How Did I Get Here?
At 28 years old I was working as a network administrator. The job had become monotonous after a couple of years and I began to question if it was the best use of my talents and skills. I also felt thee were abilities I was not tapping that the world needed. I began reflecting on what to do about it and two years later I quit. It was a somewhat risky move because I had a mortgage and student loans but no guaranteed source of income going forward. All I had was some money I had saved so I could float for a few months.
During the subsequent year I worked with various non-profit initiatives that were just starting to get of the ground. I worked with a community organizing group to launch a community learning center in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Northwest Chicago. I also helped my then-girlfriend establish a theatre-based non-profit focused on educating audiences about mental illness.
Eventually the projects on which I was working ended with no real prospects on the horizon. In addition, my long-term relationship ended too. That really stunned me. It was not easy taking responsibility for myself and moving forward. I was in a daze for at least a month if not longer. Anxiety crept in and I was simply depressed. It was about as low as I’ve ever felt in my life. My intention to find a better use of my skills was scary enough. Now, everything was up for grabs and open to free-fall.
It was around that time I received a Thank You letter for a donation I made to a missionary group in Jamaica. I began sending them small donations a few years prior because of two experiences in my past. I had no idea it would all converge and play a defining role in what was to come.
Back Up a Few Years
During my last year at Marquette University I joined and improv group. A month after graduation the group’s founder called to say he booked us to perform at his hometown’s 4th of July celebration. I joined them for the weekend and went to Mass in between shows. That weekend the church in Platteville, WI was hosting two missionary nuns who, among other works, supported a girl’s high school in Jamaica. They were touring the US with two of their students raising funds and awareness. I was so impressed with their presentation that I took a donation envelope home and held onto it with a promise to donate money to them if I was ever in a position to do so. It took a few years to get to that point, but my IT job – the one I decided to quit – afforded me the chance to donate here and there. Which brings us to the fore mentioned Thank You letter. This was the kind of impact I was looking for and I decided I wanted to see it person.
Back Up a Few Years More
You have probably already determined I am Catholic. In fact my family is very Catholic. When I was 12 years old, our Bishop invited his friend, the then-Bishop of Montego Bay, Jamaica, to visit our diocese in Connecticut and speak about efforts there to help the poor. My parents, upon meeting Bishop Clarke, invited him over to dinner. I was captivated hearing about U.S. students spending their spring break and other free time volunteering to help poor in Jamaica and I wanted in. But I knew we could not afford to buy me a plane ticket to go to Jamaica. Noble as it might be, it was financially out of the question and I simply filed the idea away in the back of my mind and moved on with my life.
Put It All Together
You can probably guess what happened next. I decided to take action, finally, and explore the “What if…” festering in back of my mind for so many years. I began to see the Thank You letter as more of an invitation. But aside from the mailing address, I had no way to contact them. After some initial research I began making phone calls and was finally put in touch with the head of a missions society in a remote part of Jamaica responsible for a high school, an orphanage, and a clinic. I explained my background and skills to the Monsignor and asked if they could use me for the school year. His answer was an emphatic “Yes!” and I soon put my life in storage, packed my bags, and left for Jamaica.
I arrived and the priests put me to work immediately. They especially wanted to tap into my IT skills. They wanted to expand their high school’s computer classes, needed a new web site, and wanted a computer network installed at the orphanage to facilitate administrative wok. They also used me as a teacher in the high school. I quickly learned that while the Almighty gave my mother and my sister gifts of being teachers, He definitely withheld them from me and any higher and better use of me lie elsewhere.
Power outages were a daily occurrence in Jamaica, which puzzled me given our proximity to what was then the Caribbean's only wind farm. I began asking around and quickly discovered the problem was a unique blend of technical, economic, political, and regulatory challenges. In short it was incredibly complex. But I began to think that this was the exactly the type of challenge I wanted to address with my time and talents: helping to solve problems directly impacting the daily lives of people in developing countries. I also quickly realized that doing so would require advanced learning of subjects in which I had zero experience.
I returned to Chicago when my year in Jamaica ended and immediately began applying to graduate school programs in International Affairs. Ten months later I was accepted at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and packed my bags again to head Italy for the first year of the program. A year later I moved to DC to finish. During the last semester I took a class focused on energy and the environment in developing countries. Each student had to write a forward-looking energy plan for a developing country with which they had some experience. I obviously chose Jamaica.
During the semester my professor had lunch with a contact of hers at Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank. Worldwatch was about to receive a very generous grant from the German Ministry of the Environment to support development of energy transition plans for small-island states in the Caribbean, namely the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica. They needed a project manager with Caribbean-based experience. My professor told me about this opportunity and suggested I contact them. I did and – no joke – as soon as I handed in my paper on the last day of the semester, I walked directly across the street to Worldwatch and had my first interview. Six month later I started my job as the head of the Institute’s Caribbean program.
That brings us to the present day. I currently work as an energy and climate change specialist focused on developing countries, particularly in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Occasionally I have expanded into areas of global affairs and economics, and have had the opportunity to share my work in front of audiences or through interviews and other media contributions. While I did not picture this exact work when I quit my job all those years ago, it is the type of work I sought and I'm grateful for it.
I have done my best to chronicle the journey from my first thoughts about quitting through today. It started as way to process my fears and drum up support from family and friends, but evolved into an ongoing exploration of the various ways, big and small, we can live with more intention and a sense of fulfillment. It exists within (or runs parallel to) a wider blog of my work and other ruminations. I hope you have a chance to explore them and find them helpful. Thank you for reading!