Alumni Corner: Continuing to Spread Compassion after Graduating (Full)

by Kala Grant, Student Open Circles alumni and board member

Last April I set off with a group of 10 co-workers to build a school and educate the small community of Pueblo Viejo in Nicaragua for 9 days. I was working at Prophix Software (a software company located in Mississauga, Ontario) and this trip was planned by our Corporate Social Responsibility Committee.

On this trip, I had my first opportunity to practice and teach (the best I could) mindful leadership: the act of slowing down and focusing, in order to make thoughtful decisions. Our group of volunteers was unique. What we all had in common was that we all worked in a fast paced tech based company. Our daily lives consisted of making phone calls, answering emails, ensuring customers were happy, negotiating with some difficult people, working late when needed and trying to get enough rest that night so we could wake up the next day and be amazing at our jobs all over again.

Leading up to the trip, I was having a fair bit of anxiety trying to figure out exactly what kind of impact I could possibly have. I was used to sitting behind an air conditioned desk and had enough trouble opening doors, let alone lifting 40 pound bricks and digging 5 foot ditches in humid 30 degree plus weather! “I have no physical strength. What if I hurt my back and I’m injured for life? What if I get dehydrated in the heat and pass out? What if the others think I’m weak and not pulling my weight? Should I even bother going?”

It was recommended by the trip leaders that we take some time out of each day for group reflection. I was thrilled by the thought of participating in this type of exercise daily, because I knew what a positive impact it had, attending weekly reflection circles with Student Open Circles during my last (and arguably most stressful) year at McMaster. Naturally, I felt drawn to leading to daily reflections, and a resource library provided by Jeff and Marybeth (often used by Open Circle student leaders) ended up being the key to some brilliant group insights and team bonding!

Every evening, after dinner and cold water bucket showers, our group would: gather in an open circle, light a candle, and take a minute or two to close our eyes, be silent, and either meditate or just take the time to silently soak in the day. We explored a diversity of exercises like journaling, drawing and most importantly: group discussion.

“I want to get to know everyone by learning what is important to them. What do you value?” Alex asked. This isn’t something people talk to each other about every day, and it certainly isn’t how you break the ice at work. You wouldn’t approach your manager in the elevator and ask them “what motivates your daily intentions?” You are more likely to get a blank stare than a true and honest answer.

 I crafted an exercise called “1 minute life stories” where we shared some important events of our life thus far. “How did those events contribute to why you are here volunteering in Nicaragua?” Through discussion we analyzed the differences and similarities between our lives… similarities we never would have known and differences we never would have talked about. We also looked at how vastly different our lives were from the people we were serving, in terms of living arrangements, accessible nutrition, “job security” and education. In contrast, also looking at how much we value the same things: safety, water, and family. Rosa, who was like a mother to us, coordinating all our meals and cooking brilliant flavours on her manual wood burning stove, couldn’t stop crying as she told us about the love she has for her family and children.

We openly talked about what we thought the community needed. We didn’t speak Spanish fluently so it was near impossible to ask the people we were serving if we were really helping them. To test our convictions we wrote down every question we were looking to answer in order to help the community as optimally as possible in our short time there in Pueblo Viejo. Our group leader Fabio helped lead a discussion at dinner the next evening, translating all our questions and answers. We all agreed, it was one of the most powerful discussions we’ve ever had in seeking to understand.

The group reflections added an element of depth to our volunteering experience. Most of our group agreed that they looked forward to reflection each day, it helped our team bond and really understand our similarities and embrace our differences. It was a special experience and I have Student Open Circles to thank in my journey to help spread compassion.

With this piece, I’m hoping I can share the news that Student Open Circles is running another Crowdfunding Campaign, this year’s theme focusing on “Spreading Compassion.”

If you are interested in supporting mindful leadership development, or just checking out the stories on our campaign page here is the link:

Like last year, I’ll be baking chocolate chip cookies for donors I know personally (and I can usually pull a few strings for Yogathon tickets)!

Back to November 2017 Newsletter