The Stories I Saw in a Tired Lady's Eyes
I was there to make a donation. I'd promised myself that if I had savings in the bank come the end of this year that I was going to donate generously (for my finances) to two of my favorite nonprofits serving the homeless. I turned to the volunteer receptionist and asked if she could confirm that their seasonal matching gift challenge was in effect. According to their website, starting today every dollar donated through the end of the year will be matched by 50c by donors, so a $100 donation would turn into $150. She called to the tired lady, who made a quick phone call and confirmed that this matching donation was indeed active.
"In that case, I'd like to donate two fifty," I said, presenting my credit card. I was not going to mention the amount in this tale as I generally see that as being pretty crass really, indeed all too often I see it as cheapening a donation by turning it into a call for personal attention. But the amount matters to the experience I need to share with you and so I put it in.
The tired lady nodded and the receptionist asked, "Two dollars and fifty cents?"
"Um, no, two hundred and fifty dollars." I shook my head. "It would seem absurd to me to use a credit card to donate a mere two dollars and fifty cents." I replied, genuinely surprised.
"Oh, I'm the one who keeps track of the donations and I'm dealing with $1 or $2 all the time," tired lady replied. I'm somehow charmed by this because I figure it's some of the homeless and the poor giving whatever they can, maybe even paying it forward for past assistance. Still it's clear that times are hard and that they don't see donations of this size very often, despite being a desperately needed nonprofit that feeds the homeless and poor, while giving them a place where they can find a kind of family and make real human connections. It's a place where they are connected to those they serve, seeing them as real people who can get through this, rather than poor wretches who heed alms. There can be tyranny in good deeds, but I give to this nonprofit because it is not who they are.
At this point I've noticed that both women have perked up and it's dawning on me that this is a much bigger donation than their norm. But I'm not done yet. There's a reason I made my donation in person and it's that I need extra paperwork from them.
"I need you to fill in this form for me," I said, "It's for our matching gifts program where I work. I'll return this to my office and in the next week or three they will send you a check for another $750. That will bring it to $1,000. Then if we add in your 50c match that will take it to $1,125."
The 3:1 match by my organization is exactly why I picked $250. I love that my donations of hundreds will turn into thousands and yes, I love telling nonprofits about it. It's a wonderful perk of my job that I can't ever put in the bank, but that I always count whenever I tally up what my gross pay is. We're allowed up to $10K per year of matching gifts and we can match cash donations dollar for dollar through three dollars to the dollar. We can also match volunteer hours, which mostly means that every hour I volunteer at a nonprofit my organization will give them $40. How awesome is that? Much as I value my other benefits, like leave, medical, 401K, etc., I'm kind of in love with our matching gifts benefit.
Both women were beaming now, tossing out thank-yous like confetti at a wedding, a new spring in their step as they bustled to process my donation and paperwork. As I headed out the tired lady took my hand and held it, standing close and looking me in the eyes. "Thank you. Thank you so much. This really made my day. My week." As I look into her eyes I can see that she is so very, very sincere, that she means those words quite literally. I was touched.
"You're very welcome," I replied, "but it's you folks that I need to be thanking for all that you do. You're doing amazing and desperately needed work here. So thank you, thank you so much."
Once outside, much to my surprise, I found myself quite emotional. I had forgotten how my donation was not just for those that the nonprofit served, but was also for the morale of the exhausted volunteers and staff. I was filled with a deep feeling of gratitude for this comfortable life I have and for this opportunity to help others in my community, and for an employer who can turn my small good deed into a much bigger one.
I was also filled with some small elation. I felt lighter. It's been a hard past few months, far more than I've talked about here and coming at me from several angles, leaving me doubtful. What I'd expected least from this day was to be so uplifted. It was a balm. I had forgotten this as well, that giving to others is always a gift to oneself too.
And yes, I'm paying it forward too, as I must. I come from dirt poor. I got help. I am so fortunate to be in as comfortable a life as I have. Some folks talk loudly about how opportunity abounds if one but chooses to take it, but I know this to be a destructive fallacy. The truth is poverty is a trap that very few escape, no matter how hard they try.
If you could look back in time at the uncertain and malnourished boy I once was, as I timidly peered around childhood's doorframe at my impending manhood, lacking financial and psychological resources for the battle to escape poverty, then you'd hardly have believed it was possible for me to get to where I am today. And it wasn't really. I had some luck in this game; my stumbling about blindly saw me trip over something useful and life changing, a career in tech that was attainable without the expense of a university education.
And there was much help along the way. Some of it did more harm than good, kindness wielded as a cudgel to beat respectful gratitude out of us. But it helped nonetheless, and -- combined with more selfless giving -- it was vital to us. It helped us survive and saw us get a decent education, our best ally in our war with our paucity of resources and all of our own doubts about our potential and worth. Without it we too could have been homeless. With it we remained on swampy ground, but with hope.
I owe much to people like tired lady, with their full hands and empty pockets, and their hearts wide open. There are select individuals through the years that stand out in memory's esteem, teachers who dedicated their lives to her poor kids, a housemother who saw shining potential in me and blew on the faltering embers, the one social worker who sincerely wanted more for us than for her privileged social resume, the family friend who encouraged me to make art, the damaged and soul-bleeding friend who helped me survive my late teens and even took me in when I ran away from home.
Hell, I even owe my mother, the albatross around our necks and the shackles around our ankles, the stealer of compliments and sower of self-doubt, for she taught us to read, to learn, to think and to question, to open our eyes to the truth. These skills were tools for picking the locks of life's barred doors. When you're climbing out of the pit you need every possible handhold to have any chance of getting out.
So to you, tired lady whose week I made, with your sweet soft smile and eyes that sent a thousand worthwhile stories echoing through my darker memories, thank you. Thank you for all you do. Thank you for your generous soul. Thank you so much for making my day... my month.
And to you, my dear friends, if you have any paying forward you have yet to do, now is the time. With a little help, people not unlike me will thrive in our tomorrows and will thank you for it. And so do I.