When I hear stories like the tragedy that unfolded in the middle of a Christmas party in San Bernadino last week, my first instinct is to crawl in a corner and cry. So much loss. Such violence.
I just can’t wrap my mind around it.
I know I’m not alone. In the days that followed, everyone seemed to be in a fog.
But after two days of watching CNN non-stop, I had to cut myself off. It felt like a death spiral of hopelessness, and I realized that focusing on this wasn’t doing any good for anyone — my family, my community, my own well-being.
And it was at this time my daughter told me that her class was collecting donations for a family in need.
Apparently our teacher has a connection with a counselor at another school who was looking for a little assistance for a certain family who was having a tough time. A single working mom with seven kids — including two kids she adopted to keep out of foster care.
Time to put my feelings of powerlessness to bed and get busy.
I was already in the midst of collecting gifts and gift cards for another family; for the last ten years my Mom’s group has adopted a different family every Christmas through Salvation Army, and we take on the whole family’s wish list. I knew just a few people putting their heads and wallets together could make a difference.
On a lark, I branched out. I wrote a long post on Nextdoor — a local chapter of a nationwide social bulletin board of sorts made up of neighbors.
I talked about what little I knew about this family. Like how the Mom broke down into tears when told that strangers at another school wanted to take on her entire family’s wish list. I mentioned in the ad that she still asked for nothing personal for herself (just household goods, like cleaning supplies and paper towels), but my dream was that strangers would come forward and help her out, too.
People post all sorts of things all the time on this site, and I thought, why not? Maybe I will get some clothes for the family, or books, or even a little cash. Why not try?
After all, I know that I live in an amazing community. Look at one can see on my walks.
So when I wrote the ad I thought that if something comes through and this one family can’t use it, perhaps the other might need it?
Writing that Nextdoor ad was just one of those things that you throw up in the air to see if it will stick.
Meanwhile, my daughter’s classroom was in the midst of donation fever.
Our teacher told me that every day kids would excitedly run into the classroom with bills — singles, five, tens and even some twenties. They knew that their money would all be used on a big shopping trip, and their minds reeled thinking about all the things they could buy. New clothes for everyone. And each kid a special toy — a Barbie Dollhouse. A skateboard. A new walker for the baby. And so on.
And then I checked my email, hoping I’d get a few items ahead of the big trip so that their dollars would go further.
I was surprised by my first, almost immediate response.
A stranger who’d read my Nextdoor ad contacted me privately to ask if she and her husband could help.
Sure, and because it’s Portland, I figured it’d be legit –and not just some crank. The woman said she had a cold, so I offered to stop by.
I walk into their beautiful house and we shared stories. They’d moved here recently from Princeton, NJ and we talked for an hour. It felt like I was making new friends, and their generosity floored me.
They gave me both cash and a sizable unused gift certificate at Talbots — it was this woman’s hope that this single Mom would use it to buy something for herself.
There was more too — new shoes, brand new toiletries, and bags of food. They gave without fanfare, but were kind enough to pose for a picture.
I wanted the kids at school to know about them.
Isabel and Al, you rock.
And if that was the extent of my appeal, that would have been terrific — we’d already added a couple hundred to the family’s coffers. Pretty great, right?
And then another neighbor stepped in.
She and I know each other only a little bit; she’s the one who hosts the Hood River Apple Farm every year and their annual Hollywood fruit sale. When she saw my ad, this former teacher went shopping at Target. Pajamas for all the kids. Household supplies. Jewelry. Another gift card.
Bonnie, thanks –you’re a star.
Turns out we were just getting warmed up.
People emailed me directly.
Could they help? Did I want housewares? How about almost-new kids clothes? Someone decided to offer this family a brand new pair of Ugg boots instead of returning them to Amazon.
More emails trickled in.
How about a little cash? A gift card? Homemade jam? Kids toys? Books? Homemade strawberry jam?
I said yes to everything, figuring that I’d see what actually came through and then decide what to do with it.
Bags started appearing on my porch.
And more bags.
Every time I turned around, there was another little surprise on my porch.
And even more donations — some I knew the origin.
But many were from complete strangers.
Every day I’d walk into the classroom with the new things I’d collected — and the kids went bonkers with excitement. Books, clothes, gift cards — all from people who’d contacted me wanting to help out any way that they could.
A few days later, I posted a last call for donations and my dear pal Elona did the same on Facebook.
She and I then drove around the neighborhood following up on leads, picking up stuff all over town on porches and door steps.
I’m not talking about junky stuff– really nice stuff.
I told lots of people to think of this as a re-gift palooza, and we got so many terrific additions.
You name it — brand new art supplies, and toys, lots of clothes and so much more.
This second reposting brought in a flurry of new generosity.
Strangers came to my door and brought MORE stuff. Gift cards to bookstores and Starbucks. Clothes and unused toys. Toilet paper and brand new cleaning supplies.
One new face at my door (a stranger in his twenties) told me that he and his wife had to cut back on giving this year but they wanted to do what they could (he handed me the envelope below).
Another woman called and said she wanted to bring me something. Thinking her a stranger with just good intentions, I gave her my address.
When she walked up to my door we both did a double take; we’d met at her amazing garage sale last summer (I bought both an adorable IZOD and Burberry jacket from her) and had clicked, but we hadn’t seen each other since I’d returned to her a gift card I’d found on an inside pocket of the jacket I’d just bought.
We both had to laugh at this funny way of getting re-connected and that this time it was she giving gift cards to me (she donated one dollar for each of the hundred pounds she’d lost in the past two years).
God, it’s at times like this that I think Portland is the greatest little city in America.
I no sooner locked the door when my amazing neighbor Roberta stopped by and gave me another very generous cash donation — she too had read the post and decided to walk over to my house and help.
Can you imagine?
Seriously, I’ve been so overwhelmed by the generosity of my community.
In the classroom. In my neighborhood via Nextdoor. In my village.
In light of the fact that we’d already collected so much for this first family, I asked those who kept coming forward if they minded if I shared the wealth with my Salvation Army family (another single mom with a husband in prison for having abused the daughters). No one minded.
I almost started crying talking to my kids about it, and I think they might be even more excited than I am about all this generosity that surrounds us.
Everywhere I looked there was more sharing, more new purchases to pass along to those in need.
Like the woman I met at a party last year who saw my Nextdoor ad and then rushed out to Fred Meyer and bought her a gift card and a bevy of lovely toiletries for the Mom.
Don’t you just love the idea of one mom giving a gift to another mom she’ll never meet — but wants to encourage?
And then there was the son of another neighbor who upon hearing that one of the kids on this list was asking for just a new skateboard for Christmas selflessly gave his brand-new one to the cause.
His friends had all generously chipped in to buy it for him recently but his wonderful mom Stephanie had asked if it wouldn’t be better sent to someone who needed it right now. This amazing kid agreed and here’s his sister delivering it.
I then had the pleasure of talking to the kids in the classroom this week.
The teacher asked me to talk to them about what this project meant to me.
I looked at all these bright, smiling faces who’d given so much and worked so hard on behalf of this family and told them that I was grateful to them. It was their enthusiasm that allowed me –and even strangers! — to also get excited about being able to help out.
And that being able to give is a gift in itself.
I told them that I’d read somewhere that if you were born in the US and live here today, you’re already ahead of 99% percent of the world population. The fact that they go to our school and live here in Portland makes them even luckier still, and whenever they see what others may or may not have in their lives, remember this good luck and always be grateful for whatever they have (I assured them that I knew they would).
Picking up the pile of collected cash (almost seven hundred dollars) and the stack of collected gift cards, I made my last point.
Every dollar and every card had been donated by people who will never meet the recipient and this is what Portlanders are all about.
Trusting. Generous. Kind to the core. It’s in our DNA and it’s our responsibility to continue to share and look out for one another.
As I now wrap up the last of the gifts for my other family, I realize what a gift this experience has been for me.
In the wake of such tragedy, I felt somewhat adrift and powerless, but these sweet, generous kids, the families in my community and all the amazing strangers I met have brought me back.
As my pal Elona says, if you can’t change your situation, change your attitude toward it.
So my take away was these past two weeks wasn’t a story about violence, after all.
It was a reminder of the kindness of strangers.
There are so many like me who want just to help. Do something. No matter how small.
And happily in the midst of all this, I made one last little friend.
Someone so adorable that it’s literally impossible to feel the weight of the world when you’re staring into his little brown eyes.
Brought to his family just last Sunday (the day our soccer team won the MLS championship), they’ve given him a name worthy of his little baby Corgi self.
Friends, meet Timber.