A stranger gave me $100 in gift cards just before Christmas while I was grocery shopping at Meijer. My son and daughter each had a dollar to spend and they chose cheap 10 cent fish that would almost certainly meet their demise before the new year. As we watched the Meijer employee plunge a blue fish net into the tank for our new pets, I heard a man’s voice behind me.
I turned toward the voice and saw a young gentleman with a hat on, but not a baseball hat, one of those Irish Donegal kind. I smiled and noticed his extended hand. He held a paper out toward me, and thinking in that split second that he was an employee giving me a coupon (and wondering at the same time why an employee would be handing me a coupon wearing a winter coat and hat) I took it without even looking and said, “Thank you.”
The paper was not a coupon at all but two $50 Meijer gift cards.
I stared at the cards and glanced at my children who were reaching out for their fish, not noticing the exchange between me and the gift card man. Mere seconds passed and as I looked up to mutter something of a stunned “thank you”, he was gone. I momentarily stopped breathing, my friends, because this blind gesture of good will hit me during a time when we were desperately in need.
A few years ago, we were abounding in middle class stability, protected by great insurance and living in comfort. Suddenly Peter, my husband, had some severe health concerns that included blacking out behind the wheel on the expressway and the discovery of fluid on his brain. We made the decision to make some lifestyle changes that supported our mindset of living out a life we were happy to live. Health concerns often prompt this sense of urgency to stop wasting time and get busy living.
This one change started a chain reaction of challenges for the next year and a half:
- The short sale of our home
- The Marketplace
- Over 25 job interviews
- Applying for food stamps
- Depression and an overwhelming amount of demoralization during the job hunting process
- Our electricity, gas, and phone shut off
- Living penny to penny
- A period of 8 months of receiving at least 10 calls a day from collection agencies
- Working multiple jobs to make ends meet
- Severe stress on our marriage
Years of paying our bills on time and building a credit score of a respectable 738 now meant nothing to the companies who claimed they wanted to “work with us”. I started saying to creditors,
“I have to feed my children and buy diapers first, I can’t give you any money. If you must send me to collections, that’s what you have to do.”
Both Peter and I were working multiple jobs and at the same time, interviewing for positions that would sustain our meager life. Week after week we sunk deeper and deeper into debt hoping that Peter’s latest job interview would be “the one.” Drowning and not knowing what to do to repair our situation, we decided to meet with Tim, a wonderful financial advisor from Foundation Wealth Strategies, who explained the options we had in light of our current situation. In the past, I scoffed at people who chose to collect unemployment and thought homeowners who opted for a short sale were irresponsible.
And bankruptcy! My thoughts about bankruptcy before we went through a season of hardship was of failure and an easy way out.
I cannot even begin to explain the intense anxiety, stress, and depression these situations can put on a family, not to mention the fact that we had 3 close relatives die in one year. My life is typically an open book but when it got ugly, I hunkered down and wanted to quietly brave the storm alone.
All too quickly, our self-effort and resistance to ask for help hurt us even more. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe our state as a family. We desperately needed help and our stubborn wall was broken down by our 8-year-old son. He came home from school one day and said he felt embarrassed at lunch. When I asked him why, he said:
“I told a friend I wish I had what he had in his lunch and my friend said, “Just have your mom buy it at the store.” I told him we didn’t have a lot of money for food. Mom, are we poor?”
My heart broke when I realized that all of our attempts to make life appear “normal” for our kids had failed. We had to ask for help.
Once we let people in a bit, the help came – just enough to keep us fed and living in our own home with a roof over our heads – with the electricity and gas on.
After a year of searching, Peter was offered a job that would allow us to regain financial stability in our life. Thank God!
We’re rebuilding now, and by that I mean our credit. What once was a 738 combined credit score is a number I am scared to even look at. Our financial life, because of 1 year of hardship, has been destroyed. Even though Peter has a full-time position and I work part-time and freelance from home, which can sustain our family and pay all our bills on time, how long will it take for us to be acceptable again to the credit gods?
We rent a lovely home right now but I have to admit, we are feeling the crunch of having 5 people and 1 large dog in a house that is less than 1,000 square feet. Just for fun I searched on a real estate site called HomeFinder.com and found the perfect house for our crew. Even though we can afford the payment, I am certain we would be laughed out of the mortgage process.
When it comes to purchasing (or even renting a house), we are just a frightful number until we prove our responsibility again. For some reason, Peter and I always seem to walk through our problems slowly, which makes for some uncomfortable and skin crawling moments that challenge our marriage. But after the last year, Peter and I truly know what we need to survive. I’ve been meditating on a specific scripture for the last year that fills me with hope to move forward. These simple words now course through my veins as I realize and have lived exactly what it states:
I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:12-13
We all stumble and fall, sometimes on an hourly basis. Yet, I feel reassured knowing while we have been struggling with intense trials our life has been made more manageable by a community of individuals we call our family and friends. As I look back, I really question how we could have pulled through the stress and fear, and breaking through the darkness, I see we were only able to survive this with the help of our loving, merciful, and patient God. He sent our friends and family to put into a tangible message that He loves us. Humbled by the number of people who, without hesitation or question, helped our family during this rocky season.
It’s not easy to put yourself out there and invest time in fostering a relationship amid a chaotic life but the community that we have chosen to be a part of cares for my family well beyond casual get-togethers. That’s what each and every one of us needs today – support, kind words, and an absence of judgment. I thank God every day for my family and friends.
Beyond the monetary, the conscious and consistent support has been overwhelming. The uplifting text messages, calls, and “I love yous” have taken root in our hearts and continue to mean so much to us.
You never know what is going on in someone’s life. I encourage you to love those in need and by “need” I mean any need. Loving with patience. Loving with a compliment or a hug. Listening to the strange inner prompting in your heart that tells you to give a stranger in Meijer a gift card.
This great blessing of a job with consistent pay and excellent benefits will allow us to do the same. After we get caught up, we too will (for lack of a better phrase) pay it forward. Until we can do that with money, we will continue to help those in need by way of our time and talents. We are blessed to be a blessing!
That $100 gift card from Meijer brought a years’ worth of tears from my eyes and as I opened the card holder a message was written on the insert:
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast your anxiety on him for he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5: 6-7
Image credit, Matthew Kombrink