Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Marisa Donnelly of Be A Light Collective Decided To Change Our World

Regardless of who you are or what you care about, we each have something distinct and valuable to offer the world. If there’s something in your heart, or something that you feel called to create or do, listen to that. The chances you take and the changes you make will impact more than you know. You just […]

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Regardless of who you are or what you care about, we each have something distinct and valuable to offer the world. If there’s something in your heart, or something that you feel called to create or do, listen to that. The chances you take and the changes you make will impact more than you know. You just have to start.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marisa Donnelly.

Marisa Donnelly is a writer, editor, teacher/coach, and founder of Be A Light Collective, an educational services business that specializes in SEO-friendly copywriting, editing, writing coaching, and English/Language Arts tutoring with a focus on building relationships and community.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

When I first launched my writing career, my bio was always “Chicago-born, San Diego based.” I’m proud to be from the Chicago area (okay, the suburbs) and the Midwest will always have my heart, even though the ocean is where I call home.

From a young age, I was always interested in writing. And teaching. And recording videos. And taking pictures. And making poems. If you haven’t picked up on this already, I’ve been a multi-passionate person for as long as I can remember. In a world that often pushes us to become one thing, I grew up loving everything. I want to say that even as recent as two years ago, I was trying to mold myself into a person with one outlet, one focus — but that just isn’t me. I think, because of how I’ve grown up, it’s become my personal goal to remind people (especially those like me) that it’s okay to follow your heart in many directions. Being a multi-passionate person is a good thing.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

I founded my business, Be A Light Collective, because I feel that our education system is truly lacking customized curriculum and one-on-one support. As a licensed teacher myself, I know that this is no fault of the educators themselves, but to the system that’s, unfortunately, filled with too many students in each class and too many diverse needs that aren’t being met.

My business aims to change that by offering services that are as unique as the clients who invest in them. My focus has always been on relationships, and each service: writing coaching, tutoring, editing, etc. is geared towards building a connection with the client and becoming a partner on his or her journey.

Beyond the services, the mantra of the business centers on the idea of ‘light’ — light being inspiration, hope, empowerment, etc. I created an online community that’s continually growing. This is a safe space to spread thoughts and encouragement, to share creative work, to network with other like-minded people, and to be connected in a world that’s so often filled with isolation and fear.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Be A Light Collective was created for two distinct reasons. First, because of my own personal experience with writing and editing. As a writer, I found myself sending submissions to magazines and online verticals with no response or a simple, ‘Rejected’ email, over and over again. As an editor, I found myself on the other side of those emails, forced to send messages that were impersonal simply because I didn’t have the time when cycling through hundreds of submissions per week.

I left a large magazine and more corporate way of thinking because I wanted to invest in individuals.

I wanted to send personalized emails helping writers know what, specifically, they could work on in order to grow. I wanted to be a writing coach who was able to invest in her clients and really help them reach the next level. I also simply wanted to create an encouraging and safe online space.

As a teacher, I was driven to launch Be A Light because I worked with so many students (and eventually my son fit into this category as well) that were simply lost. They couldn’t get the instruction they needed, they were behind, and they were losing hope. Be A Light Collective, and specifically the educational piece, was built to help students (of all ages) who feel lost and on the verge of giving up. My hope, through the personal and dedicated one-on-one services, is to encourage those students and remind them that differences, disabilities, and other learning challenges are not a measure of someone’s worth.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My ‘aha’ moment wasn’t a single moment; it was a series of feelings that happened over time. Months leading up to the shift from my full time job at a larger publication to my own business, I felt so called to seek change. The best way I can explain it is that I had this dizzying feeling deep within me. I knew I was being pushed in a direction of independence, but I just wasn’t sure how or when.

I think the final ‘trigger,’ if you will, was when I recognized that I would never be fully ‘ready’ (honestly, we’re never fully ‘ready’ for anything in life!) so I decided to jump in.

Months down the road, I was working with a client who was in a completely different industry. She was an accountant and I was helping her recreate her resume. I remember being terrified that I wouldn’t know how to help someone with such a different background, but when we started our coaching package, everything just flowed. Walking away from that first session, I almost cried. I felt so aligned, so confident in knowing I was doing the right thing. I think that was my ‘aha’ moment — it was the recognition, the affirmation from the universe that I was on the right path.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I think the biggest thing I would share with young entrepreneurs or budding business owners is that you can’t be afraid to simply start. I’ve actually recorded quite a few podcast episodes on this topic and write about it quite often because I think that fear is the biggest thing that holds us back.

You’ll never have everything figured out, or know exactly how things are supposed to go. You’ll never be fully confident in the business end of things (especially if you’re not a business person). But you can’t let those things hold you back.

Create lists for yourself, do the groundwork research, cross one small item off at a time, make a budget, be realistic about expectations and goals, and move forward, inch by inch. It’s also helpful to have people in your corner who you can trust, too. Don’t carry everything alone.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I’ve had the privilege of working with and serving the needs of so many incredible people. I think one of the coolest opportunities that has come from the business recently, is that a writer from India reached out and we recently launched a writing collaboration that connects our networks from opposite corners of the world. The collaboration is a vertical dedicated to inspiration and empowering others through words. It’s been a powerful reminder that the things we do and care about can truly impact others (even more than we know).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

In my first year of business, I kept track of all my records and payments on an Excel spreadsheet. To my credit, it was organized, but there was no rhyme or reason as to how I set things up or kept track of information. My tax accountant was not pleased. Haha.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Honestly, I am influenced by each and every one of my clients. What inspired me to start the business was budding writers and creators because I saw myself in each of their eyes. What’s helped me keep going is reminding myself that quality conversations and positive educational opportunities create a ripple effect. If I help one person, that person can help another, and another, and suddenly so many lives are changed.

I also want to recognize the people in my life who have pushed me. I’m thankful for my family, whose support has reminded me that I don’t have to be limited in my thinking or my passions. I’m thankful for my fourth grade teacher who first encouraged me to write and for my college professors who inspired me to continually question the possibilities. I’m also thankful for the strangers who have taken the time to read my work and connect with me personally, offering encouragement and thanks for the writing I create. Those little gestures have impacted me more than they realize.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I launched my online community, I was blessed with contributing writers who were just as on fire for my mission as I was. Without hesitation, they were sending in writing to be published, marketing the writing on their pages, and looking to help the community grow. I am thankful for people who are selfless and thinking of the whole first. That’s incredibly humbling.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think that people just need to be more vocal in asking what they need — in all areas of life. Too often we accept what’s given to us because we don’t know better, because we’re scared to ask, or because it feels like the result is all there is. If we question the norms, if we push back against what doesn’t feel right, and if we get loud about the opportunities we deserve, hopefully this will begin to change the world we live in, especially with respect to education.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Relationships will fade and that isn’t a measure of your worth. After launching my business, my life completely changed. A few years later, I met a man (and his son) who I’ve built a life with. Although I’ve gained so much, I lost quite a few friendships in those transitions. And it hurt for years. For so long, I was focused on what I’d lost, trying to rationalize, trying to seek closure, and trying to blame myself. What I wish someone told me is that when you grow in big ways, the people who are no longer in alignment won’t mesh with this new version of you. As hard as it is, something growth equates to relationships dissolving. And that’s okay. It makes room for the right people to come along
  2. You don’t have to carry everything on your shoulders. Boy, I’m still learning this one! I have trouble resting and trouble letting others take the reins because I’ve always been so driven to achieve and be the best version of myself. While these are positive traits (within reason) I think it’s so important to recognize that you don’t have to do things alone.
  3. When you’re aligned, things will get easier. Don’t get me wrong, life will never stop being hard. But when you’re on the right path and surrounded by the right people, it won’t constantly feel like an uphill battle. You’ll recognize that something feels different — that’s alignment.
  4. It’s okay to say ‘yes’ to things that fill you. I’ve always had a ‘yes’ mindset. I’ve always piled my plate far too full. Throughout my college years and early twenties, I was encouraged, time and time again, to stop. To slow down. To be less. To say ‘no’ to things in order to stay balanced. This was well-meaning advice, but not for me. Although I’ve learned the value of resting (and it’s still a work in progress, if I’m being honest) I firmly believe that if you want to grow as a person and impact people outside of yourself, you have to say ‘yes’ to what sets your soul on fire.
  5. Your sensitivity is your strength. I spent years feeling ashamed of my big heart, of my sensitive soul, of my willingness to love freely. I’ve learned that this emotional part of me is what drives my business, is what has defined my writing career, and is now what I’m the proudest of. Since this realization, I’ve made it my personal mission to encourage and remind people (especially women) that being sensitive is not weak. Being sensitive is the strongest thing you can be.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Life is too short to not do what matters. I think, as a multi-passionate person, this has been my biggest lesson. I spent so much of my life trying to fit into a box — be only a teacher, only a writer, only a person of faith, only a mom, only an influencer, etc. I thought that I had to choose, that I had to narrow my focus. But the opposite was true.

When I really started leaning into the person I was, I created opportunities for myself and others. I realized my true purpose, and how I could help people. And that wasn’t by limiting myself!

Regardless of who you are or what you care about, we each have something distinct and valuable to offer the world. If there’s something in your heart, or something that you feel called to create or do, listen to that. The chances you take and the changes you make will impact more than you know. You just have to start.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

So many people have inspired me. I’ve been particularly fond of Kim Addonizio’s poetry and Jodi Picoult’s realistic fiction writing for years. There’s something about the perfectly-crafted imagery and authenticity that shines through their work that has guided me forward and reminded me of the value of writing with heart.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have a website, a personal blog, and a business website. I’m also active on FacebookInstagram (and the Be A Light Instagram), Twitter, and LinkedIn. Readers can also purchase my poetry collection, Somewhere on a Highway, right here.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you for the opportunity! I’m honored.

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