A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

The business of making memories

The business of making memories

“How can I help bridge this gap?”

That’s how this week’s meeting began with Susie Lopéz-Guerra, the director of community relations for the Santa Ana Unified School District. I asked Susie, who was named one of Orange County’s Hispanic Women of the Year in 2017, if she began all of her meetings this way. She said she did, and that it helps her quickly identify the specific needs of the person she’s speaking with. I love opening a conversation with those words. It immediately signals that you want to help, and that you’ll listen to ideas for a solution.

I scheduled a meeting with Dr. Lopez-Guerra, a first-generation immigrant, to share an idea involving Santa Ana High School, which is located across the street from Príncipe de Paz church. I’ve been thinking of ways in which the school of 3,400 students—98% of whom are Hispanic—could collaborate with the church. When kids at the church began asking me if I had books for them to borrow and read, it became a no-brainer: We could build and maintain a Little Free Library together.

Little Free Libraries have their roots in the Midwest—Wisconsin to be exact. A man named Todd Bol built one in his front yard as a memorial to his book-loving mother. Since then, more than 60,000 of them have been constructed around the world. And odds are, you’ve stumbled across one somewhere. They look like giant birdhouses with doors opening to a small bookshelf. People can take a book for free, or return a book for someone else to read. This simple act of sharing books can start an open dialogue in the community while promoting literacy. Bonus: The libraries are relatively easy to build and maintain.

When Susie asked me, “How can I help bridge this gap?” I responded by saying there wasn’t really a gap, per se. More like an opportunity. And after I explained the Little Free Library idea, she immediately shot an email to various school and community leaders with my proposal attached. That was on Tuesday, and so far, I haven’t heard anything back. But I’ll keep you posted. Whether I hear back from the school or not, Pastor Richard is also on board with this idea, and there may be someone in the church who’s interested in building the library, too.

With 10 weeks to go in Santa Ana and time flying by, I’ve been thinking more about how I can make a lasting difference here. The Little Free Library idea is just one example. I’ve also started to shoot footage for a 20-minute documentary I’m creating about the church, to help share the story of the congregation with a wider audience in the Brethren denomination. But what consumes my mind the most is the kids and what their future is going to be like. I know I can’t control their future. Nor would I want to. But one thing I can do is help create positive moments and memories for them.

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In my meeting with Susie, we talked a lot about kids and their challenges, both in the school district and at the church. I told her how surprised I was that many of the children at the church don’t go to the beach (which is 12 miles away) until they’re 9 or 10…or even older. She wasn’t surprised at all, sharing the invisible boundaries that divide the Hispanic immigrant community from the rest of the Orange County population. She informed me that 17th Street (about a mile north of the church) is known as the “White Wall” for being a dividing line between ethnicities.

In the spirit of my mantra to be a bridge and not a wall, I’ve tried to help some kids and their families venture beyond some of these invisible boundaries. I believe we can only grow by exploring new territory, which is why I never want to stop traveling. And it’s also why I find so much meaning in introducing people to new places. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a drive to get ice cream in a new part of town. But the kids talk about these little outings for weeks.

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In college, my choir director Aimee Beckmann-Collier told us that she was in the business of making memories. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but now that I’m seven years out of college (seriously, where did the time go?!) it makes so much sense. Looking back at my Drake Choir experience, I can’t remember what notes made up which songs, or which rehearsal techniques we used to learn which pieces. What I do remember is the faces of the people singing the songs, the places we traveled, and how I felt when we sang and spent time together.

No matter what I do after leaving here, I know I want to be in the business of making memories. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to search for new answers to Susie’s question: “How can I help bridge this gap?”

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May I be a mountain

May I be a mountain

Moved, mad and motivated

Moved, mad and motivated