The Little Jar of Hope

“Because when you’re hit at your wits’ end
Can’t bare the screaming anymore
You’ll take one look at their impressionable eyes
And see you’re bound to this eight-year-old human as a friend”

—-From “Non-Biological Children” by Hannah Pennock

Imagine a sixteen-year-old girl wearing a powder blue dress with lace appliques and a poufy tulle skirt chasing after bubbles with four little girls hanging off her limbs trying to give her a hug, a little boy running behind her trying to pop said bubbles before the sixteen-year-old, and another little girl screaming out “Miss Princess! Hello!” to the bubble poppers. It’s 89 degrees, there’s a tiara resting on the teenager’s head, and she has her tongue flailing out of her mouth like a dog trying to entertain the children around her. This is the exact moment that best describes what I do with OC UNITED. I am the girl in the impractical outfits, acting like a six-year-old, encouraging the kids to walk like zombies or burst into their favorite Disney song, while simultaneously trying to handle the leadership responsibilities and schedule for the day, and this is my story of being an OC UNITED volunteer.

I could say that the experience, right from day one, has been a cake walk: I fell in with the right people, knew exactly what to do, and instantly felt like I belonged. But that’s not my story. I felt all the emotions, upside down and back again, until I found myself longing for the experience to be extended, despite the emotional mess I endeavored. The journey wasn’t always easy, there were times where I nearly quit, felt like a failure, and questioned myself, but I would never pretend like this wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it was. I have never smiled more, or acted like a happy weirdo in public more, or felt more successful and empowered as I have since starting with OC UNITED back in 2016. Realizing that I’ve been with the organization for two years is mind-boggling because it feels like just yesterday I marched into the Valencia Park office in my scuffed-up boots and finely-parted hair thinking that I knew everything.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening. I was the most frazzled human being that first day, I wasn’t told what I would being doing, no one really spoke to me, and it felt like I was intruding on some secret club for only the cool kids to know about. I stayed off to the side of room as the kids came in, hugging the other volunteers and slamming their backpacks down before running out the door to play outside. I was uncharacteristically shy, but I reminded myself that there was a reason why I was there. My reasoning is indescribable, I just always get this sparkly feeling in my stomach that assures me there’s something special about someone or something I’m involved with.

When I joined OC UNITED, I did it as a last chance at a life raft, I felt like I had peaked from my middle school days and I would never feel fulfilled and in love with life as I once was. In 2014, I found out I had anxiety, which caused me to have panic attacks based on my main triggers that made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe, which was school, sitting in silence for an extended amount of time, movie theaters, and change of any kind. So, after graduating from my middle school the following year, I was supposed to start high school with some of my old friends, but the idea of leaving behind everything I knew terrified me. I began experiencing panic attacks nearly every day because I didn’t feel comfortable at the high school I attended, and I felt all alone. I isolated myself from everyone around me, and found solace in doing online school, but spent the entire freshman year afraid of putting myself out into the world. Sophomore year I began easing myself into society, attending a few events and meeting up with friends occasionally, but I was still finding my footing again.

I drove past the OC UNITED office at least a hundred times without noticing it, until one day, I looked out my grandma’s car window and there was the orange and yellow painted logo on a shiny window to my right beaming right towards me. The thing about myself is that even when I am at the bottom of the barrel emotionally, feeling like the entire world is against me, I still have this little jar of hope inside of me that keeps me going which led me to my inevitable search of what that mysterious logo represented. I had no clue what it was, all I saw was the web address listed at the bottom, but that was enough for me. I went home, immediately grabbed my laptop and typed the address onto the screen to see pictures of groups of people with the biggest grins on their faces staring back at me. I read that they focused on four main areas to rebuild the community, and after sending an email and being interviewed, I settled on Neighborhoods, specifically the afterschool program with additional interest in the SOLFul (Summer of Love Fullerton) program. I explained that I had dreams of creating a non-profit organization to provide dance classes to low-income areas with the message of self-confidence and building positive communities to children, which coincided with OC UNITED’s mantra of helping others. The interview itself is almost a complete blur to me, all I can remember is walking into the office with my heels clacking on the hard floor and leaving with a grin resembles those of the people on the website.

After trying the afterschool program with no real connection to any of the kids or the other volunteers, I left the first day disappointed. Originally, I was disappointed based on my initial expectations, in my head, I was going to be beloved and instantly needed by the staff and children. But a few weeks later, I came to realize I was disappointed in myself. It was my first day, and because it didn’t match up with my expectations, I was just going to walk away without giving it a fair fight. That isn’t the person I want to be. So, I marched back to the school, with shaky legs and a weary face, doubting whether this was the place for me. All it took was a hug from a second-grader and I was sold.

I spent the rest of my second day building a spaceship out of Legos, and watching the kids light up over the fun activities another volunteer had prepared. I drew up a plan for SOLFul that night, reaching out to a few of my friends, and emailing the woman in charge of SOLFul about implementing a dance class for the kids. When SOLFul came around, I was electrified, every bone in my body was fired up and nervous at the same time. I had a moment where I reminded myself that I have a passion for inspiring others, and before I knew it there was a mic in my hand and my feet couldn’t stop moving.

That summer changed my life. My name was no longer just Hannah, I was “Miss Hannah”. My choreography wasn’t just a fun dance for my friends and I to mess around with, it was being learned and performed by the kids. I cha-chaed my way into a new life, filled with Uno competitions and math equations, and it was the best feeling. I would be in the front of the room and turn around to see the kids smiling back at me, eager to hear what I had to say. Without a doubt, SOLFul 2017 was the best experience of my life.

Following the amazing cloud I was on from being a part of SOLFul, I decided to continue with the afterschool program. While I could hammer on about the individual anecdotes I remember, or what it was like being an OC UNITED volunteer, the real stars of my story are the kids. I wouldn’t be who I am today without every single one of them. I love being a volunteer, collaborating on the daily schedule, tutoring homework help, teaching fun activities, and giving my time back to my community, but what keeps me a part of the organization is the kids. They are my non-biological children, I jokingly say, but wholeheartedly mean. I carry their memories with me every day, look down at my wrists to see their colorful bracelet creations. They accept me for who I am, they trust me to tell me their life stories, and care about my wellbeing too. They aren’t defined by their circumstances, or their shortcomings, they are so much more than that. They are beautiful, and the most hilarious people you could ever meet, with imagination that could give Dr. Seuss a run for his money. They are empathetic, and have such real compassion for other people, despite some of their hard exteriors.

I joined OC UNITED because I wanted to make a change, and those children are the biggest reward I have ever received. The bonds that I have with them I hold extremely dear to my heart, and I will never forget all the crazy times we have. The UNITED Kids program and SOLFul program have shown me what the future will be if up to these kids, bright and bigger than anyone can dream. Look past the idea of being a “volunteer” because you become more than that to them. I am a friend, a big sister, a helpful sidekick, an entertainer, a teacher, a listening ear, a mentor, and family. My OC UNITED experience is not defined by the past that led me to the organization, nor the first impressions I had, but by the people who are the real heroes of the organization: the future leaders of the community and the world. I am forever grateful to the kids because they reminded me of my worth, and in turn, I can only hope that I matter to them an inch of how much they matter to me. That little jar of hope inside of me has overflown into an entire ocean of excitement, success, happiness, and joy, and I couldn’t be more glad.

– Hannah Pennock
OC United Volunteer, United Kids After-School Program & SOLFul at Valencia Park Elementary