The season of giving thanks is here!
I love this time of year, as it provides an opportunity for all of us to take stock of our lives and focus on those things for which we are most grateful. I know firsthand that it’s not always easy to keep the good in our lives at the forefront of our thoughts, but I hope you will take a little time to appreciate and give thanks for what you have.
Truth be told, 2014 has not been my favorite year. It has been filled with many challenges, both personal and professional. There have been many days of questioning my talents, my path, my relationships and more. Days I let myself and others down. Days I wanted to throw in the towel and just give up on certain things. But, I didn’t. And, as I sit here today reflecting on all that has happened, I am thankful.
I am not necessarily thankful for the struggles, but rather for what they taught me about myself. I’m grateful for the love and support of family and friends, who were the steadfast light. And, grateful for the new people the struggles brought into my life.
Of course, I am also very thankful I had the opportunity to be of service to others. Giving of myself always helps me to feel more centered and never ceases to provide profound, often life-changing, lessons.
With that in mind, I am going to share with you a story of one of the most impactful service days of my life. While it didn’t occur this year, it is an experience that I am eternally thankful for. The plan is for this story to appear in a book I am working on, but it feels like now is a perfect time to share it.
As always, I invite you to share your stories of service with me, so that together we can inspire others to serve. I hope you enjoy the story of Fannie!
Wishing you a season filled with love and thanks.
It was a quintessential Southern California day with its crisp blue sky and the sun shining brightly over all of Los Angeles. There was a slight breeze and it was certainly warm, but not hot. It was the sort of day that people in colder climates would envy, the sort that is easy to take for granted when you live here.
But, unlike most glorious weekdays, I wasn’t headed to my office at ABC Television, instead I was heading out to serve others. But, this wasn’t going to be my average day of volunteering, as we were filming the day as a test episode, or pilot, of a potential web series. That meant I had a camera crew in tow, was wired with a microphone, had a face full of makeup and a million things running through my head. This wasn’t my first time doing on-camera work, but it had been a while and the stakes were high since I had been pitching this for a while and finally had the chance to see if we could pull it off. So, I was both excited and nervous.
When I reached The Downtown Women’s Center, the outstanding non-profit I would be working with, I was briefed by my team, introduced to a few key folks, and given an overview of what I would be doing that day. Then, with the cameras rolling, I started my service.
We selected the Center because it would allow me to incorporate a personal passion – cooking and sharing food with others – into my service, which was an overriding theme of the episode. So, I rolled up my sleeves and started cooking with the other volunteers who were already assembled and hard at work. We cooked for hours, chopping pounds and pounds of vegetables, making homemade soup, hot entrees, a gorgeous salad and more. In the end, there was a feast prepared with love for the women served by the Center.
Up until this point, it had been a really nice day. I’d met some great people – volunteers and staffers. I’d had a chance to cook, which I love. And, my crew assured me that we were getting great stuff. Then, it was time to serve lunch and little did I know that my day was about to go from fun and rewarding to profoundly impactful.
As the women who receive services from the Center began to file into the dining room, I was excited. For me, it’s always rewarding when I get to interact with those I am helping. As forty or fifty clients went through the buffet line I got to say “hi” to each of them as I served them nutritious and delicious food. Even that short interaction, that connection with another soul, was heartwarming.
Once all of the women were seated and enjoying their homemade lunch, I was given permission to fix myself a plate and join the women in breaking bread and talking. This is not normally what the volunteers get to do, but I was allowed as we wanted to tell a bit about their stories in the video we were producing. So, I sat myself down and started to chat. That’s when Fannie entered my life.
Fannie is a middle-aged, African American woman with slight stature and short salt and pepper hair. Her weathered, yet attractive, face shows clear signs of a struggle-filled life, yet her eyes dance with a sparkle that is full of hope. Her demeanor seems reserved, introverted and cautious. I would later learn that Fannie had lived on the streets for 13 years.
When I first sat down at the table, I noticed Fannie, who was sitting across from me, diagonally to my right. I didn’t expect her to be too talkative, as she was a bit curled up against the wall, playing with the strings of her sweatshirt hood, and seemed unsure if she should trust me. I can’t say I blamed her, as there I was with a camera crew poking my nose into other people’s business. Was I there because I cared or because I somehow wanted to exploit them?
After fifteen minutes or so of chatting with the roughly ten women gathered at the table, I asked a question that got Fannie’s attention and a response that will forever be with me.
“What does it mean to you when people come here and volunteer,” I said.
Fannie looked up, straightened her back, looked me right in the face and said, “I’d just like to say that when the volunteers come here to cook, they put love into the food. They love preparing it. They love serving it. They love just looking into your face knowing they prepared a meal and served it to you so you’ll have something. That’s why you guys being here means a whole lot, to know that you reached out today just to give us something to hang onto and love. You put a smile on my face.”
Those words hit my core and changed how I looked at the service I was providing. In that moment, I realized it wasn’t about the food. It was really about the comfort and hope human interactions bring. Yes, Fannie appreciated the meal and all that went into it, but what moved her the most what that our simply being there made her feel worthy.
As Fannie spoke those words, I was reminded that all of us, no matter who we are or what our story is, want the same thing: to feel like we matter, that we are heard and seen. Her words also made me feel like I matter and gave me hope, a gift I am forever grateful for.
I learned that day how easy it is to give people hope or as Fannie put it, “something to hang onto.” It can be as simple as a kind “hello” as you pass someone or looking someone in the face instead of looking away. It’s something we can all give every single day and something I strive to do.
I am pleased to know that Fannie, an unlikely teacher, is doing well and living in her own apartment at the Center’s residences. And, it warms my heart knowing the Center has very dedicated volunteers who are there regularly serving up good food and hope to these important women.
I am grateful to Fannie, who I think of very often, for sharing her hard won wisdom with me. I am a better man for having met her.