By Alex Cohen
The dust has settled and we have all recuperated from our amazing bus trip across this great country, and I can finally come up for air to share two great experiences.
Be grateful for what you have and share with those who have less, that’s where the real gratitude lies.” Alex Cohen
Before I tell my stories I would like to confess something; giving is not always as easy as it sounds. I always have some trepidation about approaching people with gifts because I know there is a very fine line between generosity and a hand out. I am never sure how someone will react to my attempt at simple and pure kindness – will they be insulted, will they feel threatened by my approach, will they accept my gesture? Fortunately, my experience in general has been a good one. In all cases, people are taken aback at first and then they realize that someone is actually doing something nice for them for no reason at all. For many, this is something that they are experiencing for the first time in their lives. For me, it remains an anxious moment.
My first story is about a lady named Ruth. Ruth taught all four of my daughters in Kindergarten at a local school here in Greenwich, CT. Ruth was the most sought after teacher at their school, and parents put themselves on waiting lists to get their kids into her class. Ruth was an amazing teacher and the kids loved her – she was the “toddler whisperer.” Ruth and I became fast friends and spent a lot of time together outside of school, she even lived in my guest house for a while. Ruth became part of my family and one of my close friends and we enjoyed every minute we had together. When my youngest daughter finished Kindergarten, we changed schools. I missed our time together very much – we stayed in touch but eventually she married and had a little girl of her own. Over the years, I followed her on social media and we watched each other’s children grow and blossom. We always intended to get together for a “girls night” but life just got in the way, as it tends to do.
This past year, Ruth called to tell me that her husband got an amazing job in South Carolina and that they found a great house and would be moving at the end of the school year. While this was great news for her and her family, I was a little sad that we were never able to get in the girls night that we kept meaning to plan. The week before classes ended for the summer, I decided to leave work early and go visit her, as it would be the last time I would see her before she left. I hadn’t been back to the school in almost eight years and was shocked at how completely different it felt (thanks to their renovations). I found my way to Ruth’s classroom where we gave each other the biggest hug! Ruth took me on a tour to show me all the upgrades the school had made and to give us time to catch up with each other.
While on the walk I stopped and told her I had a gift for her to say “thank you” for all she had done for me and for taking such great care of my girls. I also knew that, despite her 19 years of service, the school would not do anything for her when she left, as they (in my opinion) never truly appreciated or realized what a special person and amazing teacher she was, or how much she had given of herself.
I handed her an envelope. When she opened it she began to cry and could not believe what I had given her. I said to her, “You are moving and starting a new life, and this will help you start it out with a few less things to worry about.” My gift was not about the money – it was about the respect, the thought and the love that moved her. We hugged again – this time even longer than the last– and I promised her that we would finally have that girls night – only it would be in her new home, when I came to visit with a plane full of old friends. I will miss Ruth but we will always remain friends and I will forever be grateful for what she brought to my life and to the lives of my girls.
My second story took place on my first weekend in the Hamptons this summer, during my first of many summer visits to Kmart. My friend Andrew and I went to stock up on cleaning products and other things that we really did not need, and were definitely not on our list. Andrew and I split up to get our items. A few minutes later, while searching for Andrew, I passed the toy isle and saw an interaction between a mother and her young son. The son was holding a very large box of a Lego Toy and was crying softly telling his mother how much he wanted it. His mother softly and lovingly told him in Spanish that while she knew how much he really wanted it, she did not have the money for it. She explained that she worked very hard to take care of the both of them and while she wished she could give him everything he wanted she could not afford it. The little boy very respectfully said that he knew it cost a lot of money and that she could not afford it but he really wanted it, she told him what she could afford and told him he could pick something smaller out instead. He sobbed softly and asked his mom if he could just hold it as it was the last one they had.
By that time I had found Andrew and we headed to the register. While at the register, I saw the mother and son get in line to pay for his smaller toy along with the other things she came in for. The little boy was still quietly sobbing and the mother put her arm around him and said that one day she would have enough to buy him that toy but today was not that day. I asked Andrew to ask the mother if it was ok for me to purchase the toy for her son. Andrew asked her and she seemed confused by the question. I’m sure that she wondered who we were and why we were willing to buy her son a toy when we didn’t even know her.
I went over to her and, in Spanish, told her that I ran a Foundation that promoted random acts of kindness (not easy to translate by the way) and she said that she felt bad because it was so much money. I replied, “What’s the use of having it, if you can’t share it with others?” I turned to her son and told him to get the toy – he ran so fast that I think I saw smoke under his sneakers! The mother turned to me and told me that no one had ever done anything this nice for her before. I told her it was my pleasure. Before I could finish my sentence the little boy came from around the corner with his toy and ran into my arms for one of the best hugs I have ever received. He said thank you and ran to his mother. I had to pry the toy out of his hand and explain that I had to pay for it first – he kept a close eye on me – and the toy to make sure it didn’t go anywhere. After paying, I went out to meet Andrew in the car and, as I was leaving, I got another big hug and a thank you from the little boy. This is the picture of me and my buddy from Kmart!
Despite the anxiety I get from approaching strangers – and even friends – to help them, the rewards are always greater than I could ever imagine. Their gratitude fills my heart with my own sense of gratitude.
Someone asked me today if it was terrible to be grateful for what we currently have when others have so much less. My answer to him was, “if everyone had the same thing, there would be no gratitude to feel.”
Be grateful for what you have and share with those who have less, that’s where the real gratitude lies.