50: Her Make-a-Difference Life

50: Her Make-a-Difference Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
Her Make-a-Difference Life

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
~William James

“I’ve something to show you,” my girlfriend, Sue, said the minute I opened my front door. Shivering, she stepped inside, accompanied by a blast of cold air that would make any polar bear happy. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Sue and I were about to embark upon one of our heartfelt gabfests. I get together with Sue, a single mom and teacher, several times a year, and her laughter stays with me long after she’s gone.

We did our typical hug, how are you, you look great routine before settling into my living room, where Sue took a gallon-sized Ziploc bag out of her purse. “Rae made these,” she said with pride for her tough-minded, tender-hearted, twenty-seven-year-old daughter. “She’s selling them for extra money, doing all she can to supplement her job. Want to buy some?”

The “some” she was referring to were homemade holiday greeting cards, hand-stitched and adorable. I fell in love with a card featuring a plump embroidered snowman, its blue on black background and silky white thread already putting me in a Christmas frame of mind. Wanting to support Rae, I bought ten dollars worth of cards, but there was only the one snowman, and I told Sue I’d have trouble parting with it. She confessed to feeling the same way—she had one snowman left for herself—so we agreed to mail them to each other for Christmas, thus ensuring we’d each get to keep one. Now I know that sounds crazy, but my friendship with Sue is all about crazy.

After she went home, I smiled when I glanced at the snowman I would eventually send her. But the card didn’t make me think of Sue as much as Rae, so impassioned about her job at AmeriCorps, the humanitarian aid organization. I knew Rae earned less than $10,000 a year and had a mountain of school loans and bills to pay, but I also knew that she would sacrifice whatever was needed to continue her work. It inspired me to see someone so young making such a difference, despite financial struggles of her own, and it put a bit of perspective on our country’s current dire economy.

It all started for Rae when she traveled over a college spring break to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. During that time she discovered that she loved working outside, elbow to elbow with fellow students and faculty. She was first up on the roof each morning, last to put her tools away at night. Volunteering for Habitat confirmed what she was just beginning to understand about herself—she wanted to help others for a living.

This confirmation was further reinforced by a missionary trip to Africa that summer. Rae had heard about the trip at school, and in a matter of months, had raised the necessary funds to go. If Albuquerque had whispered in Rae’s ear, Africa truly opened her eyes. She’d seen how Africa was portrayed on TV, but the sheer poverty there didn’t hit her until she experienced it in person. She was unprepared for the magnitude of human suffering and felt instantly ashamed of all she had back home in the states. She and her mom had certainly never been rich in the “land of plenty,” getting by as they did on Sue’s teaching salary, but they had a full life, and they had never gone hungry.

As Rae’s group traveled through the slums of Nairobi to the orphanages of rural Kenya, she realized just how much she’d been blessed. Her heart went out to the children most. Curiosity clear in their wide, dark eyes, they poked at her freckles and stroked her blond hair. They delighted in the cookies and soccer balls the volunteers brought—things that Rae acknowledged she’d taken for granted all her life—and more than anything, they just wanted to be hugged. That was the paradox of it all, she marveled. These kids were truly happy, grateful for simple things. She met one little boy in a place called the “Blue Estates,” so dubbed for the “houses” made of corrugated blue tin, with potato sacks serving as beds and water the color of mud. At journey’s end, Rae couldn’t stop crying. This little boy had become her friend, and chances were she’d never see him again. What would his future be?

With Africa forever in her heart, Rae knew she could never go back to an office job, although some people said it was time to get “real” work. She ignored their advice and joined AmeriCorps, where she’s now employed with a program called “America Reads—Mississippi.” In a Jackson inner-city school, she helps kids from kindergarten to fifth grade with reading and life skills, and she knows these kids don’t have it easy. Most don’t sleep well or have enough to eat; some come ready to fight. So Rae does what she can. And if she ever feels a twinge of envy over someone else’s designer jeans or cool car, all she needs to do is remember “her kids.”

She’s comfortable with her life because she lives within her means. She and her fiancé Eliot, a Habitat staffer, have shopping down to a science, frequenting discount stores and donating to Goodwill. They laugh a lot too, which contributes to one of Rae’s main goals: to show her kids, with their sad eyes and fragile smiles, how to laugh. She probably gets that laughing thing from her mom.

It’s spitting snow when I run out to get my mail a week after Sue’s visit. Back inside, I open a familiar-looking envelope, and there it is: my snowman, the one that Rae made. Inside, Sue had written: “Here’s mine, as promised!”

I laugh, despite the grim economic reports and the concern that some in my family may lose their jobs. Overwhelmed by Christmas, I finish my cards several days before the big event. I know Sue must be wondering, so inside hers, I jot: “Finally yours—bet you were worried!”

I can almost hear her laughing across the miles, and somehow just the thought of that makes me laugh too. It occurs to me that maybe that’s how we’re all going to get through this, with a little laughter, a little craziness to keep us sane. Maybe we should try viewing our dire American economy not purely in materialistic terms, but as a chance to get back to the heart of things. Maybe this is our opportunity to rebuild our “land of plenty” in a different way, a kinder way, to join together and be grateful for our blessings, or as my friend Lisa says, to rejoice in the fact that we are here and alive.

Maybe we must remember, as another friend Ellen once told me, that God’s timing is always perfect, and that our human connectedness is part of a larger divinity that’s as powerful as reaching out to a small boy in Africa, or as simple as … exchanging little snowman cards.

~Theresa Sanders

More stories from our partners