Paying it Forward: Why Our Gifts Always Keep Moving
Sep 19, 2015

8 minute read


In 1989 Roger Montoya left a successful career as a professional dancer in New York City . At the age of twenty-nine, after studying, performing and touring with celebrated dance companies - Alvin Ailey, Parsons, Paul Taylor - Roger returned to his childhood home in Velarde, New Mexico.

Growing up in a rural village in northern New Mexico, Roger was loved and nourished by his parents, Jose Amado and Dorotea Montoya; nurtured by excellent teachers; and blessed with opportunities rarely available in such remote, financially distressed areas. Roger showed extraordinary promise. As a teenager he earned a ;place on the team representing the US and Canada, traveling to Romania, France and Denmark. At 20, he received a merit scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York City, which led to an astonishing life as a professional dancer, performing all around the world.

Why leave such an enviable position, at the pinnacle of such a career?

Roger had other dreams. He was keenly aware of the children in Velarde and other rural villages, children denied opportunities he had - unless someone gifted, talented, and experienced would arrive to offer what he, as a young boy, had once been offered.

So. Roger left New York to come home. To pay forward those gifts given to him.

* * *

He approached Bread for the Journey, a small, micro-granting group we started a few years earlier. He needed mats for the floor of a donated gymnasium he used after school, offering gymnastics and dance lessons for free, for any child that wished.

For $1600 Roger found a supply of used mats to cover a small section of the basketball court in the elementary school. On those first mats, twenty five years ago, Roger taught children from 3 to 18 years of age how to move. How to tumble, and fall, and spin, and dance. How to move inside their body.

How to fly through the air.

People who live close to the earth understand that gifts are the heart of any community. Gifts are life, and life must always move. Gifts form a vascular system that brings life-giving healing to this one, nourishment to that one. Gifts arise spontaneously, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

Many native and indigenous communities recognize that someone's value is not measured by what they accumulate, but what they give to the community. For the Chinook of the Pacific Northwest, the ceremony of potlatch, or giving-away, is tangible proof of a chief's reputation, which demonstrates his ability to share whatever he has with his community.

In such communities, a fierce inter-dependence is naturally presumed. We live and thrive because we need one another, we watch out for one another. The health and well-being of each person is directly linked and supported within the larger community.

The gift itself is less important than how it moves from one person to another, helping build and maintain relationships, sustaining the health of the community. As gifts move through the circle, they increase in value. The blessings of each gift multiply, again and again.

* * *

One essential quality of the gift is this: It cannot be allowed to stagnate. In our culture, wealth has been allowed to gradually grow, and accumulate at the top of the world.

The gift has stopped moving.

While it moves from person to person, company to company, around the penthouse floor, these gifts are effectively removed from circulation. The circle of our world, the larger human community, is bereft of so many of these precious and necessary gifts.

Because the gifts have stopped moving - blessing, healing and nourishing the entire circle of life - death, says the Urdu proverb, will surely come.

At the same time, Roger had developed a parallel interest in the visual arts, and became an acclaimed painter whose works are collected in the Southwest and major cities around the world. Over decades, Roger would approach BFJ, each time inspired by some fresh, new passion or idea. Something beautiful, exciting and impossible - for anyone but Roger. We invariably gave what we could, and watched as yet another magnificent community of young artists, painters, sculptors, musicians - older students now teaching younger ones - new classes of astonishing performers would miraculously emerge, a vastly blossoming garden erupting into riotous color, tended with skillful attention and an abundance of loving care.

* * *

Two years ago, Roger approached me again.

He and Salvador, his partner, had decided to join forces in helping co-create a public charter school with another inspired visionary, Praire Boulmier Darden.

Starting a state authorized public school - beginning with...nothing - was a Herculean task in itself. It would normally involve years of meetings, forums, integrated permissions from an endless sequence of city, county and educational departments, bureaus, committees and boards.

But Roger, Salvador, and a team of educators and community members were aiming even higher than that.

They had decided the school's curricula would be based on two essential precepts. First, students would develop a keen understanding and appreciation of the earth around them, with a necessary commitment to its sustainability. Second, all students would be completely immersed within, absorbing through lesson plans in every class, endless forms of creativity, imagination, wonder, and above all, artistic expression.

Art and the earth were the academic underpinnings of this Montessori-based, public charter school - open to any who wished to come. And they needed to begin immediately, as they had been authorized to open. Right away.

"So, Roger...When, exactly, is right away?" I queried.

"Oh. In six months." Roger's predictably unflappable reply.

Of course. Six months.

Were anyone in the world but Roger and Salvador at the helm of this ridiculously impossible idea, I would have wished them luck, and walked away.

But this was Roger, and Roger had made up his mind. Which meant I could see the school in his eyes, already completed. Before a single book, brick or piece of paper had been planned, imagined or collected.

So, all I could offer was my support - and my concern. He and Sal had been working long and hard for years, without a break. They were both exhausted, and bone-weary. But they were clearly going to build this school.

Still. I pleaded with them at least to find some good company. "You need more young people - people in their twenties and thirties, with energy, passion and commitment, to help you, to work beside you. Of course, we will support anything you do. But PLEASE, first find at least a few strong, energetic young people to help you make this happen. You can't do this one by yourselves."

Roger took my advice to heart, with a measure of politeness I knew all too well. It was purely a product of his good upbringing. I knew he neither heard nor believed a word I said.

Six months later, the school was up and running.

* * *

This past winter, on a snowy evening, I drove to the Open House for La Tierra Montessori School for the Arts and Sciences. There it was. A school serving 125 children in grades K-8 in the Espanola Valley of Northern New Mexico. The aging former school building they now occupied was lovingly reinvented in just six months with limited resources and an abundance of gifts - volunteer community expertise, time, care, support - the abundant gifts of good company.

They had also crafted a creative, ten year lease in partnership with the New Mexico Public Education Department and the tribal government of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, which provided the school a home.

This in itself was a dramatic public affirmation of how a gift can move, heal, and give birth to an impossible harvest. This fertile seed was the beginning of an exquisite, inter-cultural collaboration between Hispanic and Pueblo peoples. The abundance of gifts moving between and among disparate peoples revealed an educational, artistic unity rarely witnessed in northern New Mexico.

As I strolled from class to class, I spoke with students, teachers, parents of students. How did they come to be here, what was their relationship to the school, how did they find their way into such a radical, rural educational experiment in the remote villages on northern New Mexico?

One by one, as each told their story - it was always the same story. "I was student of Roger's when I was a little girl," said one of the math teachers.

"Roger taught my daughter for years, ever since she was four years old. Now, she is in college on a dance scholarship," said the man who was the head contractor. He explained all they encountered during the remodel, even leveling parts of the foundation.

"When we first moved in, you could drop a marble on the floor, and it would just roll from one side of the cafeteria to the other." He laughed as he spoke of the many hidden surprises - usually bad - that were somehow fixed, made well. Made better.

I met another young man who installed the computers and IT equipment for the teachers and students. Most of the equipment was donated by grateful parents of countless children who had been taught, and held, and lifted up by Roger, and Sal, and countless volunteers over so many years. "I took gymnastics with Roger since I was around ten," he offered. "When I heard Roger needed help, I called a bunch of my old classmates, and a lot of us just showed up to help, however we could."

At that moment, Roger came up beside me, greeted me with a big hug. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, said to a small circle gathered around us in a voice hat all could hear: "This is Wayne. He said we could never do this. He said I could never get this done. Well, I guess I showed him!"

I looked at him, opened my mouth in mock protest, and then surrendered to the laughter of old friends, the joyful relief of those old enough to know that life can be heart-shredding, impossibly hard - and also an unfathomably, unpredictably miraculous thing. We looked at one another and smiled. We knew what had happened. We knew why, and we knew how. It was instantly obvious, you couldn't help but see it.

Everywhere you looked, the gift was moving.

* * *

On a snowy evening in northern New Mexico, the gift was moving. And beauty, grace and wonder were blossoming everywhere you looked. Even in winter, when everything above ground appears to be dead, or dying.

But just beneath the surface, something strong, invincible, true, some new, as yet undiscovered gift is already moving, awaiting its season, silently preparing to erupt into some fresh, newly impossible adventure. Awash in colors, shapes, and textures of an abundant fertility one could never imagine possible.

I know this to be true. Because I have seen it, again and again. Some new, impossible gift will arrive. And when it does, e will know it by the way it moves, from person to person, blessing, growing, healing each, and all, along the way.


Wayne Muller is an executive leadership mentor, therapist, minister, community advocate, consultant, public speaker, and bestselling author. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he has spent forty years working with people whose gifts and challenges shape our organizations, our culture and our world. Learn more at

"Wayne on Wednesdays" is a weekly reflection on the resilience of the human spirit, the liberation of gifts and talents in people and communities, and collaborations that benefit everyone engaged in the delightfully impossible.