More than once I've been the recipient of the kindness of others -- perhaps an unexpected gift left on my doorstep or a dinner provided when I've been unwell, a dear friend willing to feed Lizzie when my regular cat-sitter is unavailable or a listening ear when one has been so desperately needed.
For these things I am grateful. But I am also grateful for something that has not affected me personally but has made a big difference in the lives of those touched by the "Elfing" of Robin and Betsy Miner-Swartz. Their story tells how two $25 gift cards changed the lives of many people at the holidays as a tradition grew larger and larger.
|Robin and Betsy -- aka The Elves|
The "Elfing" tradition was born that night. When they told people about it, they offered money with the request "you have to tell us about it."
In the intervening years, over $18,000 donated by generous friends and complete strangers, along with Robin and Betsy's own contributions, have been shared during the holiday season with countless individuals, often bringing tears of joy. This year alone 76 people sent money ranging from $10 to $500, topping a collective $5,500.
And I'm not sure who had the biggest smiles -- the recipients of the "Elves" or Robin and Betsy themselves.
A few examples -- Perhaps they'll inspire you to think what you might do in your community. And as you read them, remember, it all started with a $25 gift card. You'll hear me say that again -- but it's important to remember.
Betsy noticed an older man with an oxygen tank was taking his time considering the packages of ham in the grocery store cooler. Robin walked up to the case and said, "Anything look good?" He replied, "Everything looks good except the price." She held out $100 and asked if that would help with his Christmas dinner. He smiled shyly and said, "Boy, would it. Are you sure?" Robin explained that it was something the couple did each year to honor her in-laws. As they chatted, the man revealed that he was battling Stage III kidney cancer and was being treated at U-M and that making the three-hour drive each way was tough "with all the tubes I have coming out of me now." The Elves offered him another $50 for gas and wished him a merry Christmas. "You have no idea what this means to me," he whispered. "Thank you."
Seeing two women huddled at a bus stop, they hopped out of their car, handed a $50 bill to each of the women. "We're doing some random acts of Christmas kindness. Could we give you this?" The older woman said, "For what?" "Just for you. Could you use it?" She threw her head back, laughing with joy. "Honey, we were JUST talking about our Consumers Energy bill and how were we going to pay it? It's $175 and I didn't know how we'd take care of it at Christmas." The women were mother and daughter and their "Elves" handed them another $150 amidst joyful hugs.
A young woman was slowing walking the market aisles at Save-a-Lot, picking up food, considering it and carefully putting it down. The Elves approached her and offered her $100 to help with her shopping. After a hug she said "I'm going to be spending Christmas alone, and I was trying to figure out what to make myself for dinner." She explained that her grandmother -- who had always hosted Christmas -- had just been hospitalized with liver trouble and had been taken down to another city. She'd be traveling down to see her grandma soon, though, she said. She was handed her another $50 so she could get her grandma a gift. She hugged me again, smiling through tears.
Returning home after one Elfing expedition, Robin and Betsy pulled into the A&W drive thru to grab a drink. Despite long lines on this Saturday shortly before Christmas, the cashier was cheerful. Betsy paid for the order and then offered her $50, likely the equivalent of a day's pay. Her eyes got glassy and her smile was huge. "We asked her if we could take her picture and she said, "Of course!"
At a neighborhood school the Elves made a contribution to an account to cover expenses for items like sweatpants and leggings for students who have accidents or don't have coats and gloves of their own.
A refugee who had fled the Taliban was accepted to his dream college in California. Robin and Betsy gave him a Visa gift card for $100 to help pay for gas on his journey. "He was shy but smiling from ear," they wrote.
Betsy wormed her way in line behind a woman who was going to put back a gift for her son and as the cashier was ringing up her Bridge card, Betsy asked if they could pay for the items. She did -- and then offered the woman $150 in cash to help with the holidays. The woman began to cry and told Betsy she would be seeing her daughter next week for Christmas and wasn't sure if she would be able to give her a gift. Now she can.
At a local animal hospital that included a "giving tree" in its lobby, donations made possible a feline leukemia test for an orange kitten, prescription dog food for a Shih Tzu that lives in a local senior facility and dental work (including extractions) for a Jack Russell Terrier.
One family found the Elves to be angels in disguise. The mother had received a new kidney but not before diabetes robbed her of her sight. With a daughter who has sickle-cell anemia and a son with autism, the husband was struggling to support the family and provide care for his wife and children. The Elves provided a laptop, mouse, printer and ream of paper for the little girl who was having trouble keeping up with her homework without it. The little boy received a Nintendo system and games he'd hoped Santa would bring and the parents were sent a gift card for $200, suggesting the couple spend it on themselves.
At a Wal-Mart, the Elves got in line behind what they described as "a sweet older man buying a lot of store-brand food and what looked like stocking suffers for granddaughters. As he was loading bags into his cart, Betsy told the cashier to add her paper towels to his order and that she'd take care of it. He didn't hear and kept loading. When he turned back to pay, she told him it was covered, nodding at Betsy. His eyes grew wide and filled with tears. He turned to me and said, "Is this real? Are you really real?" I assured him I was. "I've heard about this before, but I never thought it was real."
A mother and her teen daughter were making very difficult decisions about a couple of small toys, price checking everything to be sure they had enough money. Robin handed the mother $65 in gift cards. There were tears and hugs as she revealed she had just been laid off, her son was making her car payment for her and dinner was the only thing her family would have for Christmas this year. The Elves pulled out another $150 in cash, which "put things off the charts for her and her beautiful daughter."
Robin says In one visit, they gave away about $800 at a Kmart filled as people were facing tough decisions about what leave in or remove from the cart. They paid off two layaways, including one for a man who would have to leave without his family's Christmas gifts. The young cashier, wearing tattered clothes, was so grateful he cried and hugged the Elves, who gave him $100, "which made him sob and have to leave the room." They also helped a grandmother, a couple who were buying only shoes and boots for their kids, struggling young moms and another woman who was buying boots for her mother who is a school bus driver with little ability to buy for herself.
These aren't all of the Elfing stories in a given year (these represent some of several year's stories), but you get the idea.
All of this sounds pretty big and pretty grand -- and it is. The work Robin and Betsy do at the holidays brings joy, cheer, tears, and a sense of hope to the recipients. It brings those gifts to Robin and Betsy as well.
But remember -- it all started with two $25 gift cards and knowing that the effort of one or two people could make a difference.
It's something we all can do -- whether it is as an individual or by pooling energies with someone else. Robin and Betsy are the first to acknowledge that this collective effort (and they never asked for donations; they just came because people supported the idea) has been able to expand because people cared. Pooling resources makes the resources stronger.
But it doesn't change the love. That was always there, always powerful.
(Special thanks to Robin and Betsy for letting me share the stories and photos they posted on Facebook, some edited for length, others pretty much as written. I remain in awe of their commitment to love, giving and caring.)
Sharing with: At Home with Jemma / Poofing the Pillows / Let's Keep In Touch / Share Your Cup