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Doing the most good

December 3, 2011 - Erin O'Neill
Around this time last year, a kind lady ringing a Salvation Army bell at a local store let my daughter ring it for a while. She got a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" and quite a few dollar bills in the little time she stood there. It was then that she got the idea, "Mommy, can we ring the bell sometime?"

So I made a plan to talk to the Salvation Army officials to find out when and where we could volunteer to ring the bell this year. Our turn came this weekend when we stood for an hour outside of Wal-mart. I thought on the first go an hour was plenty of time.

I was not surprised by the reaction of some of the shoppers. My cherubic little girl in a Santa hat, trying to do her best rendition of "Jingle Bells," did get a lot of compliments and a lot of folks who had every intention of just passing by were motivated to dig in their pockets for the "sweet little thing."

I was, however, surprised by the number of people who gave and the type of people who gave. A woman in a wheelchair; some folks who seemed as if they only had a few coins to scrape together themselves; other children whose inclination to be generous took their attention away - even if for only one brief second - from the call of the toys and goodies waiting inside.

There were two individuals, though, who made the most impact on me on this mild December day. Two individuals, going about their daily lives, who made statements that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A gentleman emerged from the parking lot, looking a little like Santa Claus, but definitely worse for wear. His shoes were barely holding together, his pants were covered with dirt, as if he had been sitting on the ground. His beard was full but dirty and he had a look of real sadness in his eyes.

He walked towards the kettle and smiled the tiniest of smiles. "This is for you honey, because you are so cute," he said in a gruff voice, handing my daughter a gold dollar. We thanked him and said how generous and sweet it was for him to be so kind. He proceeded to empty his pockets of all the coins right into the bucket. But as he was doing this he said, "I hate to tell you this, honey, but I don't believe in Christmas. I've lost too much in my life to believe in anything good."

I was dumbfounded. I could not think of a thing to say in response. I could tell it was the truth. But then, why? Why was he being so generous and kind and charitable? I wanted to hug him or shake his hand or say, "well, bless you," but he was gone. It sounds like a scene out of a Lifetime movie but it is the absolute truth.

The second individual was a young mom, her shopping cart filled with children and groceries. At first she walked past but decided to stop and dig into her purse to find a little something to toss in the bucket.

"You are so good to be doing this," she said to me.

"Well, it was all her idea," I replied, pointing to my daughter, who was ringing her little heart out. "She really wanted to ring the bell to help other people."

"That is what it is all about," she said, her voice cracking a little.

I teared up as I said, "yes, I am very proud of her."

Then the lady hunched down a little to meet my daughter's eyes and she said, finally, "you have got the spirit inside of you and that is so wonderful. Merry Christmas."

Never did I expect this experience, based merely on a whim, to have such a profound effect on me. I knew we would be helping others and I hoped it would be a lesson in charity for my child. But to be given the opportunity to see how much of an impact we really do have on one another in this crazy world, it was a great gift.

And to make use of this format I have been given to be able to voice my opinion and share my thoughts, I want to leave one final message for the holiday season. This year, when you are out and about and stressing over gifts or dinner menus or traffic, take time to think about others. If you have the means, drop some change in the bucket, pick a tag off the Angel Tree, donate a coat or two, help your neighbor, be a friend. And most of all, remember that life is a precious gift, never take it for granted.

Merry Christmas.


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