Life is always in a state of transition. We are never still, never stagnant. The biggest transitions are usually not easy. My transition away from my position as Executive Director of Vecinos came with all the expected challenges, the clichés of bittersweetness, but then also became surrounded by one of the most challenging patient cases we have ever had.
The past 2 months tested our team’s strength and broke our hearts. While my heart still hurts over our patient, a 29 year old man diagnosed with late stage metastatic cancer, I also have felt amazed at seeing what Vecinos is capable of, as individuals and as a team. It was incredible to see our team, pushed to our limits, continue to show up to work every day with our hearts, going above and beyond the norm, above and beyond what is even seemingly possible for a patient. Our Vecinos team is a family, and at times, we become family to our patients as well. I am so grateful for this family and humbled to have worked for an organization that consistently goes above and beyond for individuals and for humanity, seeing each being’s needs as the most important, valuing each patient fully.
I have so many beautiful memories from the past 6 years. There were many times when I saw the task before me and thought, “never could I have imagined that I would be able to do something like this.” Working for Vecinos often pushes us to new levels. There were moments when I thought, “What kind of job is this? Who does this kind of thing? This was not in my job description.” Like when climbing over a large metal gate in the pitch dark, late November, freezing cold, with no flashlight, no moon, no cell phone service, definitely no map, just our PA, Jamie Ellingwood and me, hiking our way up to a small trailer full of Christmas tree workers in Little Canada to offer our services. Who does that? And yet, it’s one of my most favorite memories of my time at Vecinos—the two of us walking up a gravel road, leaving the mobile unit on the other side of the gate, unsure if we were going the right direction, or if we were even on a road, looking up at the clear, starry night sky, laughing at our unpreparedness, making light of our situation, our non-traditional work environment. How do you even begin to explain that to someone who asks, “What do you do for work?” Or waking up at 3 am to drive to Scaly Mountain—in one of the most intense thunderstorms I have ever seen—to pick up a group of patients for the NC-MOM dental clinic, arriving at 5 am to be at the front of the line, and then interpreting for those patients and many others all day long, only to get up and do it all again the next day. I wouldn’t trade those strange work hours, mental exhaustion at interpreting for long hours, and late cold nights for anything.
There were so many patients who filled my heart with love. There were patients who filled my belly with food, some of them the same who awaited our food boxes on Thursdays, their kids jumping into my arms when I arrived at the door. Often my favorite outreach evenings were just spending time our families, sharing in their lives and learning about their stories. Every night of outreach, every home visit, every conversation, reveals a new story. Every patient has a unique and complex history, and it seems like almost every person wants to share his or her story–if offered the space and time to do so.
Working with Vecinos challenged me every day to be a better person, to live with integrity, to question my choices as a consumer and see the possible effects of my purchases. I have learned to show up for work every day not just with an open mind, but with an open heart and to see how we are all connected, since the tomato I buy at the grocery store today may have been picked by a hand I shook yesterday on the mobile clinic. Every choice I make connects me to the lives of others. Every person’s story that I hear becomes a part of my own. I am grateful for these stories.
Working with Vecinos showed me the difference between charity and solidarity, the difference between speaking for someone who doesn’t have a voice and creating space for the voiceless to be heard. I have seen how our system treats poor people, people of color, those with limited English proficiency, and marginalized groups in general. While I continuously felt frustration and often anger with our system, I also met a lot of beautiful, welcoming people in this community, people who were ready to learn about and understand the work of Vecinos and the lives of our patients. I met many lovely people who showed up, willing to give, volunteer, support, and love our farmworkers and all people. I am grateful for this community.
Working with the team at Vecinos challenged me to be a better person. This job attracts people with grit. My colleagues and coworkers at Vecinos have inspired me with their intellect, wisdom, compassion, humor, and passion for serving the underserved, the invisible, the people who feed us. I am grateful for the amazing people that Vecinos has pulled into my world and comforted knowing that they will be out there, working for good, working for change, whether it is with Vecinos or somewhere else.
As my time with Vecinos ends, the overwhelming emotion I feel is gratitude. I am grateful for the men and women who plant and harvest our food. I am honored to have known so many of the people who travel around our country doing this work, invisible to most of their communities, honored to have heard their stories and become a part of their lives. I feel blessed to have shaken the hands of so many whose hands pick tomato after tomato, berry after berry. I am grateful to have been a part of the Vecinos family—our immediate family of staff and patients, and our extended family in this community and state.
Our patient with cancer passed away last week.
To Agustin: thank you for letting us into your world and into your story. Thank you for allowing us to become your family. Thank you for letting us care for you and for spending the last few weeks of your life with us. Thank you for the reminder that even as the heart breaks under the weight of pain, it can be filled with love. We gave so much, and still, I am reminded that in giving, we have received more than you’ll ever know. Rest in peace, dear, sweet Agustin.