Pursuit of Passions

09/01/2021 01:09 AM By Lisa Anderson
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RJ Jenkins
R.J. Jenkins
Story & Photo by Lisa Anderson

Pursuit of Passions

Volunteering Fills His Cup

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Raised in Sarasota, Florida, R.J. Jenkins has spent the last five years in Ocala, volunteering and becoming a champion of the city. “In full disclosure, I had come from some of the most liberal places on the planet. So, I was not convinced when I came to Ocala that I was going to be able to find people. What has been very cool is that I have found my people, but they are of all political persuasions. So, that’s been very eye-opening for me. I’m forced to rethink some of my preconceived notions about what a place is like or what a group of people might be like,” he admits. “I really, really like it here. I have met so many wonderful people.”

The Order of Things

R.J. is currently the Executive Committee President for the Marion Literacy Council, the Board of Directors President at the Reilly Arts Center, a founder of the Reilly’s Associate Board, and a strong supporter and volunteer for many other Ocala-based non-profit organizations, but before his love for this city began, R.J. threw himself into his academics.

“My home life wasn’t whimsical. I had a very broken childhood in some ways. Lots and lots of good memories peppered through what was actually a pretty difficult childhood.”

There were harder issues happening in his home—from substance abuse to divorce—but school was a place he could take refuge. Rules and praise for following the rules became very therapeutic, and they set in motion a passion for reading and teaching. “I’ve always been verbal. I was always a sucker for authority. My brother chafed against authority, and I was cuddled up to [it]. I always wanted to please. I always admired my teachers. Books about an ordered universe were [also] very therapeutic.”

His love of learning is evident through his academic credentials: A bachelor’s degree in English and Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University (New York City, New York) and a master’s degree in English from the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, England). He went on to do doctoral work in 19th-century British Literature at Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts), but it was a research trip to Kenya and a scary bout of malaria between his sophomore and junior years at Columbia that caused R.J. to really focus on his passion for English.

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Published October 1, 2021
RJ Jenkins
R.J. Jenkins
Story by Lisa Anderson

Intentional Giving

The Conclusion of R.J. Jenkin's Story

“When I came to Ocala, I had no friends, which was odd, because I’m the type of person to have friends,” R.J. Jenkins explains. “I’m a very social person.”

He teases his partner Todd that they had four months of “absolute bliss,” when R.J. first moved to Ocala. They had been keeping up a long-distance relationship, and their reunion felt like a honeymoon. As most couples do, they finally had a big disagreement. “I stormed out of the kitchen and got into my car. I realized I had nowhere to go. I had no friends.”

When R.J. started thinking of finding people with whom he’d get along, he felt volunteering his time was a great place to start. “I think we have an incredible non-profit community here. ‘I’d like to help,’ is a real door-opener—especially when people sense that you want to help with no real agenda, other than really trying to help.”

He kept offering his time for things that he had a genuine interest in. “I tried to be really intentional about my time and think seriously about where my values aligned with the values of the organization. Through that work, I have found my people. I went from not knowing anyone five years ago to being very evangelical about Ocala.”

R.J.’s passion for language, reading, and the Ocala community are palpable, as he talks, and the community has embraced him in return. “I think one of the things that worked out well for me is that I really tried to be thoughtful about what I was doing in the beginning. Once the community starts to see you in these sorts of roles, they start to see you as that [type] of person.”
Read the October 2021 Issue Online