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Reflections from the Director's Seat - A Letter of Gratitude

Dear Friends,

This letter to you spawned from, of all things, a twinge of lower back pain. As I was sitting at my office desk in my un-ergonomic chair, staring into the static pixels of my computer screen, thinking about how so many of us sit far too much, and move not near enough, I was reminded of a goal I made recently - more of a pact I made with myself really - to slow down a bit and notice more of life's simple pleasures. To find time for walking, and breathing, and genuine self-care. And reflection.

Two years ago, when I was hired as the new Executive Director for the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, I had no idea what to expect. I only knew that it was going to be an adventure, and a lot of hard work. Those of you who know me personally realize that I have a classic Type A personality, exhibiting many of the telltale traits (competitive, ever-striving, high-strung, compulsively multi-tasking, constantly hurrying and worrying, and other characteristics less flattering that I won't mention here) that put me on a path leading straight to heart disease and stress-related ailments. (Back pain included!)

So, naturally, I was a perfect person for the job! Who better to dig in, rise to the challenge, and embrace the big projects and long hours that running a nonprofit typically entails, than a perfectionistic workaholic? (And a glutton for punishment to boot!) Eager to help make a difference in the Springfield area, I dove into the role of director head on, wrestling my way through each rising challenge, determined to come out on top. And all the effort is paying off. Membership is up. Event attendance has been steadily increasing. (Seeing 100+ people show up for a Wednesday evening mixer is pretty incredible! And when the parking attendants at the Apple Festival announce that the lots are filled to capacity with visitor cars, that's something to be proud of.) Financially, we're operating in the black. We're working closely with the Town and local orgs to tackle the issues facing our community and taking steps to promote a thriving region.

The response from Chamber members and townspeople has been overwhelmingly positive, and humbling to experience. Even so, I was completely surprised when, amidst looking back on two years of toil and effort, I was notified that I had been nominated as one of Vermont Business Magazine's "Rising Stars" of 2017. How exciting!! And when I received word that I had indeed officially been chosen as one of those Top 40 Under 40, it was an entirely surreal moment for me. All this time I had been plowing away, climbing and striving - at no point did it occur to me that I might become the recipient of such an awesome award of recognition.

And that's when I realized that I've been spending so many of my waking hours (and sleepless nights) working and problem-solving and building connections and planning events, that I was barely ever coming up for air. Even on vacation, it takes me several days at least to unwind. I experience maybe one day of what might be called relaxation (if I'm lucky!) before my mind returns to thoughts of work-related projects on the horizon and the many To Dos that will be at hand when I return to the office. Being relatively accustomed to high-intensity environments, I've survived the wear and tear of the job relatively unscathed. But over time, the impacts of stress accumulate and start to take their toll. All the latest research warns us that running on adrenaline eventually leads to a whole slew of symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and irritability, which, in turn, begin to affect productivity, as well as relationships and activities outside of work. I've willingly made plenty of personal sacrifices for this job, and I can attest that my friends and family have absolutely been impacted.

The urge to work myself into the ground is not so much a reflection of my particular job, but rather an indicator of the effects that a workaholic society has on an already prone individual. And I know I'm not alone in this struggle. There is enormous pressure in today's business world to do it all; to answer every email and phone call; to keep up with social media; to say "yes" to every special project; to show up for every evening and weekend event; to work the 12+ hour days and then go home to cook dinner and clean the house. It is far too easy to get swept up in the churning waves of ambition, only to later discover that life has passed us by. I'm what many of you would still refer to as a "kid," but even I, in my Millennial youth, can see the eventual handwriting on the wall.

So I had to ask myself, "Is this really how I want to live?"

"Is this grind, where the weeks and months fly by in a blur, and I'm always jumping onto the next thing before I've even taken a second to acknowledge a task completed or a job well done - is this even sustainable?"

My answer to these questions, it turns out, is, "Umm, not exactly."

My first year as director was undeniably "The Year of Keeping My Head Above Water." And my second year was arguably "The Year of Proving Myself and Doing All of the Things." It was a major milestone in my mind to cross that two-year threshold, especially considering that turnover rates tend to be high in this type of work. As relieved as I was to hit that two-year mark, I'm more interested to discover what the future holds. So I've decided that my third year as director will be my "Year of Health and Wellbeing." After all, it's up to me to take good care of myself, and now that I generally know the ropes and have a pretty good idea of what to expect, I'm hopeful the experience under my belt will lend itself well to finding a livable balance between work, play, and rest. I'll be making an effort to live a little more in the present moment, and operate at a more manageable pace that leaves some space for worksite wellness.

All this personal reflection has brought to my attention so many things to be grateful for. First and foremost, I am thankful for my Sam. He is my rock, my sweetheart, and my best friend. He is such a good sport, tagging along to mixers, helping out with events, and just generally being a thoughtful and supportive guy. I feel very lucky to have him in my life. I am appreciative of my Board, for seeing something in me and hiring me, and for giving me the opportunity to run the Chamber and to promote positive impact in our neighborhoods. Their continued assistance and enthusiasm keeps my engine running. I'm thankful for Lori Evans, an unexpected volunteer who serendipitously showed up on the Chamber doorstep and gave me her time, energy, and friendship during the busy weeks leading up to Apple Fest. I'm thankful for those who have acted as my mentors, providing me with their hard-earned knowledge and advice along the way. And I'm grateful for all of you. Because without you, I would not be where I am, doing what I do every day. I am continuously amazed by the spirit of Springfield that shines in all of you, the determination and pride, and your willingness to forge meaningful relationships and collaborations that are, step by step, turning this town around.

Back in September, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel for the Vermont Young Professionals Summit at the Paramount Theater in Rutland. The panel was called "Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem." We talked about the importance of human connections, and the value of authenticity. We emphasized the critical need to communicate openly, share stories, and also listen. We explained the beneficial effects of creating a fun and welcoming atmosphere. We discussed the significance of uniting behind a common goal. And I was so proud to be able to use the Springfield Regional Chamber as a fantastic example of a collection of people getting it right. I received so many comments after the panel, from people who were surprised and encouraged to hear that our Chamber is thriving and adapting to serve the genuine needs of our region in the modern era. They were impressed to hear how well we are working with other area organizations and leaders and citizens to revitalize our community. Our growing success is thanks to each and every one of you for believing in Springfield and for doing your part, day in and day out, to ensure the renewal of this beautiful town.

Another presentation at the VYP Summit was a talk about the essential qualities of "Comeback Communities":

1) real estate available for redevelopment and re-use

2) return of innovative, locally-owned "give-back" businesses

3) Comeback Champions - Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers working together to lead progress and find solutions

I was thrilled to hear Springfield specifically mentioned in the presentation as one of the Vermont towns that is currently being regarded as a Comeback Community. Not only do we meet all the criteria, but word has spread, and we are now being perceived by OTHER communities as on our way up. This is just one of the many signs that together we are turning things around and making our way to better days.

When I was in Montpelier at the State House for the Vermont Creative Network Summit, I had so many positive and affirming chats with people who were curious about Springfield and the projects underway. We talked about the many assets Springfield has to work with (natural beauty, incredible architecture, and some of the fastest internet in the country, among other things!) and we shared stories of the synergy that is building our momentum and propelling us towards genuine collective impact. These conversations were so inspiring to me, and I feel so proud to be representing and serving this incredible community.

I even got a nice letter from our U.S. Congressman Peter Welch, offering congratulations; he wrote "you will renew Springfield." It was lovely to hear from him, and I thought to myself, "well, I certainly can't do it alone!' But I'm not alone. I am one of many who are working hard every day, each in their own way, to make our beautiful community an even better place to live, grow, work, and play.

Thank you all for your commitment to Springfield. Together we are making it happen.

I wish for all of you this holiday season, that you find ample time to spend with family and friends, enjoying life's simple and precious little moments. Rest, relax, and renew.

So that we can pace ourselves for the long but rewarding road ahead, helping each other over bumps and hurdles, and finding our collective way to peace, prosperity, and happiness.

Caitlin Christiana

Executive Director

Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce

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