72: No Strings Attached

72: No Strings Attached

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

No Strings Attached

Believe you can and you’re halfway there.

~Theodore Roosevelt

I sat at my desk and stared at the pink slip in my hand. Like many other non-tenured personnel in my school district, I would now spend my summer updating my résumé and looking for a job. We would have to purchase health insurance out of pocket and pay a much higher premium until the end of the year. This also made it much more challenging paying college expenses for my son and daughter.

There was additional fallout — a part of my job had been to create service projects for students in the community. Six months previously, I had planned and organized a major community fundraising dinner to benefit our community food bank, Cullman Caring for Kids. The concept for an “empty bowls” fundraiser was not new, though it was new to our community. This fundraiser provided much-needed revenue for the food bank and involved students of all ages, businesses, churches, artists and musicians in our community. The plan consisted of local potters and students making keepsake clay bowls to serve soup and chili to the people attending the dinner. Afterward, the bowls would be a daily reminder of the hungry people in our community.

This was the perfect service project for our community, whose food bank frequently had to close its doors because the number of people financially struggling increased while the funding and donations decreased. The first event had been held the previous November, after a mere two months of planning. We had expected to serve about two hundred people and raise about $2,000. However, the response from the community was far greater than we anticipated, with more than six hundred people attending and $5,400 raised for the food bank. In fact, we ran out of homemade chili and clay bowls. Ultimately, we had to send high school students all over town to buy every can of chili they could find in order to continue serving people.

Our community loved the event, and everyone was excited about it — from the potters making the bowls and the students making placemats and busing tables, to the musicians, the people serving and working in the kitchen and the people donating the food and the facility. Literally, the whole community worked to make it possible, and it was a tremendous blessing to all involved. The financial contributions enabled the food bank to stock its shelves for several months. Everyone wanted to make it an annual event and our small committee was already hard at work planning the following year’s dinner.

I thought of Bobby, the man who prepared our food, and his passion for helping the hungry people of our community. On his own, he raised the money needed to purchase the food for the event and spent long hours in the kitchen preparing chili and making sandwiches. I thought of Sandra, the college art instructor who, in her excitement, had made hundreds of bowls and recruited others to do the same. I also thought of the hundreds of other people in our community who wanted to help their neighbors through the fundraising project.

What would happen to it now? Because my job was being downsized, I was not sure if anyone else would continue to plan and coordinate the event, and if anyone did, would he or she do it with the passion that only the author of it would feel? Could I take the chance? After much thought, I knew that I had to do the right thing. It would be selfish of me to let my wounded ego and the lack of a paycheck be the end of this wonderful event. So, I checked with my former employer for approval to continue the project independently. They said yes, and were in fact grateful that the project would continue. Therefore, my small committee and I decided to step out, independent of any large organization, to continue the project on our own.

Over the years, our small planning committee — Bobby, Sandra, Jane, Lynn, TJ, and several others — and I have faced many challenges. However, we can truly say that the blessings have far outweighed the work and its obstacles. I personally have learned a lot about leadership and responsibility in ways that I probably would never have learned otherwise. I have learned that some of life’s greatest disappointments ultimately give us the opportunity to grow in confidence and stand a little taller.

In February 2016, we will celebrate our thirteenth anniversary. To date, we have raised over $110,000 for our community food bank and we are eagerly looking forward to reaching the $200,000 mark. We have even written and illustrated a children’s book, The Story of Empty Bowls in Our Town, and later a song was written. The book chronicles the story of how people in our community use their unique gifts and talents to help others and make this special night possible. Each year we eagerly look forward to a wonderful night of music and fellowship that warms the soul and chili that warms the body on a winter’s night. It’s like a family reunion when everyone gathers to celebrate. Friendships are renewed and spirits lifted as together we raise money for those in need.

Sometimes I think of what I would have missed if I had given up, and am so thankful that God gave me the grace and courage to step out in faith. Looking back, I truly believe that everything turned out just the way He intended it to. I also have learned that the greatest things that we can do are done out of love without any thought of a paycheck.

~Tanya Shearer

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