I had the opportunity to spend my birthday with a group of friends this year in a different kind of way. Through the grapevine we were made aware of a need at the Laura Dester Shelter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The shelter is a short-term emergency care facility for use while child welfare specialists conduct investigations into alleged abuse and neglect and to hold children while staff look for suitable foster care placements for those coming into state custody.
The need was not food, clothes, toys, or books (although the books were very well worn). It was not new equipment or a new building. For the most part, all of those needs had been met through state and private funding. What was needed was our most precious commodity: time.
From the moment we walked into the living area of these children it was evident they were starving for the slightest morsel of attention and love. Try to imagine being so young and confused, void of anyone and anything familiar. Imagine fighting a swarm of other children for the attention of one caregiver who is just trying to keep chaos at bay. Seeing this reality was absolutely heartbreaking.
The moment I had the ability to grab a book and sit on the floor there were a minimum of four children from three to five years old climbing on me like I was some sort of tree (I can’t blame them, I am 6’8” and have been affectionately called one). These kids sought nothing but attention, care, and love—all the things that we take for granted on a daily basis. Watching the eyes of these sweet little girls and boys light up as I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar was a feeling more satisfying than the best dining experience that I’ve ever had.
I personally had a very rough childhood. Growing up, there were times I thought I might have ended up in a foster home myself. I can remember being hungry and not knowing for sure when and if the next meal was going to come. I also remember visits from state childcare workers and the questions they had. These memories really drove the reality of what these kids were going through home for me. It made me think of an individual in my life who invested in me. When I was 12, a woman by the name of Ivani gave me a chance to sweep the front of her business. All I wanted was to impress her and I did the best job I could. Soon I was raking leaves, mowing grass, and eventually being taught the trade of tailoring in her alteration shop.
She didn’t know me from Adam, yet she invested her time and heart into me. She took me to eat at a restaurant for the first time, took me to get my first savings account, and took me school clothes shopping; she even believed in me enough to let me drive her new car to take my driving test at the DMV. Why did she take such an interest in me? Why did she invest so much of herself in me? She did this because she recognized a need and was willing to fill the void. I am the man I am today because God allowed our paths to cross and she chose to give of herself; because of this, I know the great importance of investing in others.
I encourage each of you who are reading this to take time to reach out locally and make a difference in your community. Our industry has some of the most energetic and driven people in the world. We are passionate about what we do and what we love. Looking beyond the walls of our establishments and focusing some of our boundless energy toward meeting the needs of those who are helpless can be a wonderful lesson in humility, having long lasting effects on us, as well as those lives we touch.