Leading in Times of Uncertainty - Laura Whitaker (Podcast Episode 29)

How do you lead with faith in a world that is uncertain? The COVID-19 pandemic presented many organizations with levels of uncertainty that they had never seen before. One of the populations that has been hardest hit by the pandemic has been children with disabilities, their families, and the organizations that support them. Our guest today, Laura Whitaker, is the executive director of Extra Special People, a non-profit that has not only weathered the storms of COVID but managed to grow in this uncertain time. Laura's here today to talk about her work, her faith, and how we can all lead better in times of uncertainty. Laura, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Scripture References

Matthew 14:13-33
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[d] for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind,[e] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)

Romans 12:12
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (NRSV)

Mark 4:38-40
Jesus was inside the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow. The followers went and woke him. They said, “Teacher, don’t you care about us? We are going to drown!” Jesus stood up and gave a command to the wind and the water. He said, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind stopped, and the lake became calm. He said to his followers, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (NRSV)

Additional Resources Referenced

Java Joy:

Extra Special People:
Follow: @esp_inc

Laura Whitaker
​Follow: @laurahopewhitaker

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​​Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

How do you lead with faith in a world that is uncertain? The COVID-19 pandemic presented many organizations with levels of uncertainty that they had never seen before. One of the populations that has been hardest hit by the pandemic has been children with disabilities, their families, and the organizations that support them. Our guest today, Laura Whitaker, is the executive director of Extra Special People, a non-profit that has not only weathered the storms of COVID but managed to grow in this uncertain time. Laura's here today to talk about her work, her faith, and how we can all lead better in times of uncertainty. Laura, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Laura Whitaker: Thanks for having me, guys. What an honor.

LA: Oh, thank you so much for being here. So I wonder if you could start by just telling us a little bit about your job and about Extra Special People. What do you do?

LW: Yeah, so we are located in Georgia, but we're beginning to spread out throughout other places, throughout the United States. And our mission, we exist to really create transformative experiences for people with disabilities and the families that support them. And we believe that that changes communities for the better. And so we do that really in three ways. We do that through our 360 Program, which is online, and then daily programs along with family support. We do that through our mobile coffee cart called Java Joy. And then we will one day do that through an overnight camp where kids of all abilities will have the opportunity to sleep on the top bunk and get to go to summer camp. So those are the three ways in which we fulfill our mission, but we are operational every single day, serving hundreds of families, thousands of people, and we do that through our amazing staff and volunteers.

LA: So I imagine that you run an organization that's very high touch... Right? Especially for people with disabilities, you're bringing them together to interesting enriching experiences. You're running a summer camp, you're running a mobile coffee cart, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hits. What kind of new challenges did this present to you?

LW: Oh my goodness, every challenge that you could possibly imagine. But you're so right, our... Individuals that we serve, are tactile, it's all about the touch. It's about the experience when they walk in, and it's about the relationships. The one-on-one relationships. Everything we do is relationship-based. And for many of our individuals who are non-verbal, who may be physically in a wheelchair or whatnot, they need that in-person connection. And so for us, COVID was very quickly kind of a slap in the face, as it was for many people. And so we were really introduced to some new challenges. It was how do we get to people? And how do we provide transportation to get to people? How do we feed people that can't get out of their homes? How do we provide emergency respite? So if you have a 20-year-old with severe autism and you are locked in the house with them 24/7... And many of them don't sleep, how can we safely... You rewind to March of 2020... How can we safely provide respite to those families so that they can make it through the pandemic? And then of course, how do we provide joy? The mission of Java Joy is to provide a transformative joy. So how do we do that? Our business is coffee, hug, and joy. Keyword, being hug. And so how do we do that in a global pandemic when we can't hug people, when we can't touch people. And so all of those challenges, were staring at us in the face, and I think we had the option to close down. And I think no one would have faulted us for it. No one would have faulted us for closing down. But really what we decided to do was to step forward in faith and really flip our mission model overnight and begin doing things that we had never done before, but things that were within our mission.

LA: So you say, step forward in faith. Now you are the leader of this organization. You not only have on your conscience the people you serve, but also the employees working under you. What did that moment feel like to you as you're kind of leading through this uncertain time?

LW: Oh my goodness. I look back at that time and still sometimes today, and the best way I can describe it... I am running a secular organization. And so as a faith-based leader, oftentimes those moments of decision-making were done in the quiet and in the silence of really grappling with what is best for the organization as a whole. Not what's best for one employee or the employee that's the loudest, or the family that's the loudest. What does God want for us right now? And the best way to describe it is, I always kind of pictured myself as captaining this ship in this storm and a really, really scary storm with my hands on the wheel. And oftentimes wanting to kind of duck down underneath the wheel myself to protect myself from the wind and the waves and my staff there and the families there and the community, they're looking at me saying, "What do we do?" And that's kind of... That picture is what I will forever remember 2020 being. And really having to step forward and grab the wheel and move forward in faith, even when I wasn't sure I was making the right decisions.

LA: Now, I have to stop you there, Laura, because captaining a ship in a scary storm is a kind of symbol that we see coming up again, again in the Bible. And Mark, I'm gonna ask you on the spot, do you have a favorite storm Bible reference? 'Cause I could think of a couple off the top of my head.

MR: Yeah, actually I do. Actually... Okay, this is hard. Now you said the favorite, 'cause... There are two of the stories of Jesus in the storm that I love. And one is the one where he's out there and he falls asleep, and there's this giant storm that's sinking the ship, and he's still sleeping. I love that, 'cause I think Jesus was just so tired from the work he could hardly do it. And that actually I find encouraging. But really my favorite is the one where Jesus is walking on the waves and storm, and Peter goes out and tries to meet him and then falls in. 'Cause I think, "Oh, that's so me." It's like, "Okay, I trust you, Jesus, I'm all in." And then it's, yeah I'm all in the water.

And so... But... I guess what I love about both of those is just this portrayal of humanity. On the one hand, Jesus' humanity. The guy was so exhausted, he wasn't getting awakened in the storm. And you know a lot of us in life, in work, in parenting, especially if it's parenting with special needs children... I mean this is exhausting... In a pandemic where sometimes you're working at home and trying to be a parent, just crazy exhausting. So I love that. And then I just love Peter the... He just has big faith and then he loses it, 'cause I understand what that's like. And thanks be to God Jesus picks us up and... Both of those have just great humanity in them.

LA: Yeah. And...

LW: So true.

LA: The second story that you mentioned, Mark, is from Matthew 14 verses 22 to 33. And it also has this element of rest on it, 'cause Jesus told his disciples to go out to cross over the other side of, the lake. He's gonna go pray, take some time by himself. And then he just figures he catch up on them... Catch up with them by walking across the water, just like you do when you're the Son of God. And... But there's also, I love this idea in both these stories of Jesus in the storm is this rest and recuperation element which is, Laura, what you're trying to offer to parents who are parenting in this storm of COVID. But also kind of what you're experiencing as a leader at the same time.

LW: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think what's amazing too about that Matthew scripture is that they've just fed 5000 people... Or 5000 or more people... Right? And so he's like, "Yeah, I'm gonna go rest," knowing the storm is gonna come. And what I think is so funny about that story too, is that here he is feeding 5000 people from just a few loaves and fishes, and then the disciples get scared. It's like they forgot how miraculous feeding 5000 people were when the storm came. And I think that's... I went back to that scripture so much because, number one, God knew that COVID was gonna happen. He was captaining the storm the whole time. He knew it was gonna happen. And I think so... It's so easy for me to forget all the things he's done in my life and here at ESP.

And so I had to look back and say, "Okay, wait, he's fed the 5000 here. He can help me get through this storm, because he's done it in other ways. Maybe not this way. Maybe not this storm." But I constantly kind of studied the marriage of the sequence of events there, and just had to put myself into that perspective to recognize like, yeah, I'm in the boat and yeah, this storm is scary, and yes, this is new, but hey, he just fed 5000 people. And he's gonna feed 5000 people when this storm is over too. So I gotta remember who that is. And so I just loved... I love that part, and I also love just the whole idea of keeping our eyes fixed, which was very difficult to do over this last year.

LA: So tell us, what did you practically decide to do in your organization. You said you could have shut your doors, but you decided not to. How did you pivot your services?

LW: Yeah, so pretty much within a few days, what we did, we started making all these plans, like you do as a leader. You make these plans and you think that they're the right idea. And to be totally honest, I think I just went into autopilot, executive director mode. And then I really had this moment where I was like, "Wait a second. We don't know this storm. I've never been through this storm. Our families have never been through this storm. How about we pick up the phone and we call them." And so what my team of 20 people did is we picked up the phone and we called every single one of our families, over 600 families that we serve.

And we put them into categories. This is what they need. They need emergency care. They need food. One thing people don't think about often... And you know I have a... Typical children in my home. But if you have a 20-year-old that's in a wheelchair and needs diapers... At the time, Amazon... The cost of diapers was like five times the typical cost. And so that inflation cost affected our families who are already many of them living in poverty. And so what we started doing was we started providing meals. We served over... Delivered over 10,000 meals to our families. We started doing emergency respite as well and then went to virtual and online programming, like so many people did.

But the really big step of faith... I remember very vividly, it was April, and we were trying to figure out whether or not we were gonna move forward with our signature event, which is our summer camp program. And at the time the country shut down, the governor had opened day camps here in Georgia, but not overnight camps. Many of our colleagues and my peers were not opening for the summer. And the difference between serving children without disabilities and serving children with disabilities for summer camp is oftentimes, for kids without disabilities, it's recreational. It's a bonus, right? But for the families that we serve, it's very difficult, as you mentioned earlier, for them to find care. So for many of them, it's a matter of a family keeping a job or not.

It's a matter of a marriage staying together or not. And in many cases, it's very difficult as it relates to abuse. And so we knew there could be kids out there that were neglected. That hadn't been reported because they hadn't been in the schools. And so what we decided to do was we decided to split the camp up into six different sites, duplicate what we do here at one site in six different locations. Very quickly trained my young college student staff members to be directors of their own locations, which had its own challenge and to move forward. And those that felt comfortable coming to camp, we provided that care and attention that they needed at a really important time. And what we found was that we didn't even realize the benefits that those eight weeks provided to families of children with special needs.

Many of them said they would not have made it if it were not for that time. Or they would not have kept their job or their marriage would not have stayed together if it were not for that time. So... Yeah, there was a lot of moving parts, but honestly, I look back on that and think I don't regret one moment of that. We made a lot of mistakes through it all, but moving forward in faith was the right thing for us and for our mission.

LA: So I would love to hear how you as a leader dealt with mistakes, either that you made or that members of your team made as you stepped out in faith. Because as others lead in uncertainty, I think one of the big questions is, "What if I make a mistake?" There's so much fear. Like you changed your whole operation model to be in pods as opposed to being in one location, you had to very quickly ramp up training. But I imagine for other leaders and organizations as they're tacking their business model, one of the biggest questions is fear of what happens if I'm gonna make a mistake.

LW: Absolutely. And man, I did make mistakes. I think one thing I learned a few years ago that has been transformative in my leadership has been this, when I'm thinking through and praying through decision-making, I've become very vocal with my team about making decisions for the person that is the most important in the room, and that's the organization as a whole. And so what it does is it takes out opinion, it takes out politics, it takes out any dimension that you could argue one way or the other. And moving forward and what I believed at the time, what I felt led to believe at the time is most important for the organization as a whole. How can we move our mission forward? And I mentioned summer camp, we had, as you mentioned, six different pods. We're moving along, we had done all this online training, we had over 150 staff working these programs. And one big thing that happened during that time, about four weeks in, we started... We noticed that there was one particular pod, we had a few people come back, COVID positive.

LA: Oh, gosh.

LW: And so we quickly kind of realized, "Okay, well, none of the kids tested positive. We communicated with the families. We began to kind of track who was with who and we realized that while we had done all of this training on procedures and how to wear your mask and how to sanitize... All the things we did not train our 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds on the importance of staying in their pods on the weekends. And so what was happening is that they were, as college students do, spending time together, cross-pollinating all of the pods. Which really defeats the purpose of the pod to begin with. And so in that moment, we kinda had this choice. We could close one pod and move forward and kind of hope that the rest of the pods weren't affected. Or we had this information that they had all cross-pollinated.

So we really knew that a lot of people may have been infected. And so we pulled everybody together... I'll never forget this Zoom. I had a hundred faces looking at me. And I just decided in that moment to apologize and take ownership of the lack of training. And I said, "I'm so sorry guys. I did not train you on this, I did not push... I didn't even think about it." And we moved forward... And this is an important part of our training. I brought in a doctor to provide a lot of the medical pieces to the importance of the structure and really let them hit it home. And I think that idea that we as leaders, we're gonna move forward in faith, but that doesn't always mean we're gonna do it perfectly. And being willing to own the times that we may have overstepped or we may have overlooked something. And I think that built a lot of credibility at a time of insecurity. And people were looking at me and following me and clearly knew that we had made a misstep. And so I think they needed me as the leader to say, "Hey, this is my fault, we're gonna pivot again and train again and move forward." And the rest of the summer was amazing because of it.

LA: So did you have to close your camp or did you just close the...

LW: Yeah, we did. We closed... It happened to be right around the 4th of July week so we actually were able to close a full 10 days. We were able to train everybody via Zoom, and then we re-opened everything right after the 4th of July.

MR: Wow.

LA: So apologize, take responsibility and then move forward.

LW: Yeah, and I think humility, there's really something so beautiful about it. And... You talked about humanizing Jesus. And I think that really the brilliance behind his leadership was his humility. And I think oftentimes as leaders, we tend to kind of like... Particularly in times of uncertainty, we tend to puff up our chests and pretend like we know what we're doing. And that kind of false confidence, people see through that oftentimes. And so I think that that level of vulnerability and humility built more trust and more honor during that time. And I think particularly for the non-believers on my staff, I think it was really a time for them to see my faith in action. And an opportunity for me to say, "You know, I've been doing this for 16 years, but I've never done this. And I don't know what to do, but I feel like this is what's best for the organization as a whole, for the people that we serve. And so we're moving forward." And it wasn't always the popular decision. But I owned the fact that I didn't know what I was doing. And I think there was really something beautiful about that.

MR: You know, as you're talking, Laura, I'm just so struck that you're like a wonderful example of what Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about is a level five leader. And he has these levels of leadership, level five being the top. And in his book Good to Great he says, "Level five leaders are the ones who can actually take an organization and move it from good to great." A level five leader has two main traits, as Collins defines it. They are personally, deeply humble, but they are deeply ambitious for their organization, and what's good for the organization. And you said both those things. Initially, you said... In the decision-making. So what's right for the organization? Okay that's square in the middle of level five. But then when you made an error your... You talked about having the humility to own it, and I just think that's a wonderful example to encourage folks in all kinds of work and life, and family and everything to care so much about the organization or the family or the cause, the mission, but to be personally humble enough to own when you're wrong.

LW: Wow. And I can't take any credit for it. I think I was thrust into this organization at 19 years old and started running the organization at such a young age. And I think God prepared me by being absolutely un-equipped for this job that I started that process at 19. I knew and everyone else knew I didn't know what I was doing. And so I could kind of own my mistakes that way and pull people in, mentors and people that could help me to do my job. And so I very quickly learned like, oh, with Jesus as the ultimate mentor, this is how you gain trust, and this is how you lead people. Because guess what if I'm humble and own my mistakes, my people under me feel like they can be humble and own theirs too, if they see their leader doing that. And so I think that that kind of rhythm within our organization started at the age of 19. And really it's something even 16 years later, I feel like I haven't figured out even an ounce of what I'm doing. But I feel like what an opportunity that is for me to learn from the people and continue to put people that are experts around me. And so I feel like I've really... I've learned that from them, and ultimately, really from studying Jesus.

LA: But I'm gonna call you on this a little bit, Laura, because...

LW: Do it.

LA: I know in your story, you were thrust into leadership at this organization, at 19. You were gung-ho for the mission, and then the executive director died really suddenly and tragically, and you were in a position of leadership. But that was a little while ago, and since then... You have two advanced degrees. You're a leader in your field. You've been recognized by many civic organizations as a leader in this particular area of care for people with disability. So there could be a part of you that... Were you not so humble that could rest on your laurels a little bit. That could say, "I know how to... I know how to run this kind of... Nobody knows better than I do." So I just wonder how you personally maintain your level of humility even as people in your secular organization demand of you that you perhaps take on a particular leadership style or persona.

LW: That's a great... That's a great question... I think there have been times, and there have been moments... I'm really kind of afraid of that Laura. That Laura, that begins to believe that she thinks she has it figured out. And I'm kind of afraid of that Laura because I'm like the point at which I reach that moment, I don't need to be in the seat that I'm in. And I'll be blind to the things that I need to learn to make this organization great, and ultimately to be the hands and the feet of Jesus. So yes, I absolutely think there have been times where I'm like, "I've got this figured out." But I'll say... I think the thing that keeps me the most humble is my mentors. And I have mentors that will... It's been a part of my leadership all the way through, but I have mentors that will sit across the table from me and speak truth.

One of them, through COVID, I was supposed to go on a sabbatical. And a sabbatical is really not something that a lot of secular organizations practice. So it's really kind of a new practice within our organization that we have implemented. And I kept pushing it off, of course, because of 2020. And I've gotta be here. I've gotta captain this ship. I've gotta lead this organization. And I was sitting across from one of my mentors one day, and he's this amazing gentleman. Runs manufacturing plants all over the country. The most unlikely mentor that you would ever think. And I looked at across to him, and he said, "So you're gonna go on your sabbatical right? Before the end of 2020." And I said, "No. I can't leave my organization right now." And he said, "You can absolutely leave your organization right now. Who do you think is leading your organization? God's got this. You go take care of you, you're not gonna make it if you don't." And so I think people speaking truth into me, humbling me, being honest with me, has kept me in that seat of humility and I hope will continue to as long as I'm here.

MR: That's such a great example... When we see around us in the culture and the church... We see leaders failing really terribly. And a lot of times I just wonder, was anybody there in that role that you just described. Somebody to tell them the truth. I know that a lot of times really successful pastors or other Christian leaders, they are isolated from all of that. They are always in charge or there's no one who can challenge them. So you're encouraging us to be open and even more than open to making sure we have in our lives people who can be honest with us in that way.

LA: Yeah. Mark and I had a conversation with Bill Hendricks recently, who wrote a book on mentorship. And he said the same thing. He talked about how important it is, no matter what stage of your career you're at to have people who can be speaking into your life. To have people who can be guiding you. And to have people who you can bring the tough challenges that you're facing to, really honestly. 'Cause part of the challenge of leadership is who do you talk to. When you're the captain, who do you go to when you're afraid? Who do you go to for advice?

LW: Absolutely, and I think it's a tool. It's a tool and it's an exercise of faith, because if you're only listening to yourself or maybe reading the Bible, those are the only things that you're hearing. And God uses mentors and people to speak to us and through us. And so I think the more mentors you have, the more people with experience and wisdom, the more opportunity God has to speak to you. And that's one of the things that I've seen through my mentors is there are specific moments in my life, my marriage, my children, my organization, where I have had people speak to me and I knew that that was the voice of God speaking right to me. And what an opportunity that is. And without a mentor, we're closing off that opportunity to really hear the voice of God in a new way.

LA: It makes me think of going back to the story of Peter walking out on water to Jesus. When he starts to sink and Jesus grabs him and pulls him back in the boat, the next verse here... Let me find it. So this is in Matthew 14:33, after Jesus pulls Peter back into the boat it says those in the boat worshipped him saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God." I think there's this... The people around Peter, because of Peter's actions, had this realization of who Jesus was. It wasn't only Peter who was impacted in that moment because of that interaction with Jesus, it was everybody around him that had this realization of who Jesus was because of his conversation... Peter's conversation with Jesus, and Peter's actions. So I think that's true of our mentors, show us a little whole bit about who we are and who Jesus is. And that's true of the people around us, the people we work with, show us a little bit more about who God is. And then we in turn... This is my extrapolation, you guys tell me what you think. But I feel like we in turn, show others around us a little bit more about who God is.

LW: Absolutely, it makes me think when I was on sabbatical... I do feel like I was kind of like Peter and my mentor was like, "Oh, you're sinking. You're sinking. Go fix your eyes real quick before you sink all the way." But I was in a remote place in the middle of the rainforest by myself, and I had felt called to go to this one coffee shop. And long story short, I'm talking to this guy and I'm telling him... He's telling me his story, I'm telling him mine. And he says, "Well, Laura, what is your biggest fear?" And at this point, I had been alone for many days, and so I was very real and honest with myself at this point. And I began telling him what I do. And I told him about ESP, and I told him about Java Joy our mobile coffee cart run by adults with disabilities.

And he said, "So, let's get back. What's your biggest fear?" And I looked at him and I said, "You know, my biggest fear is that I do all of these things for all of these people, and I'm a part of this amazing organization, and no one sees the love of Jesus through me. They just see the things. And they just see the programs and they just see the coffee cart, but they never see the love of Jesus." And what's crazy about this moment was there was a girl working in the coffee shop, and she turned around and she said, "Java Joy?" And I was like, "Yeah, Java Joy." And she's like, "I know Java Joy." And I was like, "No, you don't know Java Joy." And she said, "Yes, I do. I was in a secular ministry class in Hawaii, and I saw a video of Java Joy, and my professor used it as an example of secular ministry."

And she said, "You don't have anything to worry about. People are seeing Jesus through what you're doing." And so I think you're so right. Other people... We may be... We may think we're sinking. We may think that we don't have it all together. And Peter may have felt regret that he didn't keep his eyes fixed on Jesus, but all the while these other people are seeing and worshipping Jesus because of it. And I think sometimes we don't even know the impact that we have as faith-based leaders in the secular world or even faith-based leaders in churches. We don't even realize the ripple effect that's happening and how people are worshipping Jesus because of moving forward in faith. And here I was... I was in the middle of Hawaii in the rain forest, and there was a college age girl that had known about Java Joy. And I think that was God's way of saying, "Keep moving. Keep doing what you're doing." So...

MR: That's a great story, thank you for sharing that.

LA: So tell us a little bit more about Java Joy and how your organization has actually spread... Or has grown in the number of people it serves over the course of the pandemic.

LW: Yeah, so Java Joy started here in Athens, Georgia. And really the premise of it was this, we were noticing that a lot of for-profit companies were coming into our organization. And I had business leaders telling me, "Laura, I love for my staff to come volunteer with you guys. But honestly, it's kind of selfish for me. Because they're coming back to the office and they're happier with where they work and they're more productive, and they're more joyful." And that's really where the thought and the idea came about was that we can't bring everybody in here to ESP, but we can go out to where people are and the places and spaces that they work. And we can provide for them a really remarkable transformative experience that's unexpected. And so we started this mobile coffee cart and it blew up. We have business owners lining up to book Java Joy.

And so all it is, is it's really great coffee and then employs adults with disabilities. And we started it here in Athens. We had an experience... A venture capitalist from San Francisco experienced the Java Joy cart at a worldwide sales training meeting in Atlanta. And he was about to walk on stage, and he gets his cup of coffee and he gets his hug from a Joyrista, that's joy plus barista equals Joyrista. And his name was Colin. And we Colin, Cool-man. So Cool-man, gives him his cup of coffee, and he gives him a hug. He looks at him in the eyes and he says, "Enjoy." And Andrew walks up on stage and completely changed his speech based on his experience, and the human touch and the human experience that he had. And he called me three days later and said, "I have to bring this to San Francisco, California."

"I cannot get it off my mind. People need the hug. They need that human experience. We have de-humanized business and we need to bring it back." So we took five Joyristas from Athens, Georgia to San Francisco, California for their first ever business trip right before the pandemic. And they taught 17 Joyristas in San doing air hugs instead of the real hugs and we have modified our model. But really the premise of it is that people need human connection and they need joy, and they need to see the love of Jesus through the eyes of these amazing individuals that we have the opportunity to serve. And so that's what we're doing.

MR: It's such a great example. You know and it strikes me that if we were unfamiliar with the work you're doing, we might think of it mainly as things that you are doing to serve special needs people. And that's a great thing. But what you're talking about here is empowering folks with special needs to work and serve. And it's just... It's such a wonderful model of not what one might initially expect. This is contrary to expectations, but then it's very expansive in terms of how do we think of people and their lives and their contributions. So I love that you're doing it. And it's exciting that it's growing. Do you have any concerns about your organization sort of growing geographically in this way, 'cause you've been pretty much local, pretty much in Georgia. But now there's this other potential. Are you... What do you think about your growth? And does anything worry you?

LA: That's a new unknown you're moving into.

LW: It is a new unknown. After speaking to me, you know that I kinda love a good challenge. And I love that God... He's in the business of doing really big and beautiful things for the benefit of other people. And I think... So yes, am I concerned? Absolutely. I think I'm most concerned about the quality of the experience and making sure... We traditionally, as a sector serving people with disabilities tend to be a bit sub-par in our service and providing quality programming and quality opportunities, job opportunities for people with disabilities. And so ESP takes it to the next level and says, "We're not looking at what other people that are serving people with disabilities are doing. We're looking at for-profit businesses that have cultures that have billion dollar budgets."

That's where we're looking and saying that's what we wanna provide people of all abilities because they deserve it. But you're so right in that Java Joy is not just about employing adults with disabilities, Java Joy is... I love the idea that what is is often behind what it seems, what is is often behind what it seems. And it's this idea that you may see someone in a wheelchair or someone with Down syndrome or someone who acts or looks a little bit different, and you may think like, "Oh, that's sweet. I'm glad they have a job." And then you go up to the cart and you get this really good cup of coffee. And by the way, we only serve really great coffee. And you have this experience and you smile and you get this hug and you walk away and maybe you are going through a divorce...

Or one guy in San Francisco, he had not been hugged in five years. He had gone through a divorce. He had lived alone. He had not been physically hugged in five years. And it's this idea that what is is often behind what seems. These individuals with disabilities were actually transforming the guy who worked for Goldman Sachs, who had plenty of money and looked like he had everything he needed, but really what he needed was what that individual with special needs had. Which was a human experience and a hug and a moment of connection that he really needed. And so, you're so right, in that this model is not about the individuals with special needs. This model is about those of us without special needs. Those of us that need to look at the world through an ability filter and see the way that God has created. And he's really in the business of taking the weak, and what we see as weak and doing remarkable things with the weak. And so I love that premise with Java Joy. And I think that really is why we wanna spread it all over the United States, or maybe all over the world. Is that we wanna see what most people see as weak, become the strong.

MR: That's great.

LA: I would like to see that too. I like when you said, spread it all over the US, spread it all over the world. I'm like, "Yeah, let's have a... This is gonna be the new super spreader." I would much rather see us spread joy and hugs or air hugs all over the world than the other kind of disease spreading that we've seen in the past. And this is a much more positive...

LW: Yes. Yes, yes, yes...

LA: A positive prediction for people.

LW: It's something we would actually welcome and want, I believe.

LA: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. So Laura, do you have any final advice for leaders, either for leaders in non-profit or for leaders of secular businesses who are leading in this time of uncertainty. What can you offer as your best snippet of advice?

LW: You know, my best snippet of advice is something that I've had to learn over this last year, which is to learn to be comfortable in the quiet spaces and places and to be willing to listen. I think through COVID and even now as we move forward in vaccinations and opinions on both political sides... And we live in a very tumultuous time, and I think being able to turn off the news, being able to turn off social media and to turn on God's voice, whatever that looks like for us as leaders. Whether it's taking walks or sitting in quiet. I have this joke with my kids now after sabbatical, if I'm sitting in my chair and mommy's hands are open, they know not to come bother mommy. Because it's this posture and this idea that we have... We are hands open to what God has in store for us, but we have to be willing to be quiet enough to hear that voice. And to quiet other voices in order to hear his. And so I think it's just that. It's something I'm learning and I'm leading into and leaning into and really challenging my staff to lean into is to be willing to be comfortable in the quiet and to listen to God's voice with a posture of open hands.

LA: That's so hard. In times of chaos, in times of particular uncertainty, that really is the most counter-cultural thing that you can do, is be quiet, listen, wait. Wait for inspiration. It's just so hard to do and yet, so necessary. 'Cause if the leader doesn't do it, nobody below him or her is gonna do it.

LW: It's so true. That's so true. And the scripture that always comes to mind for me is when I felt called to, which is Romans 12:12. And it's, "Rejoice in hope... " Which is kind of our anthem. My middle name is Hope. "Find joy in hope. Pray continuously. Not just one time. Pray continuously and be patient in affliction. Be patient in affliction." And I do think it's very counter-culture. We wanna look at the news, we wanna check social media, we wanna check our email, we wanna respond, we wanna be active, active, active, active. And I think there's a time and a place for that, but really, when the chaos is happening and the storm is happening, it's the reason Jesus could sleep, right? It's the reason he could go up on the mountain. It's the reason... It's those moments of the quiet and connection that give us fuel to be able to deal with the chaos and really lead our people well. And I think it's important. And I'm preaching to myself, even as I'm saying it. [chuckle]

LA: You're preaching to us too. We appreciate it too. Laura Whitaker, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing with us.

LW: Guys, thank you for the opportunity, I appreciate it and would welcome anyone who listens to follow us. Follow the joy on Java Joy on Instagram, Facebook, whatever. Would love to have more followers and fans of what we're doing at ESP.

LA: Great.

MR: Great.

LA: Thank you.

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