From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

A Twist of Fate

Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.

Rabindranath Tagore

“Would you care for a glass of milk?” I asked innocently.

As he nodded yes, I saw dirt matted in his hair and smelled the stench of stale cigarette smoke embedded in his coat.

“How’s it going today?” I continued as I handed over the carton of milk.

No response. “Is there anything else you need?” Nothing.

This just didn’t happen once; it happened dozens of times. As a teenager, I was the cheerleader for Loaves and Fishes, a program my mother started at our church. We served meals to anyone who showed up, primarily street people in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

No matter how much I tried to raise their spirits, I was often puzzled by the way “those” people reacted to me. They didn’t look me in the eye when I spoke to them, and they were rarely grateful. I wanted to shout, “Hey, we’re doing a great thing here. You could at least thank us!”

After I stopped volunteering at Loaves and Fishes, I took control of my own destiny. Over the next ten years, I strove for the picture-perfect life: a college degree, teaching career, wonderful husband and then our first child, Derian.

The excitement of his arrival was instantly shattered when the doctors discovered Derian had a heart condition that required immediate surgery. How could this possibly happen? I asked myself in total shock and denial.

Later, Derian was diagnosed with CHARGE Syndrome, a nongenetic condition that strikes about one in every twelve thousand births. Coming out of the hospital, I soon discovered, unlike every other aspect of my life, I was not in control. The name of Derian’s condition was a telling irony to who was really in charge now.

Affecting not only his heart but also his eyes, ears, nose and general growth and development, Derian’s deficiencies put him in constant need of repair, which meant a steady stream of doctor visits and considerable time spent in the hospital.

Thirteen months after Derian was born, Connor, our second son, was born, thankfully with a healthy body.

Amidst all the doctor appointments, hospital surgeries and having a second child, I naturally had to take an unpaid leave from teaching. While insurance covered some of our medical bills, other people came forth to help with a variety of support. One time, my students raised sixteen hundred dollars in only twenty-four hours. It was enough to cover two months’ mortgage payments enabling me to spend more time with Derian.

Even though Robb was a manager at a clothing store, the mounting financial, medical and parenting responsibilities began to take its toll. We had done the best we could for as long as we could. In the spring of 1995, we decided to seek help.

I had heard about a program that assists mothers and children with food vouchers. I put my pride aside and made an appointment.

On the morning of my appointment, I debated over and over on what to wear so we didn’t look too well off, but not too poor either. We tried at least three different sets of clothes. Once we were dressed, I knew I would be judged on my mothering ability: not too firm, look in control and confident, hoping all along the boys cooperated.

With four toddler legs, it was a long walk into the building. I signed in and looked around at the other people in the waiting area, wondering what their stories were. In that single moment, I felt that treacherous twist of fate and was ashamed of all the ignorant stereotypes I once had about being poor. Now it was my turn to be poor. I didn’t like it. I didn’t deserve it, and I couldn’t handle it. I was tempted to grab the boys and run. But looking into their bright eyes, I knew why I had to stay.

For the first time in my life, I understood why the people I once served at Loaves and Fishes were not grateful. Who wants to be this down and out? It is incredibly humbling and what makes it worse is when people—like I was as a teenager—act like they are doing you a favor, and you owe them gratitude.

Asking for help when it’s needed most is so difficult! I never really wanted a “relationship” with the people who were helping me with the services I desperately needed. It was so much easier to stay aloof and keep things on an impersonal level.

I clenched my teeth as my name was called. What if someone recognized me? I would be humiliated if anyone knew I was getting vouchers. After three hours of questions and exams, I finally got what I came for. That began a day-by-day quest for survival; we were determined to make it.

After a two-and-a-half-year struggle, Derian’s soul left his tattered little body on May 9, 1996. I know he came to us for many reasons, and I’ll never forget those lessons: compassion and understanding for the poor, not just momentary sympathy and a handout.

After experiencing life from the other side, Robb and I created the Spare Key Foundation in memory of Derian. Its mission is to help Minnesota families with critically ill children undergoing long hospitalizations by making a one-time mortgage payment. During our first four years, we made over 100 grants averaging $850. We were also recognized by Oprah’s Angel Network and received a “Use Your Life” award.

We are not always thanked when we grant a mortgage payment. But it doesn’t bother me, as I quickly remember what life was like when we walked in their shoes.

It is now that I fully understand the joy of volunteering is not found in a “thank-you” or in that feel-good feeling, but rather from the awesome privilege of being able to help a fellow human being in his or her time of need.

Patsy Keech

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on the Spare Key Foundation, contact 820 South View Blvd., Suite 202, South St.Paul, MN 55075; 651-457-2607; fax: 651-306-0229; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.sparekey.org.]

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