this community in my constant view. I found myself gravitating on these morning commutes towards some of the most vulnerable and at-risk areas of our community. You don’t have to drive far from your usual path to find streets riddled with challenges and neighborhoods facing plights that many could find easy to ignore. I never travel the alternate route that I don’t bear witness to a situation that I wish I knew more about. Instead of seeing the forest, I have the humble opportunity to see the trees. I see the young mother trudging through puddles in the rain with two small children and their backpacks. I recognize that they are headed to school but after a moment of thought I realize just how far they are from the closest school. I realize that transportation is an obvious barrier for this family and yet somehow, someone is making the effort. I see the senior waiting at a bus stop, with a lunch packed in a plastic grocery bag. I realize that they are likely waiting for the public transportation that will take them to a job that subsidizes their limited income. I witnessed people struggling. I often witness people who are struggling and not able to make a single step toward success. I witness hardships and shortcomings and failures. Every single thing I witness reminds me why it is important that we continue doing what we are doing. It motivates me. Even when it breaks my heart, it inspires me to work harder and commit bigger. Just this week, on my early morning drive I saw a trio- what I’m guessing was a family of dad, mom and a preteen son. It was seven in the morning. They were waiting outside our community’s day shelter. They each had a backpack and were sitting in a row on the sidewalk waiting for what would be another hour for the opening time. Experience tells me that this family finds themselves without a home right now. Whatever hardship has befallen them, they are existing without the most basic of comforts. At first glance their existence would seem a universe away from my own. At first glance I could easily convince myself that they were very different than me. They are not. On so many levels they are not. The reminder to me was the young boy sitting on the sidewalk with his back propped against the day shelter. Knees drawn to his chest and a paperback book open before him. As the mother of an avid reader, a child who looked forward to summer because of all the extra time they could spend with a book, the reality that slammed against my chest when I saw this young boy, was the reminder that this little grouping of trees was bigger than the forest. That group of trees in many ways resembled my own trees, my own family. We are all one unforeseen life circumstance, one medical diagnosis, one devastating life event from being in a situation we never expected and might not have the tools to navigate.

One of the most exciting things about my job and the work that our United Way is doing is the ability to see the forest. I love moments when we can measure our vast impact. The big numbers and big reports and big outcomes are thrilling. Those successes energize and motivate on a grand scale.

The most heartfelt, humbling and humanizing thing about our work is the opportunity to see the trees. If we ever lose our ability to see the trees and understand their unique us both in celebrations and challenges, we will never be able to successfully impact the forest. I am blessed to be in the forest; I hope I never lose sight of the trees.

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Stacy DeCicco is the executive director of the United Way Alliance of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

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