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Editor's Note: A longer version of this graduate student's reflection was first published in Writing Programs' Writing Notes newsletter (spring 2016).
When I first read the November 2015 email asking for donations to English’s annual adopt-a-family holiday drive, part of the Community Engagement Initiative, I took immediate umbrage. "Why am I, a poor student, being asked to give some of the little money I make, when I, too, have needs for things?" I thought.
When the time came to donate, I hesitantly gave a little bit.
We were assigned families who needed assistance via a partner organization, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Some ASU participants volunteered to shop, some to wrap, and others to deliver the gifts. There were five families we were to help, made up of thirteen children and nine adults.
The money, donated by faculty, staff, and students from the Department of English, purchased toys, clothes, and some Fry's grocery gift cards. We had a little money left over to help one family with a contribution to their rent, which would allow them to stay in their home instead of being evicted.
We met in the Language and Literature Building that Friday to wrap gifts: Ruby Macksoud, Kristen LaRue-Sandler, Mark James, Sarah Snyder, Shirley Rose, Demetria Baker, and I. With so many things to wrap, it seemed best to just get them done and into their familial piles. But as I worked, I began taking more care with how the gifts looked in the paper and bows. Somehow, the task became fun; it didn't matter that I had doubled my per-gift wrap time. I wanted everything to be perfect.
The next day, delivery day, I met Writing Programs’ Lecturer Adelheid Thieme at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Tempe. We filled six banana boxes with rolls, gravy, cranberry sauce, canned vegetables, boxes of cereal, cake mixes, and bags of candy for the children. We also included shampoo, conditioner, bars of soap, toothpaste, and other necessities that food stamps don't cover. Adding a turkey for each family, we loaded up our cars.
(In case you were wondering, six banana boxes full of food will just fit in the trunk of a Honda Accord.)
As we were completing this task, others from the committee arrived to help deliver. Using our phones' GPS navigators, we drove to our first destination: a mobile home park on Baseline Road in Tempe. As our convoy turned into the neighborhood, I noticed an immediate change in surroundings; here—instead of the standard rock gardens and desert flora, tile roofs and stucco—were patches of dead grass and dirt, outside of dilapidated trailers trimmed in moldering wood and rusty railings. We passed yards filled with garbage, old tires, and broken-down cars.
A woman answered our knock. It was a chilly afternoon, and as we followed her into the darkened room, I saw that all the stove’s gas burners were flickering blue and yellow. This family was using their stove as a heater. Until this moment, it hadn't occurred to me that people in my city lived without heat and other comforts that I took for granted. I had not felt privileged, but realized that I was rich compared to so many other people. I began to feel ashamed for my earlier selfishness.
We completed our stop and made our way to our next destination, just a few houses away in the same neighborhood. This trailer’s front door, decorated with plastic, gaily-colored holiday decorations, opened and a crowd of children, not dressed for the weather, ran outside, happy to see us, dancing around. We were invited inside, the aroma of freshly-made, hot tamales wrapped in corn husks swirling around us. A woman at the stove welcomed us and gave us each of a plate of food. She didn't speak English and only one of us spoke Spanish, but through the smiles and laughter of those present, we managed to communicate good-will. The kids helped carry in the family’s gifts and banana boxes of food.
Warmed by the tamale and the experience of both giving and receiving in the same moments, I joined my friends walking back to their cars. "Next year," I thought, "I can give much more."
If you’d like to help this next holiday season, please contact Lecturer Karen Dwyer, coordinator of English’s Community Engagement Initiative.
Image 1: Items from St. Vincent de Paul's food pantry being delivered by English's Community Engagement Committee. Photo by Glenn Newman.
Image 2: Community Engagement Committee members who delivered gifts and food to families in December 2015. From left to right, back row: Glenn Newman and Cheyenne Black. Front row: Kevin Sandler (holding Dominique), Kristen LaRue-Sandler, Adelheid Thieme, Coral Sue Black, and Karen Dwyer. Photo courtesy Glenn Newman.