Merry Christmas: A Look Back at Project Advent


There are two stories I would like to tell you.

The first one is actually my mom's story.  Her grandmother moved to America as a young woman, a Russian Jew who emigrated after the pogroms.  She met a nice young man, a tailor, another Russian immigrant who had fled the violence of the pogroms.  That was my great-grandfather.  My mom tells me that her grandmother would never talk about her life in Russia, but there was one story that she shared, when my mom asked her what the best gift she'd ever had was.

The best gift my great-grandmother said she'd ever received was the year that she got an entire orange to herself on her birthday, and didn't have to share it with her brothers or sisters.  Every time I throw away spoiled fruit, I think of this story.

The second story is from Christmas 1983.  It was four o'clock in the morning, later than even the most excited 8 year-old boy could stay awake, and at least two hours earlier than he would wake up on his own.  My dad came into my room, woke me up, and said, "Get dressed and meet me in the living room.  I've laid out some warm clothes for you.  Try not to wake your brother."  I worried that I may be in trouble, because the situation was so odd, but I hadn't heard any anger in his voice, and so I did as he asked.

My mom had made us a Thermos full of hot chocolate, and when we were in the car with that and some muffins, I asked, "Where are we going, Papa?"
"We're going to help some people out for Christmas."

He drove us to a downtown parking lot, where many other people had gathered.  This was the distribution point for the Goodfellows program, a charitable effort to give gifts to impoverished families with children, so that they would have something under the tree on Christmas morning.  They loaded the trunk of our car with sacks of toys, clothes, and groceries, gave us an address to visit, and then sent us on our way.

Papa followed the directions we'd been given, and pulled up 20 minutes later in front of a house in the worst part of East Lubbock.  Together, we unloaded bags from the car, and he quietly tapped on the door, so he wouldn't wake the children sleeping inside.  The single mother who lived there with her children had been told when to expect the drop-off, so she met us at the door with a smile as we carried the sacks inside.  She hugged my dad, and cried, and thanked him for his help.  We drove back home, drinking hot chocolate on the way, and my brother and sister were just starting to wake up when we walked in the door.  Every Christmas morning, I think of this story.

These are the two experiences that shaped my thinking this month, and that made me want to try and do this hour of service each day of Advent, and to keep a grateful heart.  You, my friends, and my readers, have probably been able to tell that my heart has been in a much more somber place these last few months.  I can't lie - there are some days when I am working very hard to hold it together.  I miss my dad very much.  Every day.  I carried these heightened emotions along with me into some of these projects.

That said, doing this project has brought me more joy than anything has in months.  Just the feeling that with only an hour a day, I can put something positive out into the world is really uplifting.  There are still so many who are hungry, or homeless, or hurt and in need of help, but I can do something about it.  You can, too.

Last night, I sat in Christmas Eve service with my family.  I will tell you that the way I used to look forward to Christmas Morning as a child is how I now look forward to Christmas Eve service as an adult.  Seeing my children by candlelight, watching them take in the procession of the wise men and the shepherds, makes my heart swell with love, and makes me feel like I am tying them into the line of something very ancient and powerful.  There was this moment last night, as we held our candles, and Pastor Craig read from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where this last month clicked into perspective for me.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Only when we stop caring about each other and taking care of each other will the darkness overcome us.  Light a candle against the darkness.

I said this yesterday, but again, I am so thankful to each of you who read, commented, emailed, or spoke with me.  Thank you to anybody who encouraged me or who helped me to arrange service opportunities.  Thank you again to everybody who helped make dinner at the Ronald McDonald house possible with your contributions.  Merry Christmas and much love to you all.

I'm going to take this next week off from the blog, but I promise that 2012 will have some fun things in store.  Anybody interested in another round of Project Gastronome?

Project Advent, Day 24: Ronald McDonald Family Room at UMC


Have you ever heard of Ronald McDonald Family Rooms before?  This time last week, I never had.  You're probably familiar with Ronald McDonald Houses, which give an affordable place to stay to families who must travel to be with children who are receiving medical treatment.  Sometimes, though, your child's condition is serious enough that you can't be that far from them.  Ronald McDonald Family Rooms are meant to fill the need in those situations.  They are a comfortable, welcoming space for families to come spend some time during the day.

I arrived at UMC this morning a few moments before 9 o'clock.  A beautiful snow was falling, and I had to stop at the front door of the hospital for a minute.  Today is December 24th.  Today is exactly four months since my dad's death.  Today is the first time I've walked through the doors of the hospital since that day.  I called Courtney from the front door and she spoke a word of strength and encouragement to me.

UMC's family room is on the second floor, with the pediatric units.  One of the conditions of its being available is that there must always be a volunteer present while it is open.  A UMC nurse named Joyce was already in there today, and I got there in time to help her with the final few items on the morning checklist.  The room is a really nice space.  There's a relaxing sitting area with a television, a quiet room with an internet-connected computer, and a well-stocked kitchen with plenty of snacks, coffee, and instant meals.  There's even a washer and dryer (and clean extra clothes), and a bathroom with a shower and toiletries, all there for families who may have had to come in straight from an emergency.

Joyce told me about the room and the volunteer program, and then told me what our special assignment today would be.  It could not have been better - today we visited the children in the pediatric ICU to take them toys.  There were only four patients in that unit today, all of them infants.  I gathered a handful of Beanie Babies, and we made our way to the PICU, stopping to disinfect our hands on the way.

Four rooms, four precious babies.  The first one was sleeping peacefully, and his parents were dozing in a chair beside his bed.  We gave the stuffed animal to his mother, and then left.  In the next room, a beautiful girl was just waking.  I waved and smiled to her, but I think the sight of a stranger may have frightened her, because she started to cry.  We gave a stuffed bear to her mother, while her father picked her up to comfort her.  The third baby's grandmother was sitting with him, and had been there all night.  She wept and hugged us, and thanked us for coming to see her.  My own emotions were starting to rise.

And then we stepped into the final room, where a young boy slept by himself.  For privacy, I've tried to say very little about these children or their conditions, so I will only say that the reason his parents were not there is because they are not currently allowed to be with him.  I'm not going to type this well, because I'm starting to get emotional even now, but after I set down a toy on a cabinet in his room, I looked down at him in his crib, and my heart just clenched inside of me.  Here was this strong, fantastic boy, a person, another of God's children, with a life still ahead of him, and he was lying there hurt and alone and it was more than I could take.

I've been pretty open with my feelings during this project, and I've told you all about the times when things have been difficult.  Today was the first time I've actually had to stop in the middle of a project, bow my head, and pray.  I prayed for his healing, and that he would be surrounded with love, and that he would know that he is loved.  I prayed for a better 2012 for him.  I hope that's what happens.  I hope that next Christmas is the happiest day of his life.

Joyce and I left the PICU, talked a while more in the family room, and then it was time for me to go.  I had to get back home to spend Christmas Eve with my family, and to be thankful for that opportunity.

Gratitude Project: I'm going to try my best to post a wrap-up for this project tomorrow, but since Christmas will probably be pretty busy, we'll just have to see when I actually get around to it.  What I'm grateful for today is each of you who have joined me on this project.  Everybody who read this, or who gave me ideas for service projects, and each of you who said kind things to me along the way.  Thank you.

Project Advent, Day 23: Letters for Amnesty International


Phew, busy day today.  Courtney worked last night, and Jack's daycare was closed today, so I had all three kids to keep occupied so she could sleep.  We went for donuts for breakfast, made a trip to the grocery store to get some things before Courtney's family came to town, and cleaned house a little to get ready for them.  Then we headed to my mom's house for a little while.  She needed her turbine covers put on, but didn't want to climb to the roof herself, so I was happy to help.  The kids and I went to lunch with her after that, and then I took them bowling.

As a dad, you always hope your kids will see you being awesome at everything, especially sports.  Please take a look at the scoreboard of today's game, and notice that only the two year-old scored fewer points than I did.
Anyway, all of that is just to highlight that I had to plan my time carefully today if I was going to get my hour of service in.  When the kids laid down for a nap after bowling, I sprung into action.  I sprung into action by sitting down with my laptop.

Along with much of the rest of the world, I've watched the events of this year's Arab Spring with great hope and interest.  I'm impressed by the resolve and courage that so many of these people have shown.  I've also been saddened to hear of the number of abuses that have been visited upon them by their governments.  It has made me wish that there was something, anything, that I could do.

For today's project, I visited Amnesty International's website, read about the names and cases of four people identified as "Prisoners of Conscience," and wrote letters on their behalf.  A prisoner of conscience is defined by AI as a person who has been imprisoned and/or persecuted for the non-violent expression of their conscientiously-held beliefs.  One of Amnesty International's campaigns is to make information about these prisoners available, along with people to write to and request clemency.  The idea is to let those in authority know that the world is watching their actions.

I chose the names of several individuals who have been detained in the Middle East, and hand-wrote letters to their countries' justice systems.  When the kids woke up, I took them with me to the post office, put international postage on the envelopes, and dropped them in the mail.  Now to hope for the best.

You know, it's hard to take a compelling picture of somebody writing letters.  Instead, here's a picture of me with a six-foot inflatable replica of the leg lamp from A Christmas Story.
Gratitude Project: I feel like I'm shirking a little bit, because I've mentioned my kids in quite a few of these, but I really had a good day with them today.  It can be kind of a challenge bowling with three kids, but you should have seen how much fun they had, and how proud they were when they bowled a good frame.  When my in-laws arrived, they were so excited and full of joy.

Sometimes you are blessed to look at a moment while you are still in the middle of it, and to know that it's a memory you will carry with you.  I had one of those with Ava today.  I wanted to sit down and type this a little earlier in the evening, but she came to me and asked if I would help her make a house for her stuffed Eeyore.  We found a cardboard box and used her crayons and markers to draw Christmas pictures all over it.  Then she put him inside, put a blanket over the top, and told him to sleep tight.  Sitting there on her bedroom floor, drawing candy canes and a little Nativity scene with her, was the type of moment I'd always imagined having when I became the father of a daughter.

Project Advent, Day 22: Saint Benedict's Chapel


Last month, when I asked for suggestions of places to perform service, my friend Courtney got in touch with me to tell me about Saint Benedict's Chapel.  It is located in downtown Lubbock, in a building that used to be a Subway franchise.  They serve dinner to the hungry every night of the week.  Each night, the cooking, serving, and cleanup is done by a different church or community group.  Courtney goes to Second Baptist church, and comes down to serve with them on Thursdays.

I've previously shared a little about my sentimental fondness for downtown Lubbock, so I was glad for another opportunity to do some service in that part of town.  I arrived at St. Ben's at around 4:30, when most of the cooking was done, and just before the serving started at 5.  Courtney's mom was already there, and greeted me, and then Courtney arrived a few minutes later, and introduced me to some of the other volunteers.  I haven't seen Courtney in a while, so we caught up a little bit as we prepared drinks.  We tried to figure out how long we've known each other, and couldn't really remember, but it's been at least 20 years.

Then it was time to let people in from the cold, and to serve dinner!  The menu tonight was fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, bread, and cake for dessert.  Serving works a little differently here than it does at Second Helpings.  There, the people line up and come through a serving line.  At St. Ben's, they find a seat and food is brought to them on a plate.  I joined the group taking plates out to the guests, while another group made plates behind the counter.

There's a piano in one corner that's used for Sunday morning services, but tonight one of the other volunteers played Christmas songs on it while he sang.  It really added a lot of fun to the evening!  As people finished their plates, we took away their trash and took seconds to anybody who was still hungry.  The hour passed quickly, and before I knew it, I had to leave so that I could get home with the kids before Courtney went to work.  As I prepared to leave, an old friend of the family caught me, and wanted to make sure I told my mom hello.

Serving for a day at St. Ben's was really a lot of fun.  I have to say, as much as I enjoy working at Second Helpings, I really liked the act of bringing food to people at their tables at Saint Benedict's.  It felt like I was serving individual people.

Just two more days left in Project Advent!  I just finalized the arrangements for Saturday's project today, and I'm looking forward to it.  I think it'll be good.

Gratitude Project: The family friend I mentioned above asked me very kindly about how we were all doing since Papa's death in August.  We've had good days and bad, and some especially hard ones still happen sometimes.  One thing constant through it all has been love and support from our friends.  I'm thankful for that today.


Project Advent, Day 21: Cookies for Carillon


I stayed up last night until far too late, playing Skyrim.  Today has been pretty non-stop action, too.  We actually completed today's service pretty early in the day, but I'm sitting here now, struggling to keep my eyes open long enough to tell you about it!  If this isn't quite as interesting an entry as usual, chalk it up to sleepiness.

Blake and Ava are out of school now, and I wanted to do something that I could include them in.  I called one of the directors at Carillon, a retirement community in Lubbock, to see if we could come pay a visit.  They were pleased to put us on their calendar, and to let us come.  After we had breakfast with Courtney and dropped Jack at daycare, we came back home to get started.

Blake and Ava put on aprons and started putting cookies on cookie sheets.  This was one spot where I did go ahead and opt for the easier choice by purchasing those cookies that are already mixed and cut into pieces, so that we wouldn't be in the kitchen all morning.

Once the cookies were made and cooled, it was to the car, and to Carillon.  There was a really great Christmas display there that they wanted their pictures taken with.  Then Tiffany, who works at Carillon, met with us and spent the next hour escorting us through some of the areas where residents were gathered, and letting us visit with them.

The kids were so wonderful.  They were polite and respectful, friendly and loving, and open to the experience of visiting with new people.  They each sang Christmas songs for some of the residents, and Ava showed off some of her ballet moves.  Blake talked with a man who retired from the Navy a long time ago, telling him all that he knows about ships.  One kind grandfather shook Blake's hand, and then kissed Ava's, which she just about swooned over.  On our way home, they both told me what a fun time they had this morning.  That part was the most unexpected.  I had hoped that they would enjoy themselves, and see the joy that their visit might bring to others, but they really, genuinely had fun.  I was full of pride over these two.

This is nothing to do with the service project, but I got the chance to end the day feeling proud of them, too, as they performed in our church's childrens' Christmas pageant.  Ava was a star, and Blake was a wise man.  Here's some pictures.
Gratitude Project: I'm just feeling a general feeling of gratitude tonight.  For the warm bed I'm about to climb into, for my wife who I will sleep beside, for the friend who I am having breakfast with in the morning, and for the extended family who I will be seeing tomorrow night.


Project Advent, Day 20: Second Helpings


I'm still on a real emotional high from last night's successful dinner at Ronald McDonald House.  That's why today was a great day to go back to Second Helpings at the church and tell my friends there that I'd been able to put some of the lessons that I've learned about mass food prep to work.

It was a very cold day in Lubbock again, and the menu at Second Helpings had some good cold weather foods - a big pan of macaroni and cheese, meaty lasagna, fried chicken, and several kinds of vegetables.  It was also the first time that I noticed moms there with their children, now that school is out.

Not much new or exciting from today's visit, but I've decided that Second Helpings isn't just going to be an Advent thing for me.  I'm going to try and make it there every Tuesday from now on.

My kids are out of school, so they'll be joining me for tomorrow's service!

Gratitude Project: I'm very grateful for the time that I'll have with the kids these next few days!


Thank You from the Bottom of my Heart


One of my absolute favorite passages in all of scripture is Matthew 25:31-40.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
   34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
   37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
   40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

About two weeks ago, I asked your help in covering the cost of food for a meal at Ronald McDonald House.  I had no idea that my readers would come through so incredibly generously.  Because you were a part of this special night, I'd like to recognize you by name.

A big thanks to:
  • Eddie & Paula Petmecky
  • Kitty Petmecky
  • Kristen Horton
  • Anonymous
  • Roy Bassett
  • The Rieckhoff Family
  • Katie Kim
  • Matt Musselman
  • Steve Miles
  • Meredith Bray
  • "AJ"
  • The Koller Family
  • Steve Moss
  • Matt Bumstead and United Supermarkets
  • Chad and Heather Henthorn
  • Clay and Marcy Erwin
All of you made this possible.  Eddie texted me less than 20 minutes after I posted my appeal, and brought me a check that same night.  His brother Erik, who was a friend to all, passed away earlier this year, and Eddie shared with me that he was doing this to honor Erik's legacy.  That meant a lot to me.  God bless you, Petmecky family.

United Supermarkets already donates a great deal to food ministries, especially this time of year, but when I asked Matt if he could help me, he gave me a very generous gift card to use in their stores.

I know that for each of you, there was something else you could have spent this money on, or one more present you could have put under the tree with it, so thank you for choosing to help me.  All of you fed a stranger today; all of you looked after "the least of these my brethren."  God bless you, and thank you so much.

Thank you, too, to Rudy's BBQ.  As I mentioned in the post where I talk about the meal, Rudy's not only smoked our briskets, they did it for free when I told them it was for Ronald McDonald House.  If you are going out to eat sometime over the holidays, perhaps you'd consider giving some support back to Rudy's?  And if you happen to see a manager named Mr. Anthony Davis, would you please shake his hand, tell him that you heard about how he helped, and let him know that it was noticed?

Thank you to my mom.  She not only made the single largest batch of macaroni salad she's ever made, she was also responsible for donating dessert.  Each year, Meals on Wheels has a fundraiser where they give you a coupon for a free frozen pie from United with a $5 donation.  Each year, she gets like 40 and puts them in Christmas cards.  This year, she gave me enough of them to make sure that everybody at Ronald McDonald House got to have a piece of pie after dinner tonight.

Now, as promised, here is a summary of the donations and expenses.  I'll scan in the receipts tomorrow so that I can post them here.  For items where there was extra leftover (spices, foil, Ziploc bags, etc.) the extra portion was given to the House to put in their pantry.


MARKET STREET      $19.16
MARKET STREET    $153.11
SAM'S CLUB      $97.91
RUDY'S BBQ (sauce)      $34.00

That left me with a difference of $215.82, which I added a few dollars of my own to, and donated a check for $220 to Ronald McDonald House tonight.  We not only fed them a great meal, but had enough left over to donate $220!

Thank you, everybody, for your support, even if it was through kind words and prayer.  This was a proud night for me and for you.

Project Advent, Day 19: Dinner for Ronald McDonald House

Tonight I am tired, but very happy.  My family made dinner for the Ronald McDonald House tonight, and it was a complete success.  Of all the things I've done so far this month, this one definitely took the most planning, but the payoff was worth it.  My mom told me I should count this one as multiple days of the project, since it took more than an hour!

I'll be on vacation starting on Wednesday, and my original plan was to make dinner for the House later in the week.  When I called them, though, the week was already pretty full, except for today.  I asked them to go ahead and put me on the calendar, and resolved to work out the details later.

First up, deciding on a menu.  I had asked my friends to contribute for the meal, but wasn't sure yet what my budget would be, and I was also trying to figure out something that would both be good and that they might not usually have.

An interesting thing happened once I had announced this project and asked for contributions.  I began to get messages from lots of my friends, telling me about their own experiences with Ronald McDonald House.
"When our daughter was born and had to go to the NICU..."
"When my cousin was so sick with leukemia..."
"When my niece had to have a heart surgery..."
This only made me more determined to make sure this project went well.

I'm going to summarize my contributions and expenses in another post, but suffice to say that my friends' generosity was more than enough to make a great menu.  I decided that we would have:
I did all of my shopping Saturday,  at Sam's and Market Street.  Even when it's just for one meal, your kitchen gets pretty full when it's holding food for 40-50 people!  On Sunday, Blake and Ava helped me do some prep by washing, chopping, and bagging vegetables, so that all we'd have to do when we got there is cook them.  My mom made the macaroni salad.

About the briskets - I don't own a smoker, and there's no way I could have prepared that much meat on my own.  I'd heard that Rudy's BBQ will smoke your meat for you, for a fee, so I gave them a call.  They don't ordinarily take in customer orders on weekends, but when I explained that it was for the Ronald McDonald House, the manager not only agreed to do it, he agreed to do it for free.

Tonight, Courtney picked up the kids and the meat, while I went to the House and started cooking.  Right inside the front door was the sign at the right.

There are four ovens in their kitchen, which worked out just right for what I needed.  Beans went in one, vegetables in another, and pies in the other two.  While we waited for the food to finish cooking, the kids went into the playroom, where some other boys and girls who were staying at the House were playing.  I was really proud of them.  They played so nicely with those children, and I hope that it was a happy part of the day for all of them.  It was really sweet to watch.

A little past 6, I started pulling dinner out of the ovens, and the House staff announced that food was ready.  The Ronald McDonald House in Lubbock is directly across the street from UMC, and families work their way in over the course of the evening to eat, not all at once.  The House director told me that sometimes one of her staff will walk through the kitchen at midnight, and still find people in there eating.  Still, I'd guess that while we were there, a good 20 people came through, and they really seemed to be enjoying the food.  Several people thanked us very kindly, and told us that the food was good.  I'm going to pat my own back for a second here, and agree that the food turned out very good.

Take a look!
Beans, veggies, and brisket.  If you look on the other side, there's the same setup over there.
My mom's macaroni salad.  It is so good that you will like your own mom less once you've tried it, just because she's never made you anything this good.
Rolls, sauce, and butter
Usually, I'm eager for the chance to visit with people, but tonight I thought it would be best just to let people relax, have their dinner, and enjoy themselves.  I sat with my family as we ate our dinner, and just really enjoyed watching other families having their dinner.  I was so thankful to have been there, and that it went well.  My heart is completely full tonight.  I am ecstatic.

Gratitude Project: I'm about to type up a second post tonight, specifically to thank everybody who helped make this meal possible, but tonight I am so grateful to each of them and for each of them.  You have filled my heart with joy today, and filled the stomachs of families who are experiencing hard times.


Project Advent, Day 18: Donation to Red Cross


I hadn't planned to do any more donation days in Project Advent, but today was a good day to do my last one.  Courtney is working her fourth night in a row tonight, so I've got the kiddos, and I'm kind of bushed from doing shopping yesterday and food prep today for tomorrow night's project.

Actually, I'm kind of excited for the chance to try this out, because ever since the day that I did some work at the Red Cross, I've thought that their Holiday Giving Catalog is just a really great idea.  To summarize, you get to go "shopping" at the Red Cross's website, and what you purchase is an item or service that helps them with their mission.  There's really a wide variety of choices, too: blankets or temporary shelters for disaster areas, phone cards and comfort/hygiene packs for soldiers, swimming lessons for kids, food truck sponsorships for when they go in the field, and on and on.  What makes it cool is that you're not just sending money and wondering what happens with it.  You get to choose exactly what you want it spent on.

Today I made a donation for the purchase of blankets.  It was an amount close to one hour of my pay, which was my criteria for donations, but I had another reason for choosing that, too.  When it snowed a few weeks ago, I went into my children's rooms just before I went to bed, and made sure that they were covered snugly under their blankets.  It's something that I do on a lot of nights, but on that night I realized how much pleasure and joy I take from that small act of making sure that they are warm and comfortable.  When I saw that item in the Red Cross catalog, I thought of what it must be like to lose your home in a disaster, and not be able to see to that basic bedtime moment.  That's why I wanted to give blankets.

I'm three-fourths of the way through Project Advent.  Tomorrow is a big one.  I'm very excited about it.

Gratitude Project: I have two days at the office this week, and then I'm off for a week, to spend Christmas at home with my family.  Ask me how much I'm looking forward to that.

Project Advent, Day 17: Christmas Food Boxes


Today's project was a lot of fun.  The donation that I mailed back on Day 3 was for Christmas food boxes, to be distributed by the South Plains Food Bank.  As I mentioned in that post, these come at an important time for many families.  If their children are on meal programs at school, they will at least receive breakfast and lunch each day, but when school lets out for the holidays, there's no help.  These boxes contain about enough food to feed a family for a week.  Today was distribution day.

Blake and I showed up at the food bank at 8:30.  I'd told him where we were heading, and he was really excited, because his school had done a big food drive a few weeks earlier, and now he was going to see where all of that food had gone.

There were two main areas for volunteers to work, distributing boxes outside to cars as they drove through, or filling sacks with produce and fresh goods inside.  There were plenty of people outside, so Blake and I headed back to the dock where the sacks were going to be filled.  There were pallets and pallets and cartons and boxes, all filled with different fresh goods.  Lots of different fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread, and potatoes.  Our job was to take brown paper grocery sacks and fill them to the very top with an assortment of goods.  When we started, there were only about five of us there, so it was kind of slow going.  More volunteers began to come, though, and we built a pretty efficient assembly line process, filling bags within a few seconds.

The bags were getting filled more quickly, but this actually introduced a few new hitches.  First, Blake (and his friend from church, Jackson) was starting to get restless, because he wasn't really a part of the assembly line.  Second, empty boxes were starting to pile up.  Third, the speed of assembly meant that the bagging area quickly ran out of goods to bag.

"Hey boys, come here.  I have an important job for you.  See all of these empty boxes?  They need to be broken down, flattened out, and thrown into that box so they can go to the baler.  Can you do that?"

And that's what they did for the rest of the time we were there, and they had a blast doing it, because I showed them how they could put them upside down and stomp on them to break the seams.  When the box holding them got too full, I'd lift them in there to stomp them down, which they thought was hilarious.

While the boys broke and stomped boxes, I kept busy doing resupplying.  As one part of the sacking area would begin to run out of things, I'd bring over more goods to fill it with.  We'd keep getting to the bottom of one stack of things, only to discover something entirely different underneath it.  It was great!  I kept thinking of the family who would enjoy the cartons of strawberries we'd just found, or imagining the salsa that somebody might make with the tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos that we put in a bag together.

My mom kept Jack and Ava while Blake and I were at the food bank, and when I got to her house, they were in the back yard with her, helping pick up the last of the leaves that had fallen after Lubbock's snow earlier this month.  They got their service for the day in, too!

There's just one week left in Project Advent.  I didn't stack it this way on purpose, but I have some things coming up this week that I'm very eagerly anticipating.  I'm looking forward to sharing them with you.

Gratitude Project: I was shopping today for Monday's project, and ran into one of my favorite teachers of all time, Ms. Sara Duncan.  Anybody else who went to LHS will probably feel the same way, although I imagine every school has "that" teacher.  I had the nicest talk with her, and was so proud to introduce her to Jack, who was with me, and who acted like a true gentleman for once.

Although Ms. Duncan was one of the standouts, I was blessed to have many superlative teachers during my education, and I'm so thankful for what they gave to me.


Project Advent, Day 16: Hope Lodge


This blog entry almost didn't happen today.  Oh, I did the service, I just nearly didn't stay awake to type it up.  Courtney is working tonight, and Ava asked if she could sleep in my bed, so I said sure.  It's not enough just for her to be in there, though.  She also needs to be cuddled.  "OK," I told her, "But just for ten minutes."  And of course, I fell asleep before she did and happened to rouse myself about ninety minutes later...

Today might have been the best day yet of Project Advent.  Celeste, who works at Blake and Ava's school, is on the board of Lubbock's Hope Lodge, and told me about it.  Are you familiar with Hope Lodge?  I wasn't.  It is an outreach of the American Cancer Society.  It's a place where cancer patients and their caregivers and loved ones can stay if they have to travel for medical treatment.  It is free of charge.  The one in Lubbock is the first, and so far only, one in Texas.  Celeste put me in touch with the folks at Hope Lodge, and I set up a time to go today.

When I arrived, Sandreena, the lady I had spoken with, told me that they really didn't have much going on today for me to help out with.  I told her that I'd be happy even just running a vacuum and emptying trash cans, so that's just what I did, after another employee, Casey, showed me around.  There's a very nice living room area on the first floor that needed to be vacuumed - their Christmas tree has lots of glittery decorations, and there was glitter all over the floor!  After that, I rounded up some trash and did a little cleaning in the first floor bathrooms.

I needed something else to do, so I walked down the hallway to the kitchen area.  The kitchen is a perfect example of what the Hope Lodge offers.  It's not just a place to stay, it's a place to be encouraged and be part of a community of support.  The kitchen is one large area with four separate, smaller but complete kitchens in each corner.  I started to empty a dishwasher, and that's when today went from just housecleaning to something really good.

A woman was in the kitchen, putting some things away after the lunch she'd eaten with her husband.  I'll just call her Mrs. M.  Mrs. M's husband is currently in treatment with cancer that had previously gone into remission, but has since returned.  We began to visit.  She was excited that they are returning home tomorrow, and that they will be spending Christmas with their children and grandchildren.  They are hoping for more Christmases.  She asked about my family, and I was only too happy to tell her about my kids, and to show pictures.

"Where are you from?" Mrs. M asked me.
"I grew up here in Lubbock."
"Do your folks still live here?"
"Yes.  Well...  My dad..."

It happened that fast.  My throat closed, and tears filled my eyes.  I couldn't say anything else.  Seconds of silence, and then I was able to quietly mouth, "August...  leukemia."  And she looked at me and understood, and then I was crying, and this kind woman who is there to support her own loved one put her arms around me, and was comforting me.

I found myself apologizing.  "I'm so sorry, Mrs. M.  I didn't mean to drop that all on you."
"You were supposed to.  That's why you were here, and that's why I was here."
It was time for me to go.  "Thank you.  Have a Merry Christmas, Mrs. M."
"You, too, Danny.  Hug those children."
"I will."

Merry Christmas, Mrs. M.  Love and healing to you and Mr. M.  Thank you.

Gratitude Project: I like to have a plan, and I feel successful when I execute a plan and flustered when things don't go to plan.  One of the biggest lessons I've had to learn, then, is that the very best moments are the unplanned ones, the serendipitous ones.  I'm thankful to have those reminders on days like today.


Project Advent, Day 15: Microvolunteering


I tried something different today.  Last week, when I asked for help to line up a day of volunteering, my friend Laurie told me about an online site that allows you to find organizations in need of assistance that can be performed on your computer.  The tasks cover a range of needs: fundraising, web design, research, translation, transcription, marketing, etc.  This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I started Project Advent, but it was something unique and interesting enough that I wanted to try it out.

The specific site that Laurie told me about was the UN Volunteers site.  It had some interesting projects, most of which required some kind of lead time and ongoing commitment.  That made it a little bit hard to find opportunities that could be performed in an hour.  I signed up to help with some website redevelopment for the Christian Fellowship and Care Foundation, and looked elsewhere.

What I found was a site called Sparked.  After you set up a profile, it asks you to select what sorts of causes are most interesting to you, and what kind of skills you have to contribute, and then suggests possible matches.  I won't bore you with all the details, but during my lunchtime today I found three different matches that I was able to give some help to within the space of an hour - a school district needing help with their database management, an environmental lobbyists group having trouble with their email server, and website testing for a Cambodian children's charity.

This was fun!  There were many project needs that would require some more commitment than what I had time to give today, but I may come back to this and find some other groups to help out sometime.  I think it would be something I may pick up if I was bored at home on a weekend or something, because the experience just isn't the same as showing up someplace, meeting people, and doing a service for them.  Part of what's made this project so rewarding has been the relationships with people, and that's just not something you can get from your laptop.

Gratitude Project: This is kind of a silly one today, but it's something that I felt strongly grateful for this morning, so I'm sharing it.  I'm thankful for Jack's big, smooshy cheeks.  He's nearly three, but he's still got that wonderful baby fat face that you can just kiss all day long.


Project Advent, Day 14: All Saints Chess Club


A really funny thing happened during my shift at Second Helpings yesterday, and I was so excited to have met Billy Gillispie that I completely forgot to write about it.  A lot of this was in the live delivery, so I probably can't do it justice here.  Nancy, who leads the Second Helpings ministry, was telling us about a visit from her granddaughters last week.  They were having the nicest time, laughing together, and trying on some of Nancy's sweaters.  She told us how sweet she thought they were.  Then she found out that the reason they were so interested in her sweaters is because they were looking for something to wear to an ugly Christmas sweater party.  "And just that fast, I went from telling them what darlings they were to telling them that they were monsters who needed to get out of my closet right that very second, thankyouverymuchandIhopeJesussavesyou!"

Today, it was back to All Saints for my last chess club visit of 2011, since the kids' last day of school before Christmas break is Tuesday.  I had sort of wanted to bring some kind of gift along with me to give to the kids, but since attendance varies from five to fifteen kids, I couldn't decide what it should be.  I also don't have too much money to put into it, since payday doesn't come until tomorrow.  Since the club meets at lunch time, I decided just to bring some cookies along, and that turned out to be just fine with the five boys who showed up today.

While Blake and Ripon played, I started a game with a second grader named Aiden.  I thought that I was being crafty, and then he closed the noose and checkmated me.  I'm going to have to use the Christmas break to strengthen my game some...

After our game, Blake wanted to play me, but we only got a few moves in before the guys had to put away the boards and go back to class.  I promised him that if he did his homework and cleaned his room quickly tonight, we'd play at home.  There's a stone chess set that used to be my dad's, and Blake really likes to play with it.  There were quite a few cookies left, so Blake and I took them over to the teacher's lounge for them to enjoy.  A double shot of service!

Gratitude Project: I had the best talk on the phone with my in-laws earlier this week, and it occurred to me again how fortunate I am to have married into their family.  So many people don't care about their in-laws, and I'm blessed enough to have in-laws who I actually wish I could see more of.


Project Advent, Day 13: Second Helpings


I intentionally avoided putting too many limits on myself at the start of this project, because I wanted to leave myself a little bit of room to help wherever I thought it would be needed.  I'd considered making one of the rules say that I had to do an hour of service for somebody different each day, to keep things from getting boring for my readers, but decided that I wanted to be careful about even limiting myself that much.  I mention all of this because I know that today is my third visit to Second Helpings so far (and I'm planning one more next Tuesday).  I have to tell you, though - I love it.  I'm probably going to try and keep going at least once a week even after Project Advent is finished.  It's fun, it's close to my work, and it's rewarding.

One of the friends I've made there is another regular volunteer named Nell.  She really made me feel good today, telling me that she was so glad I'd kept coming, and that it meant a lot to her to see me there.  I kind of want to see if Nell will adopt me as her grandson.

Today's menu was spaghetti with meat sauce, three different kinds of vegetables, chicken, bread, salad, fruit cocktail, and cake for dessert.  Most of the food prep was pretty well underway when I arrived and signed in, but there was one more task that nobody else seemed to want: chopping onions.  For whatever reason, onions have never bothered my eyes all that much, so I washed my hands, put on an apron, and got to work.

As I chopped, I wondered what I would mention about today's project when I wrote it up, to make it interesting.  Then I heard lots of voices coming from the next room, and went in to see that the Texas Tech men's basketball team had just arrived!  New head coach (and former Texas A&M coach) Billy Gillispie is having his team participate in twelve days of service projects, the Red Raider 12 Days of Christmas, and today they were helping us at Second Helpings.  Their coaches put them to work rolling up plasticware inside of napkins, and I stepped across the room to introduce myself to Coach Gillispie.

Now, if you follow college sports much (which I admittedly don't), you may remember a few years ago when Coach Gillispie left A&M.  There were some very hard feelings about how he made the announcement and the move.  I have to admit that I was pretty sore over it, too.  I'd never been much of an Aggie basketball fan until he got there and turned the program around, and when he left so abruptly, it was upsetting.  It was the kind of thing that a guy (like me) and his buddies might sit around and grumble about over beers, while saying things like, "If I ever get eye-to-eye with that guy..."

Fortunately, I lack the courage of my drunken convictions, because it turns out that Coach Gillispie is as friendly a guy as you could hope to meet.  I introduced myself, told him that I'd loved watching him turn A&M's team into a winning one, and that I looked forward to watching him at Tech, too.  Then I asked him if I could get a picture with him - this is when I figured out the problem with my phone's camera.  The problem is that I keep handing it to old people who have never used a camera phone before.  At least BCG is in focus in the picture.

After the team and volunteers had all eaten, we began getting ready to serve.  The meal always begins with announcements and recognition of anybody whose birthday is that day.  After that was taken care of, the team was introduced, and Coach Gillispie briefly addressed the room to thank them for the opportunity to come serve.  One of his players, Robert Lewandowski, gave a blessing, and then we began to make plates.  Usually, the people in attendance walk through the line and receive their food, but we did it differently today.  Our guests remained seated while the servers put food on the plates, and the team waited tables, taking plates out to the guests.

In almost every situation that I'm in, I'm the tallest guy in the room.  That's why I had to get one more picture today, flanked by people taller than me.  These two players put their guns up, and I had the last-second idea to try and flash a Gig 'Em, but I didn't get my thumb out fast enough.  You can kind of see where my hand is coming up behind the edge of the guy's apron to my left.

A generous friend gave me five tickets to take my family to see the Red Raiders play Cal State - Bakersfield on December 27th, since I'll be on vacation from work.  I'm really looking forward to it, especially now that I've worked alongside these guys.  They're a wonderful group, and I think it speaks volumes about them that they're out in the community giving their time right in the middle of final exams.  I'll be cheering them on this season, except on January 14th, when they'll be making a long, tearful trip home from College Station.

Gratitude Project: I'm afraid I have to be a little cryptic on this one for the time-being, but Courtney and I had a very positive report yesterday about something that we've been in prayer about.

Two Ways for You to Help Ronald McDonald House!


One week from today is when I will be preparing a meal for the guests of Ronald McDonald House.  If you would like to help me cover the cost of food, I'd be very grateful.  It's not too late!  Just click on the "Donate" button on the right side of your screen, and you'll be taken to a PayPal page where you can donate any amount. (THE FUNDRAISER IS NOW COMPLETE, AND THE BUTTON HAS BEEN REMOVED.  THANK YOU!)

I received an email today from somebody who works for one of RMHC's partner agencies, with this information:
Headed into the holiday season, I thought you and your readers might be interested to know about a campaign to help children and families in need. Sharecare, an online health and wellness platform co-founded by Dr. Oz, is supporting the Ronald McDonald House Charities® by donating to help continue care given to families and children battling illnesses.
I saw on your “Be a Part of Project Advent!” post that you are a strong supporter of this foundation, so I thought you might enjoy another chance to help.
Sharecare will guarantee a $5,000 donation, but they are also conducting a Facebook campaign to reach 100K fans by December 31. If they reach that goal, Sharecare will double the donation to $10,000!
We would be honored by your support in featuring this initiative on your blog. Below are the details, and we also have two banner images available that you can use to link to the Sharecare Facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/SharecareNow.
 There you go!  Two ways you can help Ronald McDonald House without even having to stand up from your computer!

Project Advent, Day 12: Red Cross

It's really gratifying, as a blogger, to have moments when you find out that what you are writing is reaching people.  I have friends who I know are reading, but it's especially exciting to find out that you're being read by people outside of that circle.  Yesterday, I felt lousy.  I took the kids out to lunch at Dickey's, where kids eat free on Sundays, so that I wouldn't have to cook anything, and so they'd be out of the house and let Courtney get to sleep, since she had to work last night.  While I was there, I had two very cool encounters.

The first was with a friend who I very seldom see in real life anymore, but who was there with her family.  I'd only posted my blog entry about two hours before, but she'd already seen it, and told me that she hoped I'd feel better soon.  Thanks, Melissa!

The second was as I was getting the kids seated at our table.  From the next table over, I heard a man quietly tell his wife, "That's the guy I was telling you about, with the Advent blog."  I took a sneak peek a minute later, and it was a man I'd never seen before.  Thanks for reading, friend!

I actually had something else lined up for today, but then it fell through over the weekend.  Although there are lots of deserving organizations to volunteer for, many of them require a background check or some training, two things that I didn't have time for if I was going to line something up in time for today!  Writing another check wasn't an option, either, because I'm a little busted until payday on Thursday.  I put out a call for help on Facebook, and quickly got this response from Lauren, a friend from high school:
My husband is the chairman of the board of the Red Cross. That's right, I am bragging. He said to call Molly. She can hook you up. You can tell her Bill said to call.
That's just what I did!  I called Molly this morning, dropped Bill's name, and visited the Lubbock office of the Red Cross today during my lunchtime.

I don't know if the Red Cross has done this in the past, but they have a really neat program this year.  As a gift in a loved one's honor, you can choose from a whole range of needed services that your money will sponsor, from a care kit for a wounded veteran, to a day of hot meals from the disaster relief truck, or blankets for disaster survivors.  There is a website where you can learn more, or purchase gifts, but there's also a printed catalog that the Red Cross office had a box full of.  What they needed help with was addressing these catalogs for delivery to members of their board, and to some of their larger donors.  Molly set me up with a list, a box of mailing labels, and a pen, and set me to work.  It was a pretty long list, but I had just enough time to handwrite each label and then stick them all to catalogs before I had to go.  There were actually quite a few names on that list of people I know, so if you get information from Red Cross in the next few days, and it has a really horribly hand-lettered label on it, chances are I wrote it.

Now, I've taken a "mine is not to question why" approach to any tasks I've been given at the sites where I'm volunteering, but today's experience did give me an idea for a follow-up project.  When Project Advent is finished, I think I'll visit the Red Cross again and show them how to do a mail merge from Word!

Twelve days down, twelve to go...

Gratitude Project: From 1 John 3:1, "Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the sons of God."
Have you thought of what a gift that is?  And we can approach Him in prayer whenever we wish to, and avail ourselves of his endless forgiveness.  That's what I'm thankful for today.

Project Advent, Day 11: Donation to Texas Boys Ranch


Crud, you guys...  I am sick.  My chest feels like it's been stuffed full of kerosene-soaked sawdust, and somebody is holding a match to it each time I breathe.  I really don't like missing church this time of year, when our sanctuary is so beautiful, our fantastic choir is singing Christmas songs, and the Advent candles are being lit.  But I gave the Holwerdas a rare pajama Sunday today, because I need the rest, and I don't feel like being Patient Zero in a flu outbreak at FUMC.  I think I may have brought this on myself with all of the extra time outside yesterday and Friday.

Fortunately, I planned ahead for this contingency!  Actually, I'd planned to use this as a free day to take Courtney on a date one night next weekend, but it turns out she's working all next weekend, so...  Anyway, I dropped a donation to the Texas Boys Ranch in the mailbox.  I know it doesn't go out until tomorrow, but I'm still counting it.

The Boys Ranch has been a part of Lubbock as far back as I can remember.  It turns out that it's exactly as old as I am, since it was opened in 1975.  They are a faith-based residential facility for children aged 4-18, where abused and neglected children live in groups with house parents, and are given help through counseling, therapy, and even vocational training.  It is also an actual, working 460 acre ranch, where the children get to take part in the responsibilities of running the ranch.  Last year, for the first time in their history, they made the decision to open their doors to girls, too, so that siblings can stay together at the ranch.  They have helped hundreds of Lubbock's children. 

OK, I'm going to take some Mucinex and head back to bed so that I can do something tomorrow.

Gratitude Project: I get blasted by one or two good colds per year, but I'm blessed with very good health overall.  Really, better than I deserve, given how little attention I've paid to maintaining it over the years.  When we're sick, we often pray for healing, but when was the last time you prayed to thank God on a day you were healthy?  Today, I'm going to lift a prayer of gratitude for all the healthy days I have.


Project Advent, Day 10: The Haven Animal Care Shelter


I don't especially like animals.  There, I said it.  This shouldn't be such a big thing, but there are people who treat this admission as something on par with saying that my hobby is pushing old ladies down staircases.  I mean, I don't hate animals, and I'm certainly not cruel to them, I just don't really like them.  There was one puppy who made a temporary crack in my shell, but I kind of got over that the longer he stayed with us.

Before I started Project Advent, I asked my friends for suggestions of things that I could do, and one of them suggested Lubbock's Haven Animal Care Shelter.  I was ready to brush off the suggestion, but then I realized that it was actually kind of perfect for this project.  It's not something that I would usually do on my own, and it's a place that needs help.  They are a donation-funded no-kill shelter for abused, neglected, abandoned, or ownerless animals.

The Haven has regular volunteer times on Saturdays from 9-5.  I called last week to see if we needed to let them know when we'd be there, and they told me just to show up, so that's what Blake and I did this morning.  Today was their annual photos with Santa event at PetSmart, where they send volunteers to that store to let people take photos of their pets with Santa.  Because of that, there were fewer volunteers than usual at the actual shelter.

Blake and I walked into the office and introduced ourselves to Angela, the volunteer coordinator.  After we'd signed in, she gave us some jobs.  I would be making the rounds to the animal buildings and putting out food.  This place doesn't look like much when you pull in, but here's a picture of it from above.  All of those buildings are part of the Haven, and they all have animals that need feeding.

View Larger Map

You may notice that I said the feeding was my job, but I didn't say anything about what Blake did.  His assignment was to help with socializing two new puppies, which is an official way of saying: PUPPY PLAYTIME!

That's right - while dad was out in the cold, slogging it with sacks of food, Blake was rolling around with a sharpei mix named Santa Paws, and his sister, Christie.  Nice work if you can get it.

The Haven is a really interesting and unique facility.  They don't just house dogs and cats, but nearly any pet that needs shelter.  I asked if they had room for our canine visitor, but they currently don't.  Oh well.  Merry Christmas, dogs.

Gratitude Project:  I've noted this before, but I'm always amazed by the reservoir of love that my children show me.  I know that so far in this project I've mentioned being thankful for their perspective and for the other people who love them, but this is about what they give back to me.  To be really honest, I am struggling a lot with Jack right now.  There's sweetness in him, but it's inside a lot of other stuff that I just can't, for the life of me, make my way through.  When he went to bed tonight, we were both really upset with each other.  But I know that when he wakes up, he's going to come running to me with open arms, ready to start a new day.  It's humbling.


Project Advent, Day 9: Salvation Army Bell Ringer


When I was in Boy Scouts, there was a song that we used to sing around the campfire, and its chorus went like this:
Salvation Arrrmy!  Salvation Arrrmy!
Put a nickel in the drum, save another drunken bum!
Salvation Arrrmy!  Salvation Arrrmy!
Put a nickel in the drum, and you'll be saved!
My mom tried to convince me that it would be much nicer if we sang it as "Put a nickel in the tin, save another soul from sin," but have you ever tried to convince a group of teenage boys to do the nice thing?  Yeah, right.

So, anyway, I have some karmic debt to repay to the Salvation Army.  My dad was actually a big supporter of the SA, doing lots of volunteer work with them for several years.  I decided that I would serve them today as that most iconic of Christmas sights - a bell ringer outside of a store.  And so it was that I showed up outside of WalMart a few minutes before noon to relieve James, the ringer who'd been there all morning.

There's not much to it - James gave me his red apron and his bell, phoned the coordinator at Salvation Army to let her know we were switching, and then took off.  I started ringing.

Sometimes, service means playing games with sweet kids.  Those hours go fast.  Sometimes, service means ringing a bell in thirty-five degree weather, in the shade of a WalMart entrance.  Those hours go sloooow.  Here are tricks to make the time pass more quickly:
  • Smile and wave at kids as they enter the store with their moms.
  • Enjoy that this WalMart is close to Tech, so you get to watch lots of cute college girls coming in.
  • Count all of the people wearing UT gear.  Wonder how many of them actually went to UT.
  • If the bell should happen to slip out of your gloved hand and drop to the ground, pick it up and say to whoever is nearby, "Aw man, now I've gotta start all over..." and then count out loud as you start ringing again.
  • Remember that you know a word that means "the ringing or sounding of bells": tintinnabulation!
  • Watch cute college girls walking back out again.
  • Whenever somebody on a cell phone walks past you, ring your bell louder and more unceasingly.  Just go crazy with it, like Will Ferrell on a cowbell, and see how many of them have to ask whoever they're talking with to repeat themselves.
I'm here to tell you that people do still drop money in those kettles.  I couldn't keep any sort of count while I was out there, but a lot of people dropped in at least some change, and quite a few tucked folded bills in there.  James came back from his lunch, we switched back, and I wished him well before heading back to the office.
I actually thought that I was smiling when I self-shot this picture, but I was so cold that I may not really have been able to feel my face.  More than once, I thought that I should have worn a hat, but it doesn't seem right when I'm doing public service to deprive the public of the sight of my hair.  You don't hide your light under a bushel!  Plus, it's the only part of me in this picture that doesn't look like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Gratitude Project: Tonight is my company Christmas party, and I'm really looking forward to it.  Vista Bank always puts on a really fun party.  I'm thankful to work with good, strong, honest people, and to have an employer who has always treated me fairly, and allowed me to put my family first.  Not to mention the fact that they don't get on me when I occasionally need a lunch break a teensy bit longer than an hour in order to do a service project.


Project Advent, Day 8: Women's Protective Services


UPDATE ON THE PAYPAL BUTTON: Several people reported that the button to make PayPal donations for the Ronald McDonald House dinner wasn't working correctly.  After working on this with PayPal support, it appears to be working correctly, and several donations have come through.  However, some people are still reporting trouble.  If you would like to donate, and the button isn't working correctly for you, please feel free to contact me to set up an alternate method, or just PayPal it to me without using the button.

I write about my kids a lot, right?  Sometimes, I'm proud of them.  Sometimes, they make me crazy.  In good times and bad, though, I'm always glad to have them.  When you're doing well, it's easy to take for granted the parts of your life that you are blessed to have.

Here is a sad, sad fact about the city I live in.  The Lubbock region has the highest confirmed rate of child abuse per capita in the State of Texas for 2008 and 2009 at 22.7 per 1,000 kids vs. the state average of 10.5 per 1,000 kids.  Nearly 1,200 children were in foster care in the Lubbock region last year.  This hurts me to know.

Since we are in the season of Advent, and since Advent is why I'm doing this project, there's an article that I'd like to share with you, about looking at Joseph as a model of honorable fatherhood.  When he was faced with a situation that was difficult to explain at best, and possibly dangerous at worst, Joseph took heed of what the angel told him.  He loved and raised Jesus as his own son, although he knew that Jesus was not his son, but the Son of God.  How different is our world because Joseph was the man in Jesus's life, raising Him and caring for Him until He was an adult, until He was ready to begin His ministry?

I am no Joseph.  I wouldn't even dare to make that comparison.  But I can try to be a positive part of a child's life.  Tonight I visited the Women's Protective Services shelter for their weekly mentoring night.  Here's a description from their website:
Children are changed by growing up with violence and abuse at home. One of the top 10 ways a child can be changed by violence at home is that they are denied a father and positive role model. Mentoring is an opportunity to make a measureable difference in the life of a battered child. Women’s Protective Services of Lubbock, Inc. is seeking outgoing, dedicated individuals to Mentor at WPS.
What do volunteers do?
Mentors meet every Thursday from 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm and interact with the children that reside at WPS and helping them have fun. Activities range from arts and crafts, board games, movie nights, pizza parties, play basketball, football and go on field trips. Mentors will work with one to a few children at a time.
The focus of the program is to provide a buddy to someone who needs a positive role model at a difficult time in their lives.
An hour of service!  It's like they were trying to tailor-make an opportunity for me to include them in Project Advent!

Courtney was scheduled to work tonight, so I needed someplace to drop my own kids first.  My friend Ann, who I have known for 30 years (!), told me that she'd be happy to babysit if I needed to be kidless for one of my projects, and was very kind to let the junior Holwerdas come join her and her two kids tonight.  My kids were really excited to have an evening to play with John and Caroline, who they are already friends with at church!  Ann gave the kids a really fun evening - they had pizza, did a special Advent craft, and played together.

I'm afraid I have to be a little bit vague on some of the details of tonight's project.  When I arrived at the shelter, I signed a confidentiality agreement, agreeing that I wouldn't discuss anything about the people, situations, or anything else that I heard or saw while I was there, but I think I can still talk about what we did.  Every Thursday, there are activities planned for the kids while their moms attend groups.  The kids were watching Merry Madagascar when I got there, and eating popcorn.  As some of them started to get bored with the movie, I went with them into the playroom, where we played different board games for a while, until the movie ended and the rest of the kids joined us.  We all played together for a while more, and then their moms were coming to pick them up.  The hour passed really quickly.

I'm going to carry this evening with me for a while.  There was a teenaged boy who I was playing Jenga with, and a little girl came and sat in his lap.  I asked if she was his sister, and he said, "No, she just feels safe with me."  I played with another child, and asked their name.  It was the same as one of my children.

Gratitude Project: Be real before God... My heart really hurts tonight.  I was only with these kids for one hour, and I feel like it was literally the very least bare minimum that I could do.  They need and deserve so much more.

But I also have much to be thankful for.  Today, it's something a little silly and maybe even kind of vain, but I got some new dress shoes.  My first new pair of black shoes in nearly five years.  It turns out that having three kids is kind of expensive, so there's not always money for that stuff, you know?  Anyway, I'm thankful that I have the means and opportunity to have some new shoes today.