If the title of this post seems familiar to some, it is because I posted something rather similar around this time last year. Unfortunately, the original got lost between blog changes, so I decided to restore it to the best of my ability as well as expand it some.
There are many first times we remember: first day of school, first date, first love, first kiss, first car and so on. One of my most vivid memories goes back to December 24, 1994 - my first Christmas eve in the United States and the first time I was truly desperately hungry.
As a kid growing up in Ukraine, I was taught money management, but not banking. After the fall of the Soviet Union, inflation reached such astronomic rates, that banks became nearly obsolete. Most people operated on cash basis and did not bother with bank deposits and such.
So, when a bunch of us - exchange students - came to the States, we did get some help opening bank accounts and depositing our allowance checks (our dorms and meal plans were covered, and we received $300 per academic quarter for everything else: clothes and books), nobody explained to us the finer points of banking, such as deposit deadlines and available balance delays.
We received and deposited our second quarter allowance checks just before Christmas. What we did not realize was that there would be a 2-3 day delay before our money became available. $300 is a measly sum to work with for three months, and my fellow exchange kids and I were utterly penniless by that point. We all had great hopes for the allowance, but when we checked our balances the next day - the accounts were just as empty as the day before.
The dorms were closed for the holidays. Those of us who managed to make friends during the first quarter, went to stay with American families. For the rest of us, the exchange coordinators arranged to stay at a Radisson Inn right next to campus. We had roof over our heads - and a pretty nice one at that - but no food.
On Christmas eve I woke up so hungry that I realized I had to move - otherwise I wouldn't be able to get up at all. I got dressed and took an approximately two-mile walk from the hotel to Wegmans - a large grocery store very popular in the north-east, which we - exchange students - loved for its enormous and delicious subs. I had no money - not even change - so I knew I wouldn't be able to buy anything. But Wegmans also meant comfort and warmth, and besides, I had no place else to go.
So there I was, on Christmas eve, standing in front of a huge apple cart in the fruit and vegetable section of the store, strongly tempted to just take one. The store was crowded - everyone was rushing about to get some last-minute things for the holiday dinner, I am pretty sure nobody would have noticed. But the profoundly moral upbringing and pathological honesty won. I just stared at them for a while and then turned and walked away.
I wish I could tell you that some stranger saw a lonely girl, who was standing there shivering in front of the apple stand and asked if everything was alright. I wish I could tell you that I burst into tears and told that person about my troubles and was taken into some kind family for a fantastic Christmas meal. But I can't. Because that was not what happened.
I made it back to the hotel and went to bed. Another exchange friend of ours stopped by to check on my roommate and me the next day. He was just as broke, but he did have a few apples left from a huge bag he bought a week before. So, we had apples and water as our Christmas meal. The next day our allowance checks finally cleared and we were able to go back to Wegmans and buy the biggest, most obscene subs with everything on them.
My point in telling you this is not to make you feel sorry for me. Rather, I want you to be a little more observant in general and during this time of year in particular. Find it in yourself to recognize the need and give, even if it is only a little bit. Yes, many charitable organizations are associated with churches or operate as Christian establishments. Give anyway. A kid that gets that gift shoebox through Operation Christmas Child is not going to care if you are an atheist or a Muslim or a Wiccan. Someone getting a few bags of groceries through Loaves and Fishes or a Southwest Indian Foundation's Christmas Food Basket will be happy to have them, regardless of who donated them. A family that gets a micro loan, a goat or a flock of geese through Heifer International will bless your name for one of the best gifts in their lives.
Can't spare that much? Drop some loose change into a Salvation Army bucket or send a card to a soldier somewhere in Afghanistan. Send a $5 check to Toys for Tots, or Smile Train or Make A Wish.
No money at all? Give time. Build with Habitat. Pack boxes with Samaritan's Purse. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Or you don't even have to go that far. Two of my friends posted about someone's house burning down just this week. Stuff like that happens a lot in winter due to faulty Christmas light wires and unattended fireplaces. Do you know someone who lost a home? Walk down the street and find out what they need. Get together with other neighbors, pack a few boxes of clothes, food and toys. Help them set up a PayPal account where friends and relatives can send money and get in touch with as many people as you can.
Public Radio International and American National Public Radio have used the "every little bit counts" principle for ages. Sure those of us who are fans get a little annoyed when they interrupt regular programming for fund drives, but we give anyway. 90 cents out of every NPR dollar comes from private individuals and privately-owned organizations - not from the government as many believe. Yet, every year the money is raised and the programming continues.
Why not operate the rest of the world the same way? Screw the governments. Screw the armies. Screw politicians. Screw big corporations. Forget them. Don't wait them to tell you what to do. Figure out what you can do on your own - even if it's just a little bit. Be someone's Christmas stranger. As someone who had to do without when I needed one most, I guarantee you - it will be more appreciated than anything else you have ever done or been in your life.