Pay It Forward

“And I will be paying it forward later.”

That’s what Cassie wrote in response to community rallying round.


Lakayra Scott is an African-American youth from Baltimore who is going to college in fall 2014. It’s an accomplishment, and financially challenging. Lakayra’s solution: a GoFundMe campaign seeking donations to buy a laptop and books she otherwise could not afford.

As of the writing of this blog, 9 days into her campaign, Lakayra has raised $350 out of her $2,000 goal.


Cassie Wessely also launched a GoFundMe campaign for college. In her case, a family tragedy (her mother’s suicide) left her high and dry, for technical reasons no longer qualified for financial aid. Her goal? $25,000.

In five days, Cassie has raised more than $45,000.


What does healthy community look like?

Cassie’s story might be considered an exemplar of healthy community in action: through no fault of her own, she faces a set back, seeks help, and community rallies round, not only supporting Cassie, but also instilling a “pay it forward” attitude yielding a virtuous cycle of giving back for perhaps decades to come.

Sadly, Cassie’s fairy tale is the feel-good exception to the rule. Lakayra’s story is more typical: a deserving person, whose story happens not to go viral.

If Cassie’s were the only story, we could say our community is healthy. Certainly, Cassie’s story is a model of healthy community, but it is not the norm.

We need more models to change the norm.


When I was back at CooperRiis (the healing community where my daughter, Elisif, had been living for three months and where she died), people were asked to share remarks at a tree planting if they felt moved to do so.

One young man—Josh, a resident of the community—spoke up. He rambled… he tripped over his words… he stuttered… he contradicted himself — he was doing the very best he could and that was far from a clean, coherent presentation. I began to feel uncomfortable… a little embarrassed for him. But then I looked around, and every single person in that healing community was respectfully emanating loving support from every fiber of their body language and facial expression: his voice… his very best voice… was welcome to the choir.

CooperRiis is a model of healthy community.

That is what I’m after from Autumn Leaves: another model of healthy community.


We live in a culture rife with competition (winners and losers), judgment (us and them), feelings of inadequacy (advertising barraging us with this), and the notion that vulnerability equals weakness. In a nutshell, we live in a world with plenty of messaging that who we are is not good enough.

(This may not have been the thing that did my daughter in, but it without a doubt contributed to her no longer being alive today—I know that.)

What I want from the Autumn Leaves events is the opposite of what Elisif and Lakayra and we ourselves have lived with every day: scrutiny and judgment, and then possibly dismissal.

Autumn Leaves is about an atmosphere as free of judgment as possible… a series of experiences built on accepting people—embracing people—for being exactly who they are, free of armor or pretense. I want people to feel safe to be themselves—their best selves—but no more than that, whatever that may end up looking like or sounding like.

Our culture and communities are too rife with inequity, and internalized fear that who I am is not enough… that we have to act (perform) as something more than what we are, and not simply be (share) with others.


Cassie, Lakayra, and Josh all felt safe enough to go public from the heart, laying out who they are and what they need. Their willingness to be vulnerable is beautiful.

But are they rewarded equally? Are they embraced and upheld by the community of which they are a part? Are they shown the love they deserve for being their best selves? Is each and every person shown the love for being exactly who they are?

Some may quibble with this assertion, but I’d say until the answer is “yes” to each of these questions, we have work to do.

My fondest wish: that Autumn Leaves helps with that.