Growing up, Christmas was a special time in our household - it was a time to celebrate life, family, friends, faith and a reminder to appreciate the simple things often taken for granted. For me, it was a time that I appreciated the strength of my mother even more. She became a single mom to five children and she still managed to deliver gifts and create excitement. Our gifts were not always the latest toys, but always things from the heart, and things we needed. The thing I noticed most was how my mom would always find something to also share with others in need.
Our family financially fluidity was not as robust in reality as it was in our dreams, but we prayed and believed it would be one day. But until then, we were comfortable, and with five children, being comfortable can seem like an extremely precarious place to be. Not if you were to ask my mom though. For her, comfortable meant you had more than enough to share with someone else. She never forced us to sacrifice or made us feel like we didn’t have enough food or things to enjoy life with. Somehow, she was able to ensure there was always extra to give to someone who was homeless or in transition. As she did this, I saw how her ability to give grew, and miraculously she was always blessed and sustained.
Watching her I fully understood two very important things. The first was that you always have something to share. When you acknowledge all the things you have, all the things that you are blessed with, and share them with compassion, you will find that you are always blessed with more. The second, connected to the first, is that you don’t have to be financially rich to give, you can be wealthy in spirit, kindness, and generosity, for generous giving comes from a spiritual surplus that multiplies exponentially as you give it away.
Understanding these concepts at such a young age is what helped me develop my philosophy around giving. I have the same excitement around giving and sharing as an adult, as I used to as a kid waiting to open gifts under the tree. So, it was surprising to me one year that as I did my holiday shopping and was wrapping gifts, I didn’t feel excited anymore. I felt restless and dissatisfied - feelings that I could not place at the moment. Later I would understand what this feeling was trying to tell me. I was doing fairly well, by society’s standards, and I was spending the holidays with family and friends and yet at that moment, I just wondered what the point of all the gifts were.
I knew I had to step back and reflect on what giving meant to me. I came to two very important epiphanies. The first was that giving a gift is more than just picking out a nice candle or sweater; it is an act of intention. I had to ask myself if I was being intentional with the gifts I was giving to others or was it an automatic purchase of the latest trend item (not that there's anything wrong with those gifts as well). When I was young I remember receiving a winter coat for Christmas and it became one of my favorite gifts that year. Not because we couldn’t afford coats, but with five children, my mother was always keeping an eye out for a better deal. That year though, that coat was the newest fashion, it wasn’t a hand-me-down or a coat from the previous season. It was an item of necessity, especially in Minnesota but it meant a lot to me because I knew it was something my mom had thoughtfully and intentionally planned to get me - adjusting her budget and purchases. Was I being as intentional with the gifts I gave others? The second epiphany came through a friend, Ann Purry.
The Hostile Takeover
Ann was a homeless woman I met and became friends with. Ann had a hard time staying in shelters because, at that time, you could smoke indoors. Ann was allergic to cigarette smoke and so would stay on the streets sometimes. I would generally drop off clothes and other necessities for Ann but as she was on the streets, she didn’t have a place to keep them. So Ann, with her generous spirit, would keep some clothes and take the rest to give away at the shelter. Through Ann, I learned that shelters didn’t just house single women and men, but sometimes whole families. Eventually, Ann moved on and with her words in my ears, I went to the local shelter and adopted a family for Christmas.
That first Christmas, as much as I loved giving gifts to the family I had adopted, I was struck by how many families were at the shelter and did not receive anything. These were families in similar situations like the one I had offered to help but because of simple luck, instead of receiving gifts, they were watching another family celebrate Christmas. There isn’t any difference between any of the families in the shelter. They had hit some hard times and unfortunately didn’t have someone to help them during the holiday season. From these thoughts and the sense that I could do more, I came up with the idea of the Hostile (a temporary place of residence) Takeover.
I have adopted shelters that housed entire families and worked with them to see what the families needed. The shelter would usually provide me with wish lists filled with the simplest things. I would take those lists and share them with my friends and family who also wanted to help. I came up with a simple process, I would email everyone the list, and they choose a family to adopt. This way, every single family in the given shelter would be able to celebrate the holiday season.
Not only were we able to get gifts for every single member of the family but a lot of times, we went above and beyond. One year, we learned of a grandmother who was raising 12 of her grandchildren by herself because their parents had been incarcerated. That year, we really came together and raised funds to help her, and the kids received laptops and bikes as gifts to help make their childhood a little more enjoyable. Giving intentionally filled everyone with joy.
The Hostile Takeover was not just about having money to buy gifts. People also gave their time and effort to shop, package, and deliver - small acts of kindness by many people that would generate a significant change. This year, I want to challenge YOU to #7daysofKindness, random acts of kindness, your own takeover of sort, to make the holiday season brighter. It can be your neighbor in need, a senior, a family member or a single mother. This can be as simple as ordering a meal and having it delivered, or delivering a grocery box with all the trimmings that will last the family for several weeks. Regardless of how you choose to give this season, let's make it meaningful.
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