I’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, a day early, as I belatedly realized that being flexible on dates would help ensure more of my friends could attend. And while Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, that’s usually been in large part because of the food. (Why are stuffing and cranberry sauce not eaten all year long?!) This year, as clichéd as it sounds, I’m excited for the opportunity to stop and reflect on the many blessings I realize I have in my life.
In January, one of my new year’s resolutions was to volunteer at least twice a month. Over the last year, I’ve been surprised / disappointed by how much bureaucracy new volunteers have to go through at a lot of organizations. Carving out a few hours a week to volunteer is really not a big deal, but it seemed like it took forever to get it all going – and that helped me understand why more people don’t volunteer. It can be hard to get started! But a little incident on Saturday reminded me that even when I don’t think I’m doing all that much, it can actually be really important to the people that I’m helping.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s weekend recap, I spent Saturday afternoon driving a family to/from the International Rescue Committee’s First Thanksgiving dinner for refugees in the Denver area. On my way to pick up the family, I continued to practice a few Arabic phrases to make my family feel welcome. I had learned “hello, my name is Laura”; “have a nice meal”; and, unfortunately, “I am running late and will be there in 10 minutes”… oops. But I found it really hard to remember the Arabic phrases – and most of them flew out of my head as soon as I met the family. Since they didn’t speak a lot of English (and I could barely even remember those basic phrases), the family mostly talked to each other while I drove, and I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to communicate or really make them feel welcome.
But on the way back home, we valiantly tried to talk a little bit more… and when we got back to their home, they insisted on having me stay for a piece of cake, “to fatten me up.” Haha! The cake was incredibly delicious so I was fine with that 🙂 This gave us the opportunity to talk a bit more, and when I finally headed home, the woman who spoke the best English told me that her sister (who was close to my age) was so happy “to have an American friend.” Wow!
I was incredibly touched by that statement. While I thought I wasn’t making much of a difference, it turns out that my small gesture in driving the family had meant something to them. I ended up calling my dad on the way home (he’s an immigrant, though not a refugee), and he told me that making native friends was a really big deal for him when he first came to America – and that I probably had more of an impact than I knew.
Tomorrow, I’m honored to be one of the IRC’s volunteers who will welcome a brand new refugee family to Denver. The family arrives at the airport late tonight, and I get to work with them on their first full day in America. I’ll be driving them to the bank and helping them get a checking account, and then taking them to the grocery to show them around and help them stock their new home with food.
I’ve been told that one important thing to point out is how our grocery stores don’t run out of things. The family doesn’t need to buy five loaves of bread just because the store has them on the shelves today; they can go back in a day or two to buy more. Learning that I will need to call this out is certainly eye opening – I am so lucky to live in a country where we don’t have those kinds of food shortages!
The volunteer work I’ve done this year, while a pathetically small number of hours when I actually stop to compare it to my other activities, has definitely changed my perspective. And this Thanksgiving, I’m feeling extra grateful for the many blessings I’m fortunate to have: good health (and a happy new perspective on life thanks to my health scare this spring), the home of my dreams in my favorite place on earth, and incredible friends and family – who may not be right here in Colorado, but who I can call on a moment’s notice and go visit (almost) anytime. Not everyone has these luxuries, and I feel incredibly lucky to be so settled here in Colorado, with so many things that are just going right in my life.
My family is going to be celebrating Thanksgiving a few thousand miles away from me in New York, but I am looking forward to stopping by Saratoga next week for my brother’s holiday party, and then going back again for Christmas. (Another blessing: having a job that lets me hop around the country as needed.) Growing up, my (half) brothers and I didn’t live together or even see each other very much; I’m beyond thrilled that as adults we’ve been able to connect and become more of a family. This year, I am truly excited to go home for the holidays – and I am so grateful that’s the case.
In all, I am so glad that I made it one of my 2017 resolutions to volunteer more frequently. If you don’t volunteer on a regular basis, I’d highly encourage you to look around your community for organizations you believe in (or even those you don’t, to get a fresh perspective) and see how you can help. One-off opportunities are a great way to start volunteering without having to make a long commitment, and then at some point in the future you can always scale up, at those organizations or somewhere else. With the Denver Rescue Mission, I started out serving food at their soup kitchens because I could easily sign up for shifts online whenever I had some free time; now, I’ve taken on the weekly commitment of mentoring one of their former clients who’s working hard to establish a new path in life.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to make a difference, and you may find that volunteering changes your own life just as much as it changes the lives of those you’re supposed to be helping.