Can you recall a childhood event that made an indelible impact, changing the way you operate as an adult?  Obviously, the experiences we’ve had and choices that we’ve made shape the adults we become. But sometimes something so significant happens that a lasting imprint is left, consciously directing our actions.  For me, it happened when I was 11 years old.

My father had been sick for 2 years and couldn’t work.  He was a proud man, not open to accepting charity. Our ever expanding family of seven boys, two girls, my parents and the family dog lived from the money my father made selling off the property he’d bought 3 years earlier when he sold the family farm and moved us to Muskegon, Michigan.

It was Christmas, and my parents property was down to two wooded lots – the one our house sat on and the one behind our house where we children played. We’d been living on peanut butter and tomatoes my mother had canned during the summer. Our neighbor Arlie Kraus loved to garden and he always had far more tomatoes than he and his family could eat. He took great joy in sharing his ample annual crop with neighbors who gladly took them off his hands. His gift to our family that year was more than he could ever have realized.

My mother had told us not to expect any presents that year as there had been no money to buy them. That same fall my teacher had told us there was no Santa Claus.  That was upsetting enough, but to hear there’d be no presents under the tree – that I refused to believe.

My brother Marty, always the realist, took my mother’s words to heart. He was fifteen at the time, and when he heard there’d be no presents, he was determined we wouldn’t go without a tree. He took the ax, went into the woods and chopped down a Charlie Brown tree. We hated it and said so. But my mother told us to be grateful. I wasn’t. I resented that tree, and refused to help decorate it.

At 3:00 on Christmas Eve my brothers were out sledding, my baby sister was sleeping, my father had gone somewhere, and my mother and I were home alone standing at the kitchen sink cleaning up the dishes from the bread stuffing my mother had just made to dress the turkey with the next day. My uncle had given us a gift of a turkey large enough to feed our ever-expanding family.

A car drove up the driveway. We didn’t recognize it, so we moved to the side window to get a closer look. Two men got out of the car. One went around to the trunk and opened it and the other opened the back door.

Once my mother surmised what was happening, she ordered me into my bedroom, and I did as told. The men came to the door. I strained to hear the conversation, but the voices were muffled. After a brief exchange, I heard the door close.

I headed back to the kitchen where two large stuffed brown bags were now on top the table and a big box filled with something was on a chair. Like any normal eleven year old, I was curious. “What’s in those? I asked. My mother dismissed the question. “Never mind. They’re not for you. Just help me finish drying the dishes.”

Normally I would have obeyed my mother, but curiosity had the best of me. Before she could stop me, I’d lifted the paper bag that lay across the top of the box, and inside were wrapped presents. There on the very top was a package labeled, “Girl – age 11.”

I was stunned. Charity? We were receiving charity? But how could that be? We weren’t poor people…or were we? Shock, shame, and disbelief collided into a feeling that left me horrified and fearful. Bursting into tears, I ran to my bedroom, threw myself across the bed and sobbed. My mother was close behind. “Mary Jane, your father and I are going through a tough time right now, and we just need to be thankful that someone cared enough to see to it that you kids would have gifts to open on Christmas. It won’t always be this way. Now get out in the kitchen and help me finish those dishes, and don’t say a word to your brothers or sister about this.”

I never spoke of it to anyone until years later, but looking back, I could see that that event marked for me the realization that anybody could be poor and in need of help, and that there are complete strangers that step forward and provide it. In retrospect. that event was life-changing.

Once my father recovered from his illness and was gainfully employed, I watched him volunteer his time and talent and give money to causes that helped so many other families. He never talked about what he and my mother did, but we were not blind to it. And what I noticed was that my father was always the happiest and most energized when he was in a position of giving and serving others.

As a result, my brothers and sister and I have made giving of time, talent and treasure a big part of our lives, and I’m sure that there isn’t a one who would say that they aren’t their happiest when doing so.

When we quietly give to others, we lead by example, and what better legacy can we leave for future generations than one of giving. We’ll never know the numbers of people for whom we make a difference.

Research shows that people who volunteer their time and talent and give of their resources are happier, healthier, and live longer lives than those who don’t.

All people have a basic human need to love and be loved. We need it for both mental and physical health. Jesus of Nazareth gave us the ultimate example of how to do that when he expressed his love for his disciples by washing their feet.

People of the Jewish culture at that time wore sandals and walked on dirt roads. It was customary for the servant of the household to wash the feet of guests as they arrived.

Jesus, who had instructed his disciples to love one another, gave them an example of how to do it by taking a basin of water and a towel and washing their feet — an act of service — an act of love — and then He encouraged them to follow His example.

He was letting them know that if they wanted to lead others — to influence others — inspire others — they would need to do it by being of service to others. This is something that every great leader knows and understands.

There is no better way to be recognized as a leader in your company, organization, church, synagogue or community than by being actively involved in serving.

People are like puzzle pieces. They are meant to be connected to one another. On each piece of a puzzle there are many points of connection. In a puzzle of 1000 pieces, you can have 999 pieces in place, but without that last piece the picture is incomplete.

In every organization  – every piece is important to the whole. Every piece is needed and makes an important contribution to the entire organization.

But with people, unlike with puzzle pieces, tangible and intangible rewards accompany their giving. The more you contribute, the more you get back. The boomerang effect of giving is a spiritual and universal law.

During this season of giving, may you be richly blessed in equal measure to the service you provide. And may this holiday season bring you all the joy and love your heart can hold.

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