Over the holiday season, a few bloggers and I discussed how easily people slip into the “giving” spirit when mid-November rolls around. And then *poof* Just like that, people tend to slip right out of it when January appears. It got me thinking. How can we maintain this energy year-round?
Initially, I’d planned to “experiment” with different ways and then write this at the end of the year. But I figured some people might want to try with me, so instead, I’ve updated and re-blogged the post every four weeks.
The first thing I did was serve the homeless (January). I chose to volunteer at the Clara White Mission here in Jacksonville. The shelter is named after a black American who was enslaved on Amelia Island. Her daughter, Eartha became an entertainer and philanthropist, who cared about the poor and disenfranchised. Consequently, she founded the mission and named it after her mom.
Once a week for a couple of hours, I awoke from my usual slumber to literally bring plates of freshly cooked meals to patrons. Interacting with people of varied walks of life humbled me. Providing my time, instead of simply handing someone a dollar yielded a different type of energy.
Volunteering here is pretty simple. If you’re in the area, here’s the information. If not, then I’d encourage you to find a shelter/mission in your city.
People say that Christmas isn’t about giving and receiving gifts, but I can’t tell. It seems to be the part that everyone enjoys. And if you suggest removing it, then entire social media arguments ensue. I once read someone justify Christmas gifts with the story of the Three Wise Men.
The second thing I did was send people gifts (February). I began with my little sister friend’s birthday. I ordered Wandas from Two Dough Girls and had them delivered to her home. I also sent my little cousin a care package. She’s completing her first year at my alma mater, Western Michigan University. I asked her what she wanted/needed and she sent me a list. Dwight and I added her requests to our groceries and shipped them off. If you’ve ever been away from home, then you understand how exciting it is to receive free snacks and toiletries. Her older sister didn’t need anything, so I sent her a handwritten card with well-wishes and a copy of my book.
This next idea was a combination of a failed attempt to volunteer at a food pantry and something I’d seen other people do on social media. In February, I thought I was going to hand out food with United Community Outreach Ministry (UCOM). Instead, the director asked me to tidy up the toiletry section for an hour and a half. Although I saw the indirect benefit of helping her because she probably didn’t have time, I couldn’t see myself continuing to do this for three more weeks.
“I could do this myself, in my own way, I thought.”
That’s just what I did. The third thing I did was pass out goodie bags to transient people (March). I packed four 1-gallon Ziplock bags with deodorant, wipes, Vaseline, fresh fruit, granola bars, water, and five $1 bills. The first week, I started with the guy I see sleeping under I95. He mumbled something to me that I didn’t quite understand. The second week, I traveled downtown to where I know a group of the same population hangs out. Before I could make it there, a guy stopped me.
“Can I have that orange?” he asked
I gave him the entire bag. He seemed genuinely thankful, and even more excited when I told him there was money in there.
The third week, I was battling a cold and busy with book stuff, so Dwight gave a bag to an elderly gentleman with a cane.
I had planned to hand out the final bag on my way to Gainesville. For the past two years, I’ve noticed a small population of men who alternate holding a sign right at the Baldwin exit off I10. This time I tracked a guy as he crossed the street to nearby trees. I parked my car, walked over to the men who were seated around a makeshift living area, and handed the bag to the bearded man nearest the fence that separated us.
“God Bless you hun.” He said twice.
“You too luv,” I replied.
With this one, I’ve learned that the homeless population is invisible, until you open your eyes and look for them. Then, they’re right in front of your face, begging to be seen.
For the fourth service project, I decided to do something near and dear to my heart, tutor elementary school children. Can you believe it took me two months to find a place to actually volunteer? YReads, associated with the YMCA is the name of the program I chose. After I found a program, it took a full three months (or so) for me to be approved. I’d forgotten that working with children requires a million and one items: application, resume, three references, a webinar about not molesting children, and a background check. Sheesh! This is why I didn’t begin until April.
During April and May, I’ve tutored children in reading. But, these aren’t just any children. Have you heard the term ESL? If not, it stands for English as a Second Language. These children attend one of Jacksonville’s designated ESL schools. I typically have the same two students at the beginning of the hour. One is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the second half hour, I tutor students who are Hispanic, mostly from Mexico.
My time with these children has been hopeful. Little kids are vulnerable in ways that adults have learned not to be. For example, the Congolese girl moved to the States two years ago. English is one of four languages she speaks.
“Where you from?” she asked on day one.
“I live here in Jacksonville, like you,” I responded.
“Noooo. Where you from???”
She’s so perceptive. Guess she’d wondered, as others have asked before, you not from ‘round here, huh? I ended up telling her that I was born and raised in Chicago and her eyes brightened. From that day forward, I knew Maya and I had bonded.
Week three she thought I wasn’t coming, and when I walked in the door, her face lit up.
“You’re heeeere!” she exclaimed.
“Of course Maya! I’ve been looking all over for you. I thought you weren’t here,” I put on.
I love children of all ages. It’s one of three things with which I have a natural ability. Therefore, tutoring for one hour a week wasn’t strenuous. And although I don’t know for sure what the impact will be, I suspect I’ve positively influenced Maya’s life in some way just by being there.
YReads is a state of Florida initiative; however, I’m sure your city and state has a similar tutoring program designed to support children’s literacy. Tutoring is a way to give back to your own community that is sure to yield high returns.
*Maya is a pseudonym.
By June, I’d forgotten to formally give in some systematic way. However, I’m happy to report that I was still service-minded…it was just more natural.
My goddaughter and I traveled to Nashville the second week in June. There, we hung out on Broad Street with a friend of mine who we’d visited. I’d noticed the homeless population almost immediately and the busyness of the area allowed me to take some candid shots. Well, one man wouldn’t let me take a photo, unless I gave him some money. How much was up to me. I paid $2.00 for a shot of his sign. This, however, isn’t it lol I must’ve deleted it. But this is representative of the types of signs we saw that day.
A couple days later, we rented a car and drove to Memphis to visit my cousin. Here, people party on the infamous Beale Street. The evening wore into morning and clubs began to close. People began to filter back into the street. This is when I met a guy in a wheelchair. He explained to me that it cost $7.00 to enter one of the Memphis shelters. He had one dollar, so I gave him six more. And just as I’ve written before, I didn’t worry about if he actually used the money for housing; that’s none of my business.
Later that morning, my cousin had a breakdown where she revealed her disappointment in our relationship. She’d been suppressing these feelings for a few years. From what I could tell, she wanted more of my money, time, and affection, seemingly in that order. A former part of me would have dug deep and matched her hurt feelings with my own. But I’ve lived long enough to know that doesn’t help. Instead, I hugged her and listened. Later that day, I maintained my own silence and thoughts. Don’t get me wrong. I was mad; however, I chose not to allow my anger to drown out her opinion. Furthermore, when we went to lunch, I also chose to pay for her meal as an act of kindness.
The lesson I learned for Christmas in June is that sometimes it’s good to just go with the flow and give when necessary or as you can.
Additionally, I’ve learned to give without worry.
Many times I’ve not wanted to give to the homeless because I might need that $2 or I don’t want to pay for someone’s food because I’ve already paid for the last five meals when we were together. But in a way, that’s the opposite of an abundant mindset. Giving this year has shown me that I always have enough. I have so much that I can give time, money and resources freely without stress. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?
Soooo…one day I looked up at it was July 25th aaannnd I hadn’t maintained the Christmas Spirit for that month! Turns out the summer is the time when I’m most forgetful about these things cause I’m out frolicking and stuff.
For August, I paid it forward. In case you’re unfamiliar with this concept, the idea is instead of paying someone back for a good deed, you pay it forward by doing something nice for someone else. For example, during one of this summer’s vacations, our friends paid for all of our meals and museum exhibits. Instead of paying them back, we would just pay it forward by doing something for someone else. Typically, people associate this with literally paying for something for someone. So, that’s where I began.
I learned a few years ago that strangers tend not to accept face-to-face help. When I tried to pay for a guy’s groceries, he vehemently declined. This time around, I simply paid for the person behind me in the Starbucks line. It was done and I could zoom off before the driver knew what happened.
But paying it forward in that way seemed cliche. So the following week, I was more in tune with my surroundings and looked for ways to pay it forward without money. I suppose it’s just called helping someone. This worked out perfectly. Instead of ignoring the bewildered lady who’s never signed into the library’s computer, I stood beside her and patiently explained how to log in and find her name. Someone once had to do this for me too.
I continued paying it forward in this way by holding the door for a lady at yoga. I’d noticed some time ago that people are all Namaste while they’re in yoga, but will let that door slam in your face when it’s over. Instead of silently complaining, I decided to be the change I wanted to see. Another opportunity presented itself the following week. A lady in my Bodyworks class was running late, so I helped her set up her space by getting her dumbbells for her.
“Thank you so much! I was finishing my quinoa and fruit in the car,” she said.
Then, you know what happened? I was running late the next week, and she didn’t hesitate to help me set up so I could begin on time.
This month, I also participated in our citywide “Stuff the Bus” back-to-school campaign. I normally don’t do this because we have our own children’s school supply needs to fulfill, but again, there was that one year D and I needed a little extra help for our own daughters. Instead of paying that person back, I gave freely to support the children in my community.
Paying it forward really is just about being present and giving of oneself in ways that someone once gave to you.
There was a lot going on in the world in September. Natural disasters brought death, destruction, renewal, and rebuilding. Additionally, “regular” life is going on and many times that also requires help. So, for September, I donated and I donated, and I donated.
- I donated to the American Red Cross through a shoe store, called DSW. All you had to do was stop by a store and literally swipe your card. This was easy enough. However, afterwards I read that the American Red Cross isn’t trustworthy. Well, what’s done is done. I do hope that’s not true.
- Firehouse ran a campaign for Hurricane Harvey victims. All you had to do was round up your bill to the nearest dollar. This also seemed like a simple way to give, so I rounded my meal’s receipt to support.
- A friend of mine participated in a suicide prevention run. Consequently, I supported her by giving money to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
- My daughter’s friend’s birthday was September 20th. In addition to planning a huge surprise Sweet 16 Birthday party, her mother also wanted to buy her a car. She used a crowdfunding tool to raise money for this gift. While I don’t usually participate in GoFundMes and such, our family is pretty close to her, so I gave a few dollars for her cause.
- A friend of mine from high school also created and promoted a feed the homeless day in my home city, Chicago. She calls them “blessing bags.” They are the same concept that I did a few months back. While I had planned on actually sending toiletries, etc., I failed to plan how to execute it by the September 30th deadline. So, I gave money for You Matter Outreach Day (Feed the Homeless).
Around September, I asked for service project suggestions. Although I received some great ideas, one stood out. Ann from Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50 mentioned collecting duffel bags for foster care children because they’re always in transition and rarely have luggage. First, I contacted a couple of friends to find out if they could point me in the direction of a foster care home specifically for minority children. They could not. That’s when I used trusty Google.
Through a simple search, I found Family Support Services of North Florida. Their community service liaison, Dani said they needed diapers. A light bulb literally went off over my head. For October, I decided to host a virtual diaper drive. I’d planned on buying a pack of diapers each week anyway, but it seemed that including others would be even more helpful.
I was quite surprised by the outcome. A friend of mine from Illinois immediately sent $15 through Messenger. I transferred the money and purchased my first box. Other friends ordered diapers through Amazon or Walmart and had them sent to my home. Another friend who lives here in Jacksonville physically dropped off a box. A few bloggers participated by also mailing them. Wanda is one. And Michelle was another. Four weeks later, I was able to deliver 2,212 diapers.
I am grateful that, together, we were able to support a baby or family in need. This diaper drive has been the most internally rewarding activity. I really believe we need to encourage each other to be more giving in multiple ways. I hate to get all preachy, but a lot of times we expect someone else to help out or we think “help” has to be a grandiose idea. Or, we believe we have to join an organization to impact society in positive ways. Well, I’m here to say that support can be as simple as dropping off or sending a box of diapers at your local foster care home. If you don’t do it, then who will?
This year-long project really became a part of my being. I could tell because when Thanksgiving rolled around, I didn’t have the urge to do something nice for someone because I’d been of service the entire year. However, I did purchase a Barbie doll and give to Toys for Tots. This program runs from mid-November through December if you’re ever interested in giving. Toys can be dropped off at most Toys R Us.
A week later, when December 1st hit, I really hadn’t thought of a bang-up way to end the 12 months of service, so I combined two of the year’s ideas.
I began the month with a random act of kindness, and I have to tell you, it was quite natural. An older woman pulled up behind me in the Publix grocery store line. She was in one of those motorized scooters with the baskets attached.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
I’ve learned to ask first because some people get super ornery if you assume they can’t do it themselves.
She kind of glanced up at me, and then said, “Actually, I do.”
I placed all of her groceries on the conveyor belt, and she was pleased. She thanked me over and over again, and told me how much easier that made her shopping.
Imagine that. One act that took less than two minutes made this woman’s day.
Next, I decided to end the year the same way I began it, at the Clara White Mission serving breakfast to those who need it. I’ve since learned that the people who frequent this mission are not always homeless. Sometimes they are newly released prisoners; other times they are simply people who can’t afford to eat.
Either way, I spent three December Mondays with them.
I wished there were some grand finale with fireworks or something, but I suppose the endgame is the internal transformation that has occurred. And you’ll have to wait until January for that reflection 😉
If you celebrate something during this holiday season, then Happy Holidays to you! If not, then I wish you well on this day. I do hope these 12 months have been an inspiration for each of you to contribute to society in some way.