“the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”
Last July, I had the opportunity to travel to Ethiopia with Cindy and Suzanne of Addis Jemari, two remarkable women who would become our foundation partners within weeks of returning home. My sister-in-law joined me on the 10-day journey getting to know the girls of AJ, meeting families in extreme poverty, and serving among different organizations that Addis Jemari works with and the trip was altogether emotional, difficult, and life-changing for her. And although these experiences would transform my life, it took several months to truly understand the impact the trip had on me.
I have found that it takes time to let all the benefits of a trip like that truly surface for me. It’s kind of like an intense workout or, for me, a challenging yoga class. During the class I am cursing the teacher under my breath, sore the next morning, but by the following day I feel my muscles release and my body shift. And then I’m ready to jump back in and do it again. I need another class to keep me moving and growing.
Serving in Ethiopia, or I would assume in any area of extreme need, has the same effect as an intense workout. When I am in the trenches, it’s hard but I don’t want to quit because I know it is where God, Charlie, and my heart are. When I get home, I am drained, sore, and need rest, and then the true effects of the work begin to seep in and I crave more. I truly believe this is how change takes place … it’s the growing pains, the process, and the struggle that move mountains. I am so grateful for that struggle.
In February, Michael traveled with me for the first time to Ethiopia. I was so concerned that he would not connect with the people that I have come to love in that intense, emotional, and challenging way that leaves you wanting more. He has always been supportive of my passion, and that of Charlie’s, because it was important to us. His goals have always been to make our lives full and by doing that, he has found fulfillment. But what I wanted most for him was to find the same urge and passion I have felt and yearned for since my first trip to Ethiopia over 10 years ago. So secretly this was a make or break trip and I was on edge as we boarded our flight. Would he embrace the struggle, the hard work that lay ahead of us that week? How would he respond and connect, or would he?
Three days into our trip, all my fears were put to rest. At one point while we were in the field visiting a school, Michael turned to me and said, “I get it now … I am all in.” I watched Michael struggle in the work and grow so much as a person. His gratitude for the people he met on our trip warmed my heart and bound us even closer as a couple than I could have ever imagined. Michael came back from Ethiopia in need of rest but with an opened heart, connected to the work, and I see that connection continue to grow every time he talks about our mission for Charlie’s Heart Foundation. And I am so grateful.
During the time Michael and I spent in February traveling with A Glimmer of Hope, a non-profit based out of Austin, Texas, the gratitude I felt in Northern Ethiopia grew each day. Gratitude makes you vulnerable and lights a flame that makes you want to share it with others. Gratitude is priceless and is the driving force for our desire to work with and for the families and children in Ethiopia. Much of our trip was spent visiting villages where wells, schools, and health posts have changed the lives of the people in rural parts of the country. Clean water, books, and basic preventive care have brought hope to these communities that were once living hours by foot from healthcare, schools, and clean water. The gratitude we saw in these faces, the hugs and the offerings of food (most likely their daily ration) that the villagers shared with us was inspiring. How can you not take that feeling and want to spread it? Now a cynic, of which I am, would say, “Of course they are nice to you and embrace your visit. A Glimmer of Hope has provided so much for them.” Well, my friends, even a cynic like me can be changed. The people were not gracious because of obligation but because they were truly thankful. Thankful for the blessings in their lives and they wanted to share that with their guests. That is gratitude.
When we had the opportunity to visit areas of need, gratitude was pervasive there as well. We had done nothing for these communities and brought nothing to give them except our time and openness to learn. These were villages where families were forced to drink from the same source as their livestock and schools were basically out of reach. Had a schoolhouse been nearby, many children would not even be able to attend because their day is spent collecting water from unprotected sources in which the consumption causes water borne illness. Respiratory infections and malnourishment also plague these communities. However, there was still no lack of gratitude among the people. If there is anything I have learned about gratitude (again this is coming straight from a cynic), it is that it doesn’t require lots of money or grand gestures. All that is needed is an open heart with a willingness to share.
You don’t have to go across the world to experience gratitude. You can find it in your daily life, in the little things. Sharing a smile with a neighbor, holding the door for someone, or simply living in the thankfulness of the blessings you have been given by God and using those gifts to help others without expecting anything in return. The desire to show kindness because you are thankful is what gratitude is all about.
This Saturday, at the inaugural Charlie’s Carnival, I have never felt so much gratitude for the kindness and love our community showed us. This year has been one of the hardest workouts of my life. I have never cursed so much, cried out for it to stop, and yet felt like I had to go forward. While the after effects of such a year will last a long time, so will the growth in our hearts. I could feel it in every hug, smile, and eyes of those that came to the event. It was infectious and gave us all the fuel we need to serve Charlie’s Heart Foundation for another year. And I am so grateful for that.