Influential Women: Meghan Tomlinson
THIS LADY. Holy cow am I grateful for her. She has been my best friend since fourth grade. We have had so many hard conversations, silly arguments, and life-giving chats. She's been my biggest supporter for as long as I can remember and always speaks truth into the lives of those around her. I have never felt more seen and known by a friend, and I know this is how she makes all of the people she encounters in her life feel. There is just something crazy special about her. She cares about what's going on in people behind the mask they put up. She wants to know people's hearts deeply and makes everyone feel loved in that process. I think anyone that knows her agrees that there is really no one quite like Meghan.
Which is why I am so thrilled to be featuring her in the Influential Women Series! In her job, she isn't afraid to roll up her sleeves and have the hard but needed conversations with the students she works with. She brings light and beauty into dark situations and difficult moments.
Interview with Meghan:
6 Fun Facts About Myself:
1) I have been married to my amazing husband; Nick, since July 2014 and we are expecting our first child this June!! We aren’t finding out the gender, and have nicknamed him/her Geraldo throughout the pregnancy.
2) My favorite food and greatest craving is Greek Yogurt Mac ‘N Cheese. I have convinced myself that this is a healthy dish, and I will defend this claim against all evidence otherwise. I have attached the link to the recipe for your own personal enjoyment!!
3) Last summer, Nick and I drove down to Gays Mills on a whim and ended up getting a Black Lab/Aussie Shepherd mix puppy, which we named Bruce Wayne. He is the best dog in the world (even when he chews up my clothes and destroys my birch branch decorations) and we are absolutely in love with him.
4) I grew up on Spencer Lake in Waupaca, WI and it continues to be my favorite place on Earth. My parents actually met at Spencer Lake Bible Camp while my G’ma and G’pa Olson were Camp Directors and my G’ma and G’pa Plunkett were worship directors over the summer. My dad paid for my mom’s engagement ring with his earnings from the Snack Stand, and my mom worked as Housekeeping for the camp all summer long. My grandparents have a house on the lake three houses down from us, and growing up two different Aunts/Uncles and cousins had houses across the lake from us.
5) Nick and I bought our first home last June in New Amsterdam (the Holmen area). We live right along the Black River and LOVE living way out in the country and getting to know our neighbors. It is seriously a different world out where we live and everyone is so welcoming and hospitable. Any time we have a project we are working on outside, it takes about ten minutes for at least one person to show up in our yard and offer to let us borrow a power tool that will make our job easier, or for Kent and Rita to invite us over to drink Arbor Mist while sitting in lawn chairs on their driveway.
6) In my free time, you will find me hiking in the bluffs, biking the Great River State Trail, drinking a latte in a coffee shop, visiting friends, listening to a live band, or working on various house projects.
Describe the job you have right now:
I work as an Outdoor Activities Coordinator for an organization called Coulee Connections in the city of La Crosse. Within Coulee, we have two different programs: Alternative Education and Family Resiliency Programming. The students who come to us as part of the Alt. Ed programming have in a sense “exhausted” the resources of other schools within the surrounding districts, and they may have been suspended or expelled from their home schools. Our Family Resiliency Programming is largely comprised of clients who come to us as referrals from La Crosse County, and with specific social, emotional and behavioral objectives for us to target.
Most of the kids who walk through our doors come to us with significant emotional-behavioral needs, and every decision we make as an organization is done so through the lens of trauma-informed care. This essentially means that instead of asking the question, “What is wrong with you?” we instead ask, “What happened to you?” Having this mindset impacts everything. It frames the way we work with our clients, set up classes, structure the day, transition them into the building each morning, the icebreaker questions we ask, and the importance we place on the value of relationship. The goal and purpose of Coulee Connections is to help kids embrace healing through inspired living, and to show them that there is “another way”. That even though they walk through our doors day after day with a ton of baggage- past or present affecting them, they have an opportunity to feel LOVED, safe, valued and powerful.
To sum up my role and how it fits in with that mission, I am responsible for planning; coordinating and facilitating outdoor programming with the intention to get kids and their families outside and create shared experiences together. One of my favorite parts of my job are the opportunities I have had to plan and prepare kids to venture out into the wild and see some amazing places they would otherwise never, ever have an opportunity to visit.
As an organization, we have found that there is an incredible impact and benefit to taking kids outside of their comfort zone with a group of their peers, and walking with them through the struggles of a portage, a ten-mile hike, the process of taking down and setting up camp, rationing out their food and sharing seconds, filtering water when they are already tired, and learning how to just be a part of a team. Out on trips, there is no escaping your need for the group, because someone else has the food…someone else has the poop shovel… and staff are the ones who have the maps and the directions for your journey onward. As you can imagine, this reality doesn’t come to these kiddos easy. We take a group of angry, frustrated, mistrusting, jaded; dis-regulated individuals out into the middle of the woods and try our best to convince them that the process will be worth it.
What challenges do you face in your job?
As a Full-Time Staff Member of Coulee Connections I’ve experienced significant challenges over the course of the last two years. This profession by nature has one of the highest turnover rates of any career out there, which means that amazing, strong staff can quickly become fried and jaded by the system. At times, I myself have become one of those people; overwhelmed and consumed by compassion fatigue. At times, it has been difficult to believe the work we do every day is worth it, when it feels like it is consuming my entire life and sucking the joy right out of me. Some of my coworkers have also become my best friends, and I’ve had to say goodbye to them as they leave Coulee and step into other positions and careers. Although this is so exciting to watch them do so, it is hard because we have sat in the trenches together and had SO many shared experiences on a day-to- day basis, and their absences are felt.
As a leader out on trips, I have literally sat in the muck with kids as they vent, and cry and take out their feelings on themselves and others. An irrational fifteen-year- old girl has smacked me with a canoe paddle as we cross Bass Lake to our campsite within the Boundary Waters. I have sat with a teen on an island in the Chippewa Flowage and helped her organize her feelings after she spent an hour in a canoe spitting verbal venom on her peers and myself. I have watched students literally chuck their canoes and backpacks into the woods and scream obscenities while portaging because they have finally hit their breaking point and have realized their need for others and were hit with the reality that they can’t keep trekking on alone. I have been a literal and metaphorical punching bag as kids have ripped me apart and told me everything they hated about me… but I would be foolish and blind if I didn’t also share with you the moments of repair and revelation, joy and peace I have seen take place in the hearts of these kids afterwards.
Working with people, and loving people is messy. It is messy because there isn’t a mathematical equation to how to do relationships right or well, and as humans we will always disappoint and fail one another. In all honesty, I have struggled to rely on God for my strength and as the one who defines me in the midst of so much darkness. I’ve battled with deep questions about why pain and sorrow exists and certain situations happen, and I’ve driven myself crazy trying to conjure up the “right” questions to ask or solutions to problems. Again and again, I have been refined and reminded that true healing can only come from the Lord, and that I am simply a vessel of love and truth, and even if I NEVER see any good or change come during the time I am at Coulee with a kid, that I serve and surrender it to a God who is so much bigger than my doubts and fears. I have to believe that the same God who created and formed me and knows the deepest desires of my heart also created the kids I am working with. He created them, and their parents, and He SEES them and desires to meet them in their brokenness.
What joys do you experience in this job at Coulee?
It. Is. Worth. It. Every single second of the struggle, and hustle and exhaustion. To watch kids graduate from high school when nobody ever expected them to do so, and to sit down and tell parents all about how their child was an encourager and leader among their peers while on a trip, and to walk with a kid through the transition out of an unhealthy home situation and now thrive within a stable foster home. It’s worth it to watch staff celebrate successes with their kids, and to return from a day of exploring the community with spark in their eyes because they witnessed “magic” and joy in the hearts of their group.
Over the last seven months, specifically, my role at Coulee has transformed from being primarily a direct care position, instead to a teaching and supervising role. This has been an amazing opportunity, and it truly energizes me to spend my time encouraging staff and empowering them to bring their own gifts and quirks to the table to reach our kids.
What drives you?
To love God, and love others.
What goals do you have for the future?
Well, I am having a baby in three months, so one of my primary goals is to rest, slow down and take the time to soak in every minute I have with him or her. I am SOOOO excited to be a mom, and I am thrilled to watch Nick be a dad!
I want to travel and go backpacking in amazing National Parks with Nick. I’d like to share a bottle of wine with a friend while floating down the Black River, to spend more time with my grandparents and my in-laws, and learn to cook Pad Thai. I want to build a chicken coop and raise them in my backyard. I want to finish the landscaping in my front yard and grow a thriving garden.
I want to MAKE ROOM in my life: for prayer, worship, rest, family, friends, and even my enemies, and to invite them into my house and world and show them that they are worth knowing and investing in.
What do you hope for your legacy to be when it comes to impacting your community?
I hope people truly felt loved in my presence. My prayer is that our interactions would point them to Christ simply because the love and joy I showed them was evidence of something so far beyond myself that it couldn’t be explained away as just “Meghan being a nice or good person”. I don’t do this perfectly, and to be honest a lot of times I don’t even sort of do this well, but that’s what I hope for my legacy to be.