In March of 2014, I had the unique opportunity to be a keynote speaker at the MASC Student Leadership conference in Traverse City, Michigan. The conference was hosted at the Grand Traverse Resort, where 72 Michigan High Schools congregated with their Student Council members and advisors, 1600 attendees in all. The resort is laid out so that every school that attended the event had a block of rooms, and they could just walk to and from the conference hall for the weekend's activities without having to brave the Michigan cold on their commute.
As the speaker, the conference organizers asked me to talk to the students about honing their passions to make a difference, using my personal story of founding DRAW as the main example. I attended the entire three days in Traverse City, even after my talk was finished, sitting down personally with some of the students attending to help them talk through some of the ideas brought up at the conference.
On the Saturday night of the conference, I had gone out to a late dinner, and returned to the resort to turn in. My hotel room was on a floor where a couple of the attending schools were staying, and, as I got off the elevator, I noticed that many students from one of those schools, Grosse Pointe South, had spilled out into the hallway. Their group had ordered pizza, and was staying up late chatting about all manners of things. The students stopped me and invited me to hang out, offering leftover pizza as the olive branch. (It might be physically impossible to turn down free pizza after 11pm.)
As I plopped down in the middle of the GPS students, we kicked around all kinds of subjects, with the students asking me questions about college, dating, and public speaking. But, in short time, we started to talk about the theme of the entire conference; leadership. For a good number of the attendees, being on student council meant planning Homecoming themes, selling tickets to dances, and organizing events to promote school spirit. All of these things are good things that develop life skills. For a smaller group, though, student council was a place to explore the concept of leadership. They were interested in figuring out how to bridge divides in their schools, and wanted to be the ambassadors that would bring together all of the high school stereotypes in their school, so that everyone was treated with respect.
But as I sat chatting with the GPS, there was one girl who seemed disinterested with the normal functions of high school student council. She was a leader, without question; easily the alpha dog of the group. The girl's name was Maggie Rapai.
Maggie was obviously pegged by her teachers/advisors, and not because she could put together the greatest prom or design the best GPS spirit banner. Maggie was a leader amongst her peers, regardless of whether or not she held a position on the GPS Student council. Maggie cared about oppression around the world, and wasn't afraid to speak openly about how it bothered her. She was fearless to act, never questioning whether she could make a difference (as a 17 year old, she went with her church on a two week work project to a poor area in Ghana) , and often involved other people around her in her efforts to make a change in the injustices she saw. At times that night, Maggie seemed almost annoyed when her fellow students would bring up petty grievances from their shared high school experience. I don't know who came up with the hashtag #firstworldproblems, but I would not be shocked if Maggie was the brainchild.
We had been chatting for around 45 minutes when the group decided collectively to disperse and head to bed for the night. They thanked me for hanging out and chatting at a late hour, and I thanked them all for their willingness to discuss the possibilities of life with a (relatively) old guy like me. As I walked to my room, I can still remember being impressed with the girl named Maggie. She was on the verge of becoming the kind of rare, thoughtful young woman that our world badly needs. And I remember thinking to myself that, if I ever got a chance, I wanted to do what I could to make sure I could help her succeed.
Two years after founding DRAW, or Disaster Relief At Work, I learned that, for the organization to grow, to thrive, and to be sustainable, there are two assets that are absolutely essential; Volunteers and Data. For DRAW to be the best version of itself, I had to constantly enlist the input, energy, and hours from people who shared with us the same passion to serve victims of natural disasters. At the same time, I needed to make sure we had thorough and accurate data about our own work, about weather patterns around the country, and about how like-minded organizations do what they do. Basically, if our organization is a large number of committed individuals willing to learn the best ways to serve, we'll be able to have an positive impact beyond our wildest imaginations.
In the summer of 2015, I knew I needed to put this into action. DRAW had responded to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, landslides, and even a fertilizer plant explosion. But what we hadn't responded to up to that point (and still haven't) was a blizzard/winter storm. Because of our HQ's proximity to the north, and the regularity with which blizzards can strike, I wanted our organization to learn how we might be an asset to blizzard victims. However, with a finite number of hours in the week, and the heavy workload of being the org. director, I needed to find volunteer interns willing to tackle the research and analysis necessary for us to be prepared for such events.
So, leading up to the summer of '15, I had two college students in mind that I wanted to approach about being our summer research assistants, and, of course, one of the candidates I had in mind was Maggie. I reached out to her in January '15 to see if she would be interested in position. Via text, she responded by saying that she already had an internship lined up with Cass Community Social Services in downtown Detroit, but wanted to see if maybe she could make both internships work. (Think about that for a second: one unpaid internship wasn't enough! Both internships presented opportunies to make a positive impact, so why not do them both?!)
The job for the two summer research assistants was simple (or so I thought): Research all federally declared winter disasters from the previous five years, learn the "weak spots" in the recovery process, and make recommendations of ways DRAW could fill in the blanks in future recovery scenarios. The assistants found a couple of things very quickly: First, that most organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, did keep good or accurate data from their winter disaster responses, and second, that they had little patience to explain themselves to a couple college interns asking (in their minds) too many questions. Maggie found very quickly that most every call she made would end up in a voicemail, and not quickly returned. Her efforts to learn/accumulate recovery data were falling short. This is the spot where most college students (or you can replace "college students" with "people of all ages") would have let their frustration set in, and just given up trying to find answers.
Part of what makes Maggie special is what she gets from her parents. Her mother is a journalist, and her father is an author. In both cases, her parents know that the answers are not always easily available, but they are important to find. In the case of DRAW's research, we sent our two research assistants to multiple cities that had been victimized by dangerous, and in some cases, deadly blizzards.
In one city in particular, I got an email from an emergency manager from entirely different state, because Maggie had cornered the Buffalo, NY, emergency manager after he'd avoided two months of calls and tried to sneak out the side of the building once he heard our research assistants had visited to ask a couple questions. I sat proudly in my office that day, cracking up, as read how our assistants had chased down a grown man in the parking lot to ask how many of their citizens had lost power in the previous year's blizzard. It was hilarious, but not the least bit surprising.
By the end of summer, Maggie and her summer colleague submitted five different levels of plans for DRAW to execute for future winter storm disasters. All five plans are at different cost levels, and all five plans are realistic ways to use the volunteers and make a positive impact on the people who might be affected by the next winter storm. The future of DRAW's mission was shaped in the summer of 2015 by two assistants who were undeterred, caring more about the needs of future victims than their fear of failing or being rejected.
Now a Junior at the University of Michigan, Maggie is just 15 months from finishing her International Studies degree and figuring what's next. But don't bring that up with her. "I'm doing everything I can to not think about what's after this..." she determinedly said as we sat down to order lunch. "I'm just trying to focus on what's happening with me here and now."
For Maggie, "here and now" is pretty incredible. The day after she and I met for lunch, she was driving to Ann Arbor, where she was going to meet with the leadership of MRAP (Michigan Refugee Assistance Program), to help them tweak their organizational constitution. Maggie has been involved with the MRAP leadership on the UM campus and in some of the surrounding churches for a while. Not long after her internship with DRAW ended, I remember texting Maggie to ask what she's thinking for her career path long-term. Her exact response was; "MSW/MPH, because I hate myself but love refugees"...the text with the perfect blend of self-deprecation and determined servanthood. When the crisis in Aleppo reached a new low in November, with reports of chlorine bombs being used, and I overwhelmingly felt that I needed to help, Maggie was my first text. I wanted to find out the best way to make an impact, and in that moment, I wanted/trusted her to be the leader.
And in less than two weeks, Maggie will be jumping on a plane to Senegal to study at the West Africa Research Center for 6 months, adding to her wide range of knowledge and experience, making her even more versatile in ways she can serve people. When I pressed her on where all of this is going for her, she finally let herself think about life after college. "Honestly," she reflected, "I want to end up serving vulnerable populations somehow. I'm not 100% sure how, but that's really what I'm excited about."
At this point, I wish I could tell you to follow Maggie on twitter, so that you can be inspired by her like I am. But that won't do much good. "No, I'm not on there much. I really only tweet when there's a UM football game or a presidential debate. Plus, the internet has become a place where everyone is putting stuff out, but not many people are listening."
Funny, I think back to the Grand Traverse Resort, eating late night delivery pizza, chatting with a bunch of high school students in a hotel hallway. When most of the kids would talk, I don't think much listening was happening. But when the alpha dog talked, everyone else paid attention. That's what happens when you're a leader; you lead, whether or not you have the "leader" title.
Keep doing your thing, Maggie. We're all listening, and we're ready to follow.