Jake’s Story

Jake’s Story

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Gift of Christmas

Jake’s Story

The world is hugged by the faithful arms of volunteers.

~Terri Guillemets

I entered my office on the afternoon of December 20th and turned on the “mood lighting.” The Christmas lights that bordered the ceiling gave the room a soft glow. Since I was practically living in my cubicle, I’d gone ahead and made it cozy. As the Volunteer Coordinator for one of the largest lighted Christmas events in the state of Washington, I experience stress that makes even my shoulder blades burn, since I’m responsible for filling 2,500 volunteer positions in the month of December alone. This is much like packing a clown car with greased pigs.

Although it was still five days before Christmas, all holiday sentiment had long since left me. Since September, light-hanging crews had been decorating the grounds, dragging endless collections of brightly colored Santa displays and Titanic-sized Christmas trees out of storage. The crews spent endless hours draping the trees in lights as they hung suspended in cherry pickers like giraffes with heads stretched to the treetops. October brought a barrage of Christmas planning meetings where staff sang carols and ate candy cane-shaped cookies.

November brought sixty-hour workweeks. My job was to enter event data into my scheduling book ten hours a day as I sat alone in my dimly lit office, coming out only occasionally for snacks and naps. More decorating crews invaded campgrounds and took the interiors of every building by force, dousing them with garland and ribbon. By the time December 1st rolled around, every square inch of the grounds and the staff members’ spirits were dripping with Christmas. If there had been an earthquake, Oregon would have experienced the Christmas splatter, and I would have been happy to have been sloshed out of Washington with it. By this time I had overdosed on Christmas and was mentally in the doldrums of January.

Every ring of the phone made my left eye twitch as I watched my evening volunteer schedule turn into a target at a gun range, as caller after caller took aim and destroyed my carefully devised planning. The call that came the afternoon of the 20th at first seemed no different. The voice on the other end introduced herself as Kimberly, and I could tell that her story was not going to be short. I sighed silently, thinking of the workload that was pressing in on me as the 5:00 opening hour drew closer.

Kimberly told me that she hadn’t heard about the volunteer opportunities available until late in the game, and she was calling to see if there were still any positions available on the remaining nights. She added that her son Jake was developmentally challenged. She assured me the Jake was a very hard worker and excited about the prospect of coming to help.

“It just takes Jake a little longer to process things.”

Kimberly also explained what a relief it would be for Jake to have something to do since she’d been diagnosed with cancer and her energy levels were low. She was unable to get out much, and Jake was going stir-crazy. By the end of the conversation my eye had ceased its twitching.

A few days later I made my way up to the lobby to meet Jake. In front of me stood the character of Lenny from Of Mice and Men personified. Jake was a giant of a man, strong, who loved horses and working on farms. After meeting him I regretted having to tell him I could offer him very little work. He’d volunteered so late in the season that my schedule was bursting at the seams. I watched Jake and his mother’s faces slowly fall as the conversation progressed. They had hoped for more, but they understood.

Feeling a bit of a failure, I glanced away, only to discover that it was time for our staff debriefing before the gates opened. I had to go.

I sat down in my usual chair and stared at the table in front of me, mentally scanning my scheduling book looking for any openings. I’d become an expert at drowning out voices in any room while doing this. It took Mark, the supervisor of the pony rides, several attempts to get my attention. He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, straw stuck in his hair. Then he bent over, placing his elbows on the table in front of me and put his head in his arms. I heard his muffled voice say, “If I have to lift one more kid on one more horse, I may die.”

While I had gotten Mark plenty of volunteers, they were all under 5’2” and 120 pounds. So Mark had single-handedly become responsible for lifting children up to sixty pounds onto horses for five hours a night. And he’d be doing it for the remaining six nights the event was open.

“I just need someone with a strong back, Jessica, even if it’s just for a couple hours.”

A smile lit up my face.

“I think I know a guy.”

A phone call later Jake was scheduled to help Mark each night through the end of the event. I later came to find out that Mark had grown up with an autistic brother. He and Jake were the perfect fit for each other.

The next day I pretended to work in my office until the gates opened and then eagerly made my way toward the pony rides. It was a slow night, and Jake sat with his back to me on the platform that the children stood on to be lifted onto the horses. Another volunteer waved at me, and Jake turned around. A moment later he recognized me. A giant smile lit up his face.

“JESSICA!” his voice boomed. Realizing how loud he was, he lowered his volume and covered his smile. I heard my name again through his hand. “Thank you so much for getting me this job. Mark says I’m doin’ a good job, and he gave me a hug, and guess what? My mom is so proud of me!”

And then Jake hugged me with his big bear arms. My muffled, cracked voice came from the inside of the elbow of his winter coat.

“I’m proud of you too, Jake.”

As I walked back to my office, tears streamed down my face, and I smiled. Little did Jake know that with one hug and his selfless spirit he had given me back my Christmas.

~Jessica Beach

More stories from our partners