My career in the nonprofit world began in a Baltimore bathroom.
Fresh out of college and mired in a tedious nine-to-five job at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, I started volunteering as a way to rediscover a sense of meaning and purpose in my life. My first volunteer position was at a hospice for low-income adults with HIV/AIDS. Lacking both clinical and culinary skills, I found my niche in custodial duties. Twice per week I would don gloves and a surgical mask, grab a bottle of bleach, and scour the bathrooms in the hospice until they gleamed. While my contribution was modest, I took pride in the knowledge that I was providing a service for people who needed it.
One evening, as I scrubbed the toilet on my knees, I was struck by the realization that I was happier than I had been all day, and more fulfilled than I ever was in my day job. I began to imagine a career in which I could actually get paid for helping people. Some time thereafter, I applied for a job at a local philanthropic foundation and left the for-profit world behind.
In the more than 15 years since that small epiphany in a hospice bathroom, I have found employment for immigrants, counseled inmates in state prisons, lobbied to pass anti-poverty laws, and helped to fund community arts programs.
Above all, I have listened to amazing stories told by remarkable people. Like the former inmate who had a panic attack after his release when he realized he no longer knew how to operate a fuel pump. Or the refugee who used to design carnival rides in Bosnia because he loved nothing more than to see children smile. Or the mother of two who gave up a lucrative career in corporate management to open up a transitional housing program. Every step of my journey has brought me in contact with an astoundingly rich diversity of people whose stories regularly humble and inspire me.
No matter how ordinary we might seem to ourselves or others, we are all walking universes of extraordinary stories. I can think of no greater privilege than to hear and share them.