THE BLOG

What I Learned Volunteering With the Nonprofit No Barriers

05/01/2015 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

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When I arrived at the Sundance Trail Guest Ranch in rural Colorado on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a group of women from the nonprofit No Barriers were sitting on the expansive wooden porch. I only knew one of them, peripherally, and as I sloshed through the spring snow, dressed in a long skirt and sandals, and found a spot for myself at the outer edge of their circle, I scanned their faces, wondering what they thought of me. People said hello and a few women held out their hands to shake mine. They seemed nice, but mostly I noticed they were all, unlike me, appropriately dressed in jeans and hiking boots.

The reason I was sort of dressed up was that I knew I'd been invited to this ranch for an important reason: to spend three days participating in the development of a new program. I wanted to look committed. Their mission is to empower people to shatter barriers, find their inner purpose, and contribute their very best to the world, and they've worked internationally with thousands of people from diverse populations, including wounded veterans, people with disabilities, and at-risk youth. Their impact is truly inspiring.

This new program was to focus on a population I work closely with: Women. And as a writer, they'd asked me to come as a volunteer, to help develop the language for their website and promotional materials.

As I settled into my spot, I listened to the conversation and noticed that they were just getting started with the retreat, going around the circle talking about a striking moment in their lives involving women. People were sharing really compelling, touching, interesting stories. Half-listening, I wracked my brain to think of something that would measure up. I knew I had stories, but under pressure, I found myself freezing-up.

And then it was almost my turn, and I felt my pulse quicken, and the woman next to me opened her mouth to speak. But instead of sharing a story, she said something like, "I never know what to say during these things."

I smiled. Her admission relaxed me, partly because she made me feel less alone, and partly because I appreciated her bravery in sharing so honestly at the very beginning of the retreat. I chimed in, saying that I shared her sentiment, which led to casual comments and jokes from the other women. For me, this totally broke the ice, telling me what I needed to know about this group: They were open and honest and embraced all of the opinions in the room. Talk about breaking down barriers. (At the first break, I changed into a sweater and yoga pants.)

This set the stage for a powerful three days of hard work. Prepared to the "T," the facilitators took to the flip chart, asking questions to get our juices flowing and recording our thoughts, and then before we knew it, the Women program was beginning to form right in front of our eyes. It would launch with a three-day Women's Summit in the fall, which would include inspiring speakers, outdoor adventures, and opportunities to embrace creative endeavors; all fostering a strong sense of community among the participants.

Now ready to dive into the details, we split into small groups to focus on specific parts of the event, such as location and timing, marketing materials, sponsors, and volunteers. The energy was high as people got to work, brainstorming and plotting.

The work over the course of the retreat was exhausting, in that "we're doing something major" kind of way, but there were plenty of breaks that involved horseback riding and game-playing and hot-tubbing and snacking. I found myself struck time and again by the talent in the room -- intelligence interwoven with passion -- and how closely we connected as a group. It was clear that these women were committed to creating a program with both a beautiful beginning, and a future.

The end result is something I'm proud to have been a part of, an experience that's impacted my life in a positive way. I'm glad I overcame my own obstacles to take part in the planning, and I can't wait to savor the exciting culmination of our work.

This blog post also appears at Thought Catalog.