Elaine Penn

Service is an integral part of leadership. Not only do student leaders have the opportunity to inspire and guide their fellow students. They can also model the importance of serving our communities, and giving to those in need.

Someone who modeled this for me was my mother. Here is a story about her:

It was 1990, and I was sitting in the auditorium of my old high school waiting for the show to begin. The lights flickered on and off letting the audience know there were 5 minutes left to the start of the production of Music Music Music. We sat there in great anticipation. Finally, the lights dimmed, the curtains opened, and the audience erupted into applause. Up on the stage were 30 adults with down syndrome, decked out in full costumes, ready to perform their lip-sync number to the song Delta Dawn.

This was the fundraiser my mother had produced for many years for a group called the DDA, (Developmentally Disabled Adults of Rockingham County). My mother worked with the DDA from 1985 to 2011, when she retired.

My mom was the Director of Parks and Recreation in Madison, North Carolina, the small town where I grew up. She had gone back to college when she was 40 years old to major in Therapeutic Recreation. She vowed that went she graduated and got a job; she would hold a special place in her heart for anyone with a disability. And she did!

Each month, as the Director of Parks and Recreation, she offered a program for the DDA. Sometimes it was a Scavenger Hunt. Other times, it was an Elvis Party. (They LOVED Elvis). It could be a dance or a prom. But their favorite program was Music Music Music.

Their parents would make their costumes, and they would rehearse their lines. You would have thought it was a Broadway production. The entire town was “abuzz.”

Every year, my mother would have a cast party after Music Music Music, that was often more entertaining as the show itself. During one cast party, in particular, one of the cast members (of the DDA) went missing. His name was Jimmy, and no one could find him.

I lived in an old three story house with an attic and a basement. We were worried, to say the least.

Eventually, my mother looked into her and my father’s bedroom. As she approached the door, she saw Jimmy standing in front of her mirror. He was surrounded by a pile of her evening gowns. (We had a family jazz band, and those were her costumes). Jimmy had been trying them on one at a time, and looking at himself in the mirror.

My mother stood there for a few moments, smiling at Jimmy. Eventually, she said, “Jimmy, you look dazzling.” Then, she gently escorted him back to the party. My mother greatly enriched their lives. My mother served the DDA.

This is just one example of how my mother taught me the importance of service. She was (and is) a tremendous leader. She built a thriving Parks and Recreation Department that met an entire community’s needs through her programs, services, and activities. She always took the time to inspire and teach her staff, connect with community members; and, bring people together to rally around a common vision. The Recreation Department was the heartbeat of the town.

My mother also gave back to the community that gave so much to her. She helped those in need and supported underrepresented populations. She made everyone feel valuable and important.

My mother built a legacy, and the lessons she taught us will live on forever. She served. She led.

In what ways are you building your legacy? How can you and your organization serve and give back? This is a question that every leader should be asking themselves.

Learn more about speaker Elaine Penn, check out campuspeak.com/penn.