It was an event like any other in the television news business. A rush hour pile-up. Five cars totaled. Three hurt. One person dead. There I was just doing my job. I showed up, as I had hundreds of time in my decade in the television news business, at the address of the deceased. In heels too fancy for the occasion and makeup too heavy for my face, I wondered if I'd make my 2 p.m. deadline for turning another tragedy into 90 seconds worth of tape to fill the 5 p.m. show.
This time, instead of the usual slammed door or insult, I met a young woman on the doorstep with a question that sent my heart in free fall: "Do you know what happened to my mother?"
I was supposed to be a lawyer. I had a few schools picked out, even took the LSAT. But a year after graduation I found myself in Naples, Fla., reporting local news on TV. There were stories about stranded sea turtles, tropical storms and entry-level celebrities like Jason Priestly, Mario Lopez and Joe Millionaire.
My big break came in the form of a job in Boston where I got to be that reporter bundled up in the snowstorms telling everyone else to go home. I got to work in a brand new 50-million dollar building, sign autographs for school kids and have big trucks and a helicopter following me around. I probably shouldn't have been surprised that, upon returning to the station, I would rarely hear comments about my reporting but rather compliments like, "Loved that color on you," or critiques like "Could you not smile so much?"
While, at the time, I would never admit this to myself, I had chosen a profession that was much more about how I presented myself than the stories I told. Could I be skinny enough, pretty enough, and, despite hands that would tremble outside the view of the camera frame, articulate enough to convince my audience that I was worthy of the spotlight?
But standing on that doorstep, watching tears form in the eyes of a teenager who found out from a TV news crew that her mother had died, something changed.
It wasn't just the image focus that wore on me, I was tired of amplifying these tragic stories. I wanted, instead, to promote inspiring ones. My agent told me that job didn't exist.
So I quit. And, with the Zen proverb "Leap and the net will appear" tucked in my pocket, bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. What ensued was a 10-month adventure that took me through South America, Europe and India. Eventually it brought me back what I was looking for the whole journey: myself.
A year after my return, I moved to San Francisco. I officially surrendered my high heels, closet full of reporter clothes and gym bag sized make up kit and started my own company. Storytellers for Good is a team of journalists and videographers who create short films for nonprofits to use as fundraising and inspiration tools.
On the day of my first official shoot for Storytellers I remember sobbing behind the steering wheel while heading over the Bay Bridge to pick up a videographer. Where was my live truck? My helicopter? My team of videographers to carry the gear? Could I do this on my own?
I crossed the bridge that day and began a new adventure that has taken me around the country and globe to explore life from behind the camera. I love this work, the people I've met through it and how many of their stories have spoken to spoken to my own personal struggles.
When I needed perspective on loss, there was Nyla Rodgers, a woman who lost her mother to cancer and, just months later, decided to start a nonprofit called Mama Hope after serendipitously meeting a community of women her mother had supported in Kenya.
"Grief is just love," Nyla told me." If you can take your grief and take that love and make something of it then you're really able to honor that person and let them live on."
When I needed inspiration about staying true to my dreams, I met Madison Steiner of New Mexico. Madison paints personalized shoes for kids with cancer and other terminal illnesses. She taught me that sometimes big dreams come in small packages:
"My dream was always to change the world. With this I'm not changing the world as a whole but changing one kids world with every pair of shoes that I send out."
And, when I needed a lesson about perseverance, I met Isaac Denson in Chicago. Isaac was homeless and just out of a 20-year prison sentence when I met him training for the Chicago Marathon with a nonprofit called Back on My Feet. I heard his voice echoing in my head when I watched him cross the finish line:
"If you don't open up your horizons, you just stay in a box. You won't be nothing but just the size of that box. I choose to get up out of the box. The box is not going to define me."
What I now find ironic is that, while I set out through this work to tell stories that weren't about me, every one has very much been about me. They have made me more courageous, more compassionate, more wise, forgiving and strong. Little did I know that telling inspiring stories about others would help me re-write my own.
Follow Cara E. Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@stories4good