On September 30, 2002, my grandmother died and I was spending $15 million.
I was newly on the job at the US Department of Education, fresh from graduate school. I bee-lined it for this federal agency, on a fellowship, because I believed I could make the most change for children at this highest level of government.
Upon arriving in July 2002, I was put in charge of a $15 million program that supported the professional development of early childhood educators working with children who were most in need of early supports. This dovetailed perfectly with my desire to do the most good–getting to kids early in life through programs that used partnerships to deliver services to educators, and ultimately students. I often thought of the kids who otherwise might never gain a love, or at least a tolerance, for school – kids that would go on to learn to express their thoughts, talk about their world, and ultimately grow up to make ours better. I thought the systems government provided could help ease the problems that persisted in communities. My grad school classmates teased me for being the lone altruistic candidate for a master’s in public policy. I wore it like a badge of honor.
On that September 30, 11 years ago, my mom called to tell me my grandmother had passed. It wasn’t a surprise, but of course was devastating all the same. I would drive up to Long Island the next morning.
As September 30, 2002, drew to a close, my boss and I sat in my cubicle, kneeling on the floor, sorting and organizing the $15 million worth of grants and signing paperwork to authorize the funding. It was getting late in the day, so we were hurrying — the federal budget for the year would close soon, and we needed to get those grants out pronto.
As I drove back from my grandmother’s funeral, my car died on I-95 just outside the Baltimore tunnel. I laughed then, as I do now, because my grandmother had given me that car years before. I always supposed she decided she needed it with her in the after life (although I certainly would’ve opted for a better paint job).
I returned to my job at the Department where I remained for three more years, continuously eager to improve government systems that would ultimately help kids and families. I left when I started realizing that maybe my classmates were on to something–maybe I was a bit too altruistic, and that other change methods, like via businesses and nonprofits, could more quickly and satisfactorily bring better education to children who needed it.
On this September 30, 2013, my perspective 11 years later of what government can do is changed for sure, though I’m not certain for the better. I don’t want to give up hope that America as a nation can do great things. But the piling up of missed opportunities by Congress to systematically make our communities safer and to help children and families thrive in school, work and life is getting unbearable for this mom, business-owner, community-member, and American — just like it is for pretty much everyone else I know.
There is much work to do. I’d like to get busy doing it. I’d like Congress to help.