By: Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC
Director of Education and Training, IlluminArt Productions
Thanksgiving is truly one of my most favorite holidays. I respect its historical symbolism and the emphasis on gratitude towards good friends, good family and of course good food! There is no fussing over gifts and it’s the one-day out of the year where wearing elastic waist pants is not only acceptable, but also encouraged. Over the years I’ve had my fair share of memorable turkey days. However, one Thanksgiving in particular always stands out in my mind.
During high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the UNICO Foundation at a local church in my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey. UNICO is an Italian American non-profit organization that engages in charitable works, supports higher education and promotes patriotic related causes. That year, UNICO sponsored a huge Thanksgiving feast for local senior citizens. I had spent most of my high school career working as a waitress at a local Italian restaurant. I knew how to carry a tray and my high school’s Director of Student Activities, Mrs. Arszulowicz, suggested that I volunteer at the event for a few hours.
I vividly remember the hustle and bustle in the church basement that afternoon. The entire place smelled like turkey and warm apple pie. The sound of all the aluminum trays and tin foil being used was deafening. Every volunteer had a job, even the children. By the time the busloads of senior citizens pulled up in front of the church, everyone was wearing both an apron and a smile.
Table after table, I shuffled paper plates of food amongst the seniors. Once everyone had been served, the volunteers were encouraged to mix and mingle with the guests. Some of them had no living family. Others openly admitted to having relatives that were either unable, or in some cases unwilling, to spend the holiday with them. Over the next few hours these strangers would leave a lasting impression on my life. Here’s what I learned that Thanksgiving:
1) Family doesn’t necessarily mean “related”: Bouncing from table to table it became abundantly clear that although most of the people present were of no “blood” relation, many considered each other family. I heard countless stories from the guests about how they lived on the same floor at a senior center or how they had become each other’s family after the death of a loved one. That Thanksgiving, family was defined by friendships forged in circumstance, not DNA.
2) Listen to the Elderly: Here’s the deal, anyone that has lived longer than you has more experience than you. If you ever have the opportunity to listen and learn from those experiences, I strongly suggest you take advantage of it. The men and women I met that Thanksgiving shared stories about their families and the history they had been a part of. They emphasized the importance about growing up to be a good, kind and caring individual. Most importantly, they urged me to appreciate my own family and treasure the time I spent with them. Twenty years later, I can honestly say I learned more about life from the three hours I spent with those senior citizens that I have ever learned in any classroom.
3) A Little Kindness Goes Along Way: I don’t know what these adults were more appreciative for, the hot meal or the conversation. A few kind words and some extra attention made these seniors feel like a million bucks. No one I encountered that day left unhappy. The experience taught me it’s the little things that can make the difference in someone’s life. Listen, smile, and be kind; not just on Thanksgiving, but everyday.
4) Don’t Wait: No one wants to go through life harboring regrets, but many of the guests I encountered that day were quite vocal about missed opportunities. If I had one more minute with them… If we could have spent one more Thanksgiving together… If I had only told my son how I felt... At sixteen years old, I had difficulty understanding these sentiments. Now as a wife, mother and social worker the fear of regret seems easier to comprehend. Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate how you feel about someone you love. Sometimes it’s hard to say, “I’m sorry.” As the holidays approach, use the opportunity to let your loved ones know the importance they have in your life. Don’t wait. Time is something that is never guaranteed.
5) Volunteer: I’m so grateful for the teacher I had in high school that promoted this community service project. She gave me an amazing opportunity that unknowingly shaped the trajectory of my life into the field of social work. I encourage everyone to find a charitable event or community service project to participate in this November. As a mom, I can’t wait to one day bring my daughters to serve Thanksgiving dinner in my community. I hope the experience will teach my children to appreciate family and how a single act of kindness can potentially change someone’s world.
Working with the UNICO Foundation so many years ago was one of the greatest experiences in my life. This Thanksgiving, turn off the cell phones and put the football on hold. Take the time to listen to those that surround your table. Be kind and don’t wait to tell someone you love and appreciate them. Treasure the time you have with your family and friends. Be grateful for all life’s blessings, both big and small. From the IlluminArt family to yours, we wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.