Compassion, Opportunity, & the Pursuit of Luck: My Non-Judgmental Judging Experience

“Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”

We’ve all heard this old adage a million times before, but it’s one that seems to strike a chord with me over and over again as I go through life.

I believe I am a good, honest person. I work hard. I’ve dedicated myself to a career that allows me to help others. I do my best to learn and grow from my mistakes. And I pride myself on being helpful, generous, and empathetic. But recently, I was charged with a very difficult task that made me question my own character, my own strength.

I was asked to serve as a judge for the Live Your Dream Awards program. Each year, this transformative program provides cash grants to head-of-household women who are going back to school so they can create a better life for themselves and their children. I’ve worked for Soroptimist for 11 years and this program is one that keeps me so fulfilled in my job, as it very tangibly changes women’s lives. Each and every woman who receives the award is a true inspiration. They courageously overcome such tremendous life challenges, with just the smallest bit of help. An award totaling a few thousand dollars may not seem like a lot of money, but to someone who can’t feed her own children, it is life-changing.

Jessica as a little girl
Jessica as a little girl

I know this from personal experience. You see, I grew up in a family that struggled to get by. It was a family filled with great love, but as I learned at a young age, love does not put food on the table or pay the electric bill. Did my parents always make the best decisions? No, most definitely they did not. My father, though quite possibly the world’s most loving man, battled drug addiction and despite his undeniable love for us, it was a fight he could not win. And when my mother finally found the strength to leave him, I witnessed first-hand the challenges single moms face—a situation that, especially after having children of my own, I don’t think I will ever be able to fully grasp. But still, I was lucky, because throughout my childhood many kind people came into our lives and helped us along the way.

So as I sat there at my kitchen table, poring over the Live Your Dream Award applications from these five deserving women, I thought “who am I to judge these women?” I didn’t need to walk a mile in their shoes. I just needed a glimpse into their struggles to make me wonder—what if?

What if luck had gone a different way for me?

What if all those people who opened their hearts and held out their hands to me over the years, had not?

Where would I be today without that compassion?

Where would I be without opportunity?

And more important, who would I be? Who would any of us be in the face of true hardship?

The longer I sat at that table, surrounded by all the comforts of my home that now seem to come so easily to me, the answer became piercingly clear—I don’t know who I would be. Or if I would have the courage or the strength to do what these amazing women are doing, which is picking up, punching adversity in the face, and moving forward, each and every day. We’d all like to think we have that kind of power within us, but do we? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am eternally grateful to all those who helped me and believed in me throughout my 35 years of life. It is that compassion that has made me the person I am today—a person who believes in hard work, in paying it forward, in opportunity, and above all else, luck.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So as we’re all out there walking our own mile, let’s keep in mind how lucky we are to be in the skin we’re in, and do what we can to help those whose skin is not as lucky.

Jessica Puterbaugh is the Marketing and Design Specialist for Soroptimist International of the Americas/ She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and their two very spirited young daughters. 

Like Jessica, you can help women access education through the Live Your Dream Awards program!


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