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HumankindNESS: Pack a Suitcase

By Jennifer Richardson
Those of you who are my faithful readers know that my childhood was pretty unique, and amazing. So dating was not considered essential, and we didn’t own a TV, we had weekly family meetings, and we read books for fun, but it gets better—we also didn’t do Christmas.

I should say, we did Christmas, but not the way everyone else did. My mom decorated the house, and we had a big delicious dinner with family, but we did not give each other Christmas presents.

One of the rationales was this, we should learn the lesson that a true gift is given with no expectation of anything being given in return. If you give a gift to person who gives a gift back, that is nice, however it is not a gift in the purest form—it is a gift exchange.

Sometimes at Christmas, our family members got together and we gathered up food or other items that could help someone, and we anonymously gave them to families that were in need. Every child helped, and every person in the family gave. As different as it was, it was really an incredible lesson, and this understanding of true giving is still with me today.

When my husband was in graduate school and I was earning a teaching certificate our family was introduced to a young Art Education student named Jazmin. He was funny, he was kind, he was African American, and he did not have two dimes to rub together.

We understood Jaz’s life in bits and pieces. He was in several of my classes and we became good friends. We felt we were so poor as graduate students with very young children, but Jaz taught us how much we really had. He would bring t-shirts to me so I could sew up the holes because he could not buy new ones. Only one pair of beat up tennis shoes graced his feet in our three year friendship.

His father was killed in street violence, he had never known his mother, and he had been raised by an aunt who considered him a somewhat of a burden. One semester, I saw Jaz at the end of spring break and I asked him how his time off was. He said pretty rough, the dorms were closed but his aunt would not allow him to come home. He had secretly slept outside on the ground near his dormitory every night of spring break.

My heart broke for him, and I assured him we would always give him a place to sleep if he was in need again.

As graduation approached for Jaz, he would soon be moving on to student teach back in his hometown of Chicago, and I quietly began to worry about his clothing situation; what would he wear to teach each day—he had so little.

We gathered up the tiny amount of money we had for our Christmas, and I got in touch with a few of my Art Education friends, and we took up a collection for Jaz.

We bought a suitcase first. Then we bought shirts, ties, dress pants, a belt, socks and even a pair of dress shoes. I guessed at his sizes and hoped for the best. We found amazing deals and the small sum we had to spend stretched further than we could have imagined. We filled the suitcase with our purchases.

In the guise of a farewell party for some of the students in our Art Education group, we invited Jaz to our home for a celebration. After some small talk about how we had a graduation gift for him, we presented him with the suitcase. He assumed it was just a suitcase and was honestly thankful.

When we told him there were things packed inside, his expression changed to one of genuine surprise. He opened the suitcase, and he was overwhelmed at the contents.

He tried on every item, and everything fit beautifully. I have never seen someone so grateful. He mentioned he had no idea how he would have managed to have enough clothing to be a teacher every day. He could not thank us enough.

I could hardly hold back the emotion of the moment that evening; tears hover on the edges of my eyes even as I recall it today. He was not able to offer anything in exchange for his gifts, but our hearts were overflowing with the joy of pure giving.

Except for graduation day when I gave him a hug and wished him well, we have never seen Jaz again. But our family will always have a special memory of him and his suitcase as he walked out of our home. He thought it was filled with clothing, but he was walking away with a suitcase packed with love. It went down in history as one of the best Christmases we have ever had.

Whose suitcase can you pack this Christmas?

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