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Portis plans to carry Camp Hill lessons forward

When I first learned about the Living Democracy experience, I couldn’t think of a better way for me to spend the summer before I began graduate school this fall. Living Democracy put students in communities across Alabama to work with people and organizations.

I am interested in pursuing a career that involves civic engagement and community development, and this was the perfect opportunity. Words couldn’t explain my excitement when I learned that Dr. Wilson was willing to make an exception for a college graduate to participate. My excitement was multiplied by a 1000 when I learned I would work in Camp Hill with the beloved Camp Star and the Fifty Fund, a grassroots organization. I had previously worked with Camp Star, but this summer I was able to work with them full time. I couldn’t wait for the experience to begin.

Throughout the weeks of my experience, I found myself taking bike rides down dirt roads, working election polls, staffing camps, interviewing community members, learning about leadership development, and enjoying country life.

Each day was an adventure. And through each adventure I learned a lesson that I could I apply to my daily life.

The first lesson I learned: be proximate. It is impossible to change the world from an arm’s length away. Being proximate provides a basis for finding common ground and developing a relationship with your neighbors. There’s a difference in working with a community and working in a community. This summer reinforced the importance of this difference.

The second lesson: disrupt the narrative. Provide programming that forces stereotypes, judgments, and misunderstanding to burst at the seams. I saw this ideal reinforced during Cowgirl Camp and Improv Camp. The programming for those camps focused on giving the youth access to leadership tools and a different way of looking at the world.

The third lesson I learned was that communication is key. Focus on the relationships by speaking up and truly listening.  I worked with many different and interesting people throughout this summer. Listening to their thoughts and ideas helped me better understand their lives. Since I’ll be working with people for the rest of my life, this was truly important.

Lastly, and most importantly for me, take care of yourself. As a change agent, it’s easy to get engulfed in the work you do because it’s your passion. However, it is not possible to pour from an empty cup. So, I learned to take care of myself by separating work and personal life.  Living democracy puts you in a place where you have no choice but to gain the confidence to speak up. I am truly grateful for this lesson.

To The Fifty Fund, thank you for candidly sharing the pleasures and complexities of running a nonprofit organization with me. Your key principles will stay with me forever. I look forward to where you all will go next.

To Elly Arnold, thank you for sharing your gift of videography. The videos we created were beautiful and captivating.

To my hosts, the Turochy/Gregory/Wyckoff family, thank you for opening your home to me. It was a unique and unforgettable experience.

Thank you, Living Democracy, David Mathew’s Center for Civic Life, and everyone I met in the town of Camp Hill. Camp Hill, and Tallapoosa County, has such a unique history, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore it with those who call the area home. 

I hope that Camp Hill and The Fifty Fund continues to prosper. I learned a lot about myself and working with people. I was truly refined. This experience will always have a place in my heart as a I continue to work toward equalizing opportunity in America.