By Peter Orozco, National Urban Fellow, Community Impact at United Way of Greater Cleveland
I still remember the night my life changed, leading me down a new path and sculpting me into the person I would become. It was my first semester at New Jersey City University, training to be a classical musician. There were many hurdles that I had not anticipated, especially since I was the first in my family to go to college. I did not have context from family members as to what to expect. And being a type 1 diabetic only compounded the situation and my anxiety. These new academic challenges and the struggles of coming into adulthood became overwhelming, which had a negative impact on my diabetes care.
My blood sugar numbers were skyrocketing, distracting me from doing the good work that would make me a successful musician. One night in December, while trying to control my condition, I accidentally overdosed on insulin. That night, I slipped into a diabetic coma.
I was out for a day-and-a-half before the paramedics stuck an IV in my arm to wake me. After a long recovery in the hospital—which consisted of counseling from therapist and nurses on learning to cope with diabetes, I was forced to drop out of school and subsequently lost my health insurance. Suddenly, I was working just so I could afford the price of insulin.
Capitalizing on a surprise opportunity
Five months later, I received a letter to join a leadership program on campus. It was the first time I had been invited to something like this, and I was excited to be considered for such a great opportunity. The caveat: I could only participate if I was a student.
I knew this was a fantastic opportunity, so I saved up enough to pay for one class the following semester, and immediately joined the program. The leadership program was my first networking experience. In this group, supported by students and faculty, a plan was devised to help me fill out financial aid forms and sign up for Medicaid. With the guidance of this connected network of students and staff, I received health insurance and re-enrolled in school on fully funded Federal Pell grants.
I eventually became the student president of this leadership program and I graduated with honors.
My experiences with the power of networks and leadership education inspired me to build a career in public service. This inspiration eventually led me to the National Urban Fellowship (NUF). NUF is a rigorous 14-month, full-time graduate degree program culminating in a master’s degree in Public Administration.
As part of the program, Fellows are sent to cities around the country to work in different communities on a variety of issues. In the process, we learn about leadership and community development through mentorships with top leaders in the public sector. One of those opportunities was with the United Way of Greater Cleveland.
Giving back through valuable public service
Our cohort had the chance to hear President and CEO, Augie A. Napoli, and Vice President of Strategic Programs & Knowledge, Sylvia Pérez Cash, share with us the opportunities with United Way of Greater Cleveland. Under the leadership of the new executive team, a mission was implemented to change United Way’s approach to social service. This was certainly an approach and organization I became immediately interested in. They spoke of this mission and a new opportunity for a NUF fellow to work in the Community Impact department with Vice President of Community Impact and General Counsel, Helen Forbes Fields and Associate Vice President Nancy Mendez.
Given my experiences participating in and leading a network in college, I was eager to contribute to United Way – especially the organization’s new Community Hub Model of funding allocations to social services agencies in the region. The Community Hub Model will enable United Way to enhance its strength as the convener of social solutions in Greater Cleveland. I then met with Augie and Sylvia and learned about their leadership styles and their aspirations for Greater Cleveland and the United Way, which fully solidified my desire to help make a difference.
Reflecting on my time at United Way
My experience to date has exceeded my expectations. I’m currently working on three different projects: restarting and enhancing the Youth Fund Distribution Committee alongside An’Tuan Williams; organizing the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District Community Assessment with guidance from Andrew Katusin; and writing my graduate capstone on the development of the Hub Model.
The Community Impact team is very passionate about what they do. Guidance and advice from the whole team—An’Tuan, Andrew, Kara, Jenn, Darlene, Wanda, Matt, Ben Miladin, Ben Jones, Jamie, Nancy, and Helen—has made me feel very much part of the team.
The best way to learn about leadership is experiencing it in action. Augie has been exemplary in demonstrating leadership in action and has made himself available to teach the National Urban Fellows what it takes to lead. The executive team, directors and staff walk the same line.
All of the executives, Assistant Vice President of Community Impact Nancy, directors and staff such as John, Joyce, Deborah, and everyone in the Community Impact Department have given their time to engage and teach the National Urban Fellows about leadership.
Board Members, such as Marc Byrnes and Zulma Zabala, have demonstrated their passion and inspired us to continue sharpening our expertise and leadership skills. During my time here at United Way of Greater Cleveland, I’m being trained to be the next generation of systems thinkers and servant-leaders. In the future, I hope to continue my work in community assessments, become an expert in collective impact and call Cleveland my new home.
About the National Urban Fellows
National Urban Fellows develops accomplished and courageous professionals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, particularly people of color and women, to be leaders and change agents in the public and nonprofit sectors, with a strong commitment to social justice and equity.