By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF chair & freelance aviation/travel journalist and blogger
Editor’s note: the Saturday before the NABJ Convention in New Orleans, I got a Facebook message from Sarah Smith asking for help to get to the convention. I’ll be blunt; I wasn’t inclined to help. I had received pleas from several students and dug into my pocketbook to help (I love the NABJ Babies). But she dropped the name of Kirstin Garriss, one of my absolute favorite mentees, so I bit. And I’m glad I did. Sarah is an amazing person, and her story is below. Enjoy!
Do I really want to be a journalist anymore? It has been months since I officially graduated college. I landed two major Hollywood internships while in school, but yet they aren’t knocking down my door. I didn’t even get the receptionist position at my local news station because they said I’m over qualified. And lastly I have no reporter reel!”
That was me venting to my godmother on May 28, 2012. And that was the night she introduced me to her best-kept secret — her niece, Kirstin Garriss.
Kirstin is a NBC Desk Assistant in Washington, D.C. We spoke over the phone and she immediately told me different things I needed to do, such as sending her my resume and cover letter for critiquing. We emailed, texted, and spoke over the phone for the next few days. Once my resume was good enough, it was time for that next step.
Kirstin told me about the 2012 NABJ Convention in New Orleans and my first reaction was I would love to but, I don’t have the money. How can I afford to pay to invest in my future when I can’t even pay my rent in the present! So I gave up on that nice idea — briefly.
A few days later, Kirstin emailed me about a CNN Reception at the convention; they were looking for recent graduates to fill entry-level jobs. Immediately my eyes lit up! CNN! I must go! I love CNN and Soledad O’Brien is in my list of favorite people! So I emailed the contact and completed the information that they requested of me. This was an RSVP-only event and I was now locked in. The only catch was, it was in New Orleans.
Soon after I was confirmed for the job reception I thought to myself “what have you done? You know you don’t have the money!” But then another thought came over me. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten myself into a sticky situation and the way I got out was talking to people and exhausting every resources.
I figured out how much I would need and sent out text message asking people for as little as $10. When doing something like this I say proceed with caution, because you’ll soon realize who’s willing to support you and who’s not. I had people not respond, some lie and say they would help, and some say they couldn’t help. Those response didn’t outweigh those who were willing to help though. But that wasn’t enough; I needed to have more determination and assistance.
After making a lot of calls, I was lucky that my old boss knew Anita Blanton, a news anchor for KOCO in Oklahoma City. My boss explained to Anita my financial situation and explained that if I came to New Orleans, I would need somewhere to stay. Anita contacted some of her journalist friends in the area who were going to NABJ and they agreed to allow me to share a room with them. Yes! I thought, one thing crossed off my to-do list.
Editor’s note: Sarah asked me to include the paragraph below.
The day before I was flying out to N.O. Kirstin reminded me to bring business cards and my resume. I only had enough money to print my resume but not any business cards. I called a local print shop in Oklahoma City, Joy & Trinity Printing and explained my situation to a Mr. James Bryant.
I asked if he’d be willing to sponsor at least 50 business cards for me. He said he liked that I’m doing something for myself & would be glad to help. I emailed him my information and then an hour later instead of picking up 50 business cards, Mr. Bryant had 100 business cards waiting for me!
Now on to how I would get there. I made a lot of phone calls and even contacted my university about what I was trying to do. After hearing a lot of “no, we can’t help you,” I went to the most valuable thing I have — my friends. I let them know what was wrong and how I was just going to give up on going. But then without even having to request it, they put their heads together and helped raise the money for me to come to New Orleans.
They asked people they knew and told them about me and my goals. We also attended the Oklahoma Juneteenth Celebration and gave out Blow Pops and Dots candy, asking for donations from the community.
My friends, who were pageant queens, wore their crowns and sashes so we could stand out from the crowd. I myself am a former queen and utilized skills that I learned. I walked up to people to total strangers and told them who I am, this is what I’m doing, and this is how you can help me so that I can eventually help our community. The more people we spoke with the more I started noticing how us just being out there trying to achieve something, anything that it empowered people and ourselves.
At the end of the day, we counted our hard work and made enough money to get me to New Orleans. Kirstin’s was thrilled when I told her I made enough to go but then my happily-ever-after moment was over once Kirstin told me I had to register for the convention. I originally thought I’d go to the CNN reception, then check out NABJ as well.
After voicing my concerns to Kirstin, she told me to contact her Aunt Benet through Facebook and explain my story. I did exactly what she said and contacted Aunt Benet. To my surprise Benet gave me an immediate response and told me she would handle registration for me but in return I had to be her intern, saying I needed to work for the bigger opportunity that she was trying to give me. I agreed and was re-energized once again!
I then had everything I needed — until I realized the tires on my car needed to be replaced, so I couldn’t drive. If it’s not one thing it’s another! Here I am, 2 days before the conference — now what do I do?
Again I was even more cut throat in finding away there! I had too many people who I couldn’t let down! I had a charge account and could bill a one-way flight. Not knowing how I would get back to Oklahoma, I took the risk. Then I received a phone call the night before I left that my assistant pastor would contribute enough money for me to book a return flight.
I woke up extra early, drove across town, picked up his contribution and then headed to the airport. Once I landed in New Orleans, I booked my return flight the next day! And the rest is history! I made it!
I’m currently writing this on my third day at the convention. I met With CNN yesterday and blew them away. I did things that not everyone would do to get here. Some people told me they would be too embarrassed to be out there asking for assistance for the fear of being looked down upon. But that’s what’s so great about this — I was successful in what people said I couldn’t and shouldn’t do. I got here, I reached a short-term goal to set myself up for my long-term goals.
This conference and the CNN reception have shown me that I have the desire to be a journalist. But my friends and my community pulling together showed me that they believe in my ability to be a Journalist. I will never forget capturing this moment and cannot wait until it’s my turn to be the one to believe in someone else.