33: All That We Can Give

33: All That We Can Give

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles

All That We Can Give

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

~John F. Kennedy

On Thanksgiving Day I awoke on the mattress that I shared with my two young children and tumbled into despair. At the time I was twenty-five and recently divorced. It was three days to payday and there was no money left. I had a job, but was only making $300 a month, and that month’s entire paycheck had already gone to pay for the apartment and food for my little boys. I had swallowed my pride and applied for food stamps, but had been turned down — because I made two dollars over the monthly limit.

On that Thanksgiving Day, there was nothing left to eat in the house but three hot dogs.

Perhaps hardest of all was my feeling of isolation. There were no friends to help. No one had invited us to share the holiday dinner. The loneliness was worse than the ever-present hunger.

But it was Thanksgiving, and for the sake of the children, I knew I had to make the best of the day.

“Come on, boys,” I said. “Today’s a special day. We’re having a picnic!”

Together the three of us went to the park and cooked the hot dogs on the grill. We played happily together until late in the afternoon.

But on the way home, the boys asked for more food. The single hot dog they had eaten did not come close to being a decent meal. I knew they were hungrier even than they let on.

I tried to joke about it with them, but inside I was very, very scared. I didn’t know where our next meal was going to come from. I’d reached the end of my rope.

As we entered our apartment building, an old woman I’d never seen before stepped directly into our path. She was a tiny thing wearing a simple print dress, her wispy white hair pulled up in a bun. With her smile of greeting, she looked like a kindhearted tutu, an island grandmother.

“Oh, Honey,” the old lady said as the boys and I started to walk past. “I’ve been waiting for you. You left this morning before I could catch you. I’ve got Thanksgiving dinner ready for your family.”

Caught by surprise, I thought that I shouldn’t accept such an offer from a complete stranger. With a word of thanks, I started to brush past.

“Oh,” said the old lady, “but it’s Thanksgiving. You have to come.”

I looked at my boys. Their hunger tore at me. Even though it was against my better judgment, I accepted.

The old lady’s apartment was on the ground floor. When she opened the door, we saw a beautiful table set for four. It was the perfect Thanksgiving meal with all the traditional trimmings. The candles were lit and it was obvious that guests were expected. We were expected.

Gradually I began to relax. We all sat down together to enjoy the meal. Somehow, I found myself talking freely of my loneliness, the difficulty of raising two small boys by myself and of the challenges I was facing. The grandmotherly woman listened with compassion and understanding. I remember I felt that for that time, at least, we were home.

As the evening ended, I wondered how I could possibly express my thanks for such incredible kindness. Eyes brimming, I simply said, “Thank you. I know that now I can go on.” A complete stranger had reached out and given our little family such an important gift. The boys were grinning from ear to ear as the elderly lady loaded them down with Tupperware bowls full of leftovers.

We left her apartment that evening bubbling with joy, the boys joking and laughing. For the first time in a long time, I felt certain that I could face what had to be faced. I was a different person from the scared girl I had been that morning. I’d somehow been transformed. We all had.

Early the next day, in a happy mood, I went back to visit my new friend and to return the borrowed bowls. I knocked, but there was no answer. I looked through an open window.

What I saw shocked me. The apartment was completely empty. There wasn’t a stick of furniture. There wasn’t anything.

I hurried down to the manager’s apartment. “What happened to the elderly lady in apartment three?” I asked.

He gave me a look and said, “What lady? That apartment’s been vacant for the past ten or twelve weeks. Nobody lives there.”

“But I had Thanksgiving dinner last night with the lady who lives there,” I told the manager. “Here are her bowls.”

The manager gave me a strange look and turned away.

For many years, I didn’t tell anyone the story of that special Thanksgiving. Finally, in 1989, I felt compelled to speak out.

By then, I had become the wife of the Kahu Doug Olson, Pastor of Calvary by the Sea Church on O’ahu.

I went before the congregation and told them of my dream: to establish a program to help women in Hawai’i who find themselves in a situation similar to the one I had faced so many years ago.

Now, over a decade later, the Network has helped over 1,400 homeless, single mothers and their children to get back on their feet. After “graduation,” a remarkable 93 percent of the families continue to support themselves. Last year’s budget, which is funded by state, church and private monies, was $700,000.

I really surprised myself by telling the congregation my entire story that day, but I think it was meant to be. In the end, helping the homeless with money and food is only secondary.

What I learned on that Thanksgiving Day is that an hour of being loved unconditionally can truly change a life. In the end, it is all that we can give.

And the name of the organization?

Angel Network Charities, of course.

~Ivy Olson

Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawai‘i

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