For Megan Polson, empathy is a mighty motivator.
“I know how it feels to be out on the streets with nothing, and then all of a sudden all these wonderful things come. When I saw the pictures of the children in Baghdad … I know what it’s like to be like that. Someone helped me out, and I wanted to give back and help someone else out,” she says of her school’s project. “Sure, it’s just clothes and shoes, but when you have nothing, it’s like a million dollars. It’s worth a lot, and it means a lot.”
Polson learned of the harsh realities that life can bring when she was just 8 years old. Her family had been living in a tent at a campground, because her parents neglected to pay bills and were forced from their home. She was left there with three younger siblings when her mother was arrested on drug charges, and her stepfather disappeared. After a couple of days alone at the site, Polson and her siblings were picked up by social services and placed in foster care.
For the next few years, Polson’s living arrangements were constantly changing. Except for her grandparents, the influences in her life were largely negative.
“I’d be staying with my grandparents or with Mom. I’d be taking care of my younger sister and brothers because Mom left us alone. A lot of times we wore dirty clothes to school because Mom wouldn’t do the laundry.”
As a child, Polson became involved with drugs and eventually ended up at the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) in Toledo. She worked on her drug problem, got clean and joined SkillsUSA. In a few short months, she was competing at her state championships and earning a gold medal in Prepared Speech.
Then she saw the photos of the Iraqi children and was motivated by a school project called “Boxes for Baghdad.” The project went on to win gold at states and, like Polson, the Community Service contest team was headed for nationals.
Not your typical SkillsUSA program
“We go to school year-round, most of our students are behind in their credits, and we have the worst youth in Iowa at our facility,” explains Diane Klenk-Chargo, who is one of the school’s instructors, the SkillsUSA advisor and also the state association director.
“People don’t realize that we’re not a public high school, and to make it to Kansas City takes a lot of fund raising. For a student from the Iowa Juvenile Home to travel out of state to nationals … you can’t imagine the red tape.”
Unfortunately, the two girls on the Community Service team got into trouble and couldn’t go to the SkillsUSA Championships. Polson stepped in, giving up her shot to compete in Prepared Speech to get the word out about how their school made a difference with “Boxes for Baghdad.” She and another girl took over and spent two months preparing the presentation.
Then came another blow. Polson’s contest partner went home the weekend before they were to leave for Kansas City and got into trouble. Polson found out as she finished packing for the trip. “I felt like she had thrown me to the ground,” she describes the disappointment.
A tough choice
Knowing how important it was to Polson, the advisors at the school gave her two choices: Trust your partner and press on, or go it alone.
The contest rules required a team presentation, but Polson hadn’t known the girl for long and wasn’t sure if she could be trusted. One thing was certain, medal or no medal, Polson wanted people to know about the project. Not wanting to risk that mission, she decided to make the presentation alone, even if there was no chance at winning.
Sure enough, when she got to nationals to tell their story, Polson learned she’d be disqualified without a partner. Another disappointment. Then, the SkillsUSA Championships program director made an exception. Polson’s presentation was permitted — and she won a bronze medal.
Polson typifies the IJH credo. Called the Circle of Courage, it was prominently displayed in their Community Service contest notebook. Four words are arranged in a circle: generosity, mastery, belonging and independence.
Today, she hopes to graduate before she’s 18 and get accepted at Iowa State University so she can apply for an early entrance scholarship. One of her dreams is to pursue veterinary medicine. “She’s a natural caretaker,” says Klenk-Chargo.
Polson’s quest for the medal and her experiences with SkillsUSA mean a lot. She’s driven to show her gratitude by giving back like those who’ve helped her. At the Timberland/City Year community service event in Kansas City, she was helping out with site improvements at the Ozanam Home, a facility similar to the one where she lives.
“I know that if someone came in and did this at our school, I’d just feel so uplifted … like people care,” she says. “It means a lot to go outside and have a nice place to sit, talk, play games. I know this means a lot to these kids.”
Empathy is a mighty motivator.