The Gift of Connection

This post from Dan Cardinali, president of Communities In Schools, originally appeared in The Huffington Post on June 1, 2012.

Bill Milliken’s feet sat comfortably atop his desk as we chatted that sunny September afternoon in 1999. It was the last of eight interviews and I was more fatigued than anything else as he began to probe. Then, as now, his abiding concern was to understand what was important to me, what motivated me and how I believed the world should be. If I were to come to Communities In Schools (CIS) to run its field operations, he wanted to make sure I understood and aligned with CIS’ vision, values and purpose in the world. Once he discovered that we shared common experiences of living in and serving poor communities, and did so within the context of faith communities, he refocused the interview and began regaling me with CIS’ history. By the end of that hour, Bill had artfully rewoven our respective histories to make it clear that CIS was the logical place for me to continue my (or was it our?) commitment to both direct service and social justice. I must say he was quite right; I have had the pleasure of serving the organization for the last 13 years, and I am a better person for having done so.

Over the years since then, I’ve observed Bill’s unique ability for discovering connectedness and solidarity with those around him. It is almost sport for him, but it is one of the most powerful gifts I have ever observed in someone: that rare combination of deep optimism coupled with an indefatigable probing and tracking of another’s narrative to find common ground and common experience. Once he’s got the connection, the sheer force of his personality drives you and him towards pooling talents and resources to serving poor youth and families and, in doing so, rebuilding disenfranchised communities. This has helped power the CIS movement over the last 50 years, enabling it to attract tens of thousands of volunteers who, together with CIS professional staff, serve more than 1.25 million students and 250,000 parents and families every year.

On June 1, Bill will release his fourth book, From the Rear View Mirror: Reflecting on Connecting the Dots, published by Hay House.

In this memoir, Bill opens up his personal narrative, laying it out for others to join and make of it what each of us will. He does so with clarity, humor and raw honesty, and always through the colorful lens of a gifted storyteller. For those of us who know Bill well, we know that this is a supreme act of courage for one who’s greatest gift has also been a powerful defense.

Bill’s life did not start out easily. Despite his upper middle class background, his family’s struggles with alcoholism and his nonstandard learning style alienated Bill early in life from his family, school and community. As a result, he developed an unusual ability to build a community among those on the fringes and toggle between them and his family’s mainstream life. Bill’s capacity to live between worlds would enable him throughout his life to locate the marginal places in individuals he’d meet, communities in which he’d work and, eventually, public systems in which he’d work that purported to improve the lives of those most in need. Indeed, this gift would be embedded in CIS’ very DNA.

In his late teens, Bill had two transformative experiences. First, a street worker from the Young Life Movement met Bill where he was — at that particular point in time it was a pool hall where Bill no doubt was working an angle. As you will read, this loving relationship sired in Bill’s mind that caring adults can unleash the extraordinary positive potential in a young person — particularly a young person on the road to disaster. Second, as Bill began his process of shifting his life from destructive behavior to service, he had a transformative religious experience. This religious experience would guide and ground Bill for the rest of his life.

In From the Rear View Mirror: Reflecting on Connecting the Dots, we are treated to the deeply personal, sometimes painful and often humorous life of Bill Milliken as he comes of age and collects a group of leaders who eventually establish Communities In Schools. Those who know CIS are given a rare insight into the mosaic of Bill’s life experiences that have contributed so profoundly to CIS’ mission, vision and organizational structure. For anyone who has been challenged by living at once rooted in one’s faith and one’s humanity, Bill’s latest book is a powerful opportunity to find hope that we can connect the dots of God’s spirit in our lives, and in doing so, heal the world.

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