Building early experiences of empathy and people connections toward a future promoting local and global civic engagement.

Georgia Hoffmann, of Winchester High School’s class of 2018, writes that she has lived in Winchester her whole life, although her father is from the Jersey Shore and her mother is from Maine. She describes her story as being rather untraditional in that for one thing, her mother had her older sister when she was 43 and had Georgia herself when she was 48. Additionally, in a remark that she says always gets a rise out of people, she attended her parents’ wedding. “Although I use these facts as jokes or conversation starters, they ultimately hold great meaning to me. Being raised by people of a much older generation has gifted me with wisdom and a kind of advice most of my peers do not gain from their relationship with their parents. I was raised with little to no technology, spending most of my early childhood playing outside and creating my own games and ways to entertain myself. Sure, at times I was jealous of my friends who watched the Disney Channel and had DS’s but I am grateful now for having that time to develop my imagination and creativity. My parents raised me without a traditional religion but rather a set of morals. My mother is the kindest person I know and as an avid outdoorswoman she has taught me to approach every person and living thing with respect and an open mind. My father has shown me that love and human connection are the most valuable parts of life. Their guidance and the example they set for me has led me to my commitment to serving individuals and communities across the country, and hopefully the world!

Interview with Georgia Hoffmann

Do you see any connection between all of the volunteer work you do in the ‘larger world’ and our common life here in Winchester?

It is difficult to compare what I have done in New Orleans and rural West Virginia to a suburban town full of wealth and resources. However, I do find small connections between the services to areas farther away and the way I communicate with and serve my community here. From my work I have learned to listen before I judge and to openly listen to those who have different experiences from myself. I feel that our community could do better with this type of “listening” and with accepting an experience or opinion outside of our understanding.

When you started giving your time to the groups that you serve what have been some of the challenges you saw in the work that they/you do in its name?

I have done work with the Youth Group at the Unitarian Society, as well as with the National Honor Society here at the high school and also with Connect and Commit, the school’s service organization. My biggest challenge in working with all these organizations is believing that I am helping the community practice long-term service and serve a variety of causes, not only causes close to us. It feels to me that many participate in a charitable act like a food drive, say, and then believe they have “done their good deed for the year.”

What have been some of the biggest highlights of your work as a volunteer, again both within the borders of this relatively small community and beyond it?

While it has been gratifying to do work close to home, for example in helping the staff at the Dwelling Place in Woburn and cleaning up litter in the Fells, it has been most meaningful for me to have spent a week doing volunteer work in both New Orleans and in what was once a bustling mining town in rural West Virginia. In New Orleans, more than ten years after Hurricane Katrina demolished the predominantly black Ninth Ward, many people still have not been able to return to their homes. Under the umbrella of an organization from the Unitarian Universalist Society, our Winchester Unitarian Society Youth Group helped AmeriCorps volunteers do finish work on houses that were being rehabilitated. Then, at the end of every workday, we spent time ‘in class’ asking the larger questions about social justice. Doing this service learning and seeing all that I saw changed me enough so I was eager to learn more.

That opportunity presented itself the following year when we went for a week to help out in a small coal-mining town in McDowell County West Virginia.

When mining disappeared from this area, everything changed. Once, the mines offered good jobs and even housing to the people in these towns, each of which had its own neighborhoods schools. Fast forward to today, when there are almost no jobs and the single high school serving the area is a two-hour bus ride away. We were asked that week to build a ceiling in one of the houses that had no ceiling. Many of the town’s one-story homes are just exoskeletons, due to meth-related fires or large-scale abandonment as people moved away in search of better opportunities. Poverty hit this community hard. The individuals we met who were in their 40s looked like they were in their 70s. And yet they have great pride of place. They cherish their houses and their land in this remote hollow with its winding roads. They have lived here for generations. They resist any idea of leaving in part I think because although they may have very little, what they do have, they share. The local community center offers breakfast to the children. They have their own music in the folk tradition; also folk dancing that traces back to the original Scotch Irish people who settled this region in the 1700s. Finally, they don’t feel the division we see in other parts of the country. Though there are virtually no people of color they don’t identify as “white.” They identify as Americans and take pride in being Americans.

I spent a lot of time talking with a 20-year-old named Cody who was trying so hard to get his GED. “Stay in school, stay in school,” he kept telling us all. Here, no one talks that way. I’m thankful that I live in a community with so many resources but people here don’t seem to be very grateful that they are here. Now I am thankful every day. I think of Cody with his message to stay in school. He had a child when he was 14, and though the child’s mother was a substance abuser she still got custody. His experiences are so different from anything I have seen in Winchester. I feel so lucky to live here. I feel grateful all the time. The people I met in this mountain hollow are very grateful too, for everything, in their lives. And they are so open. That is what is most powerful to me: that openness and acceptance.

Can you talk about your own vision for the future for Winchester and/or communities like Winchester?

I want our community to be more open-minded about serving causes that are further from our own experience, our own understanding. I would like to see us use what we have to help others, and I don’t mean by offering money. I mean by offering friendship.

Since March is the month honoring women, who is one woman who has inspired you and why?

There have been many women who have inspired me throughout my life, but one I think of first is the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Her work inspires me and the road she took inspires me. She lived in her early years in the 1920s and1930s in New York City where the art world was very male-dominated and women could mostly only enter it as a muse or as sexual partner. But O’Keeffe expressed herself as a woman. She expressed female emotion and female sexuality and would not allow herself to be defined or restricted by her gender. Just take her way of treating flowers. Flowers had been painted by countless others over time but when she came along she switched the script and showed them in a way that no one had done before.

Any advice you might share with others following in your footsteps?

Although this town can feel like a bubble, there is room for everyone…so don’t be afraid to pursue your passions and find like-minded communities of people.