“Class,” Mrs. Daniels said once we had all finished our tests. “Now that we are done with our assessments for the semester, we are going to do something different today and tomorrow. We are going to do a service project in downtown Jackson.”
Mrs. Daniels looked at him with a glare that quieted him immediately, then she continued. “As a class, we will go to the Simpson homeless shelter and meet some of the people that live there. You’ll ask them some questions and try to get to know them. Just try to brighten up their day.”
Janie raised her hand and when Mrs. Daniels called on her, she asked, “When are we going to leave for the shelter?”
“I’ll pair you up and then we will leave on the bus.”
“Why do we need partners?” Marcus complained. “I don’t need anyone to dim my awesomeness!”
Mrs. Daniels replied, “This project isn’t for self-recognition, but to help other people who aren’t as fortunate, Marcus. We will go in pairs so that we can go up to them with another person in case you get uncomfortable.”
She then paired us up with our partners. I was paired with Anna, which isn’t a bad thing, but we don’t have much in common. She likes riding horses and I like reading. She has red hair and I have brown. That doesn’t matter, though. Anyway, she paired us up and then we left.
As we approached the door to the courtyard of the shelter, the guide said, with too much enthusiasm, “Here we are! But don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk. These people have lived hard lives. Anyway, thank you so much for helping brighten these people’s day, especially because it is so close to Christmas!”
Then she walked to the other end of the lobby to finish hanging ornaments on a little Christmas tree. Mrs. Daniels pushed open the doors and we entered the unknown.
As we walked into the courtyard, it was hard not to stare. We walked in on a mom and four kids huddled together at a table as she read a tattered book to the children. As we walked past them, it was hard not to cry. I’ve always felt for the homeless. I know most people do, but my dad lived on the streets until he was thirteen, so I’ve heard stories about how hard it is to live off of nothing.
“Class,” Mrs. Daniels said, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I want you and your partner to go and find someone to talk to. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s fine, but it is totally safe here.” Then she walked over to talk to the guide about other service opportunities.
Anna and I walked away from the group, looking for someone to talk to. Everyone was moving around awkwardly, not exactly knowing what to do. I then noticed a man hunched over a table, sitting by himself. I nudged Anna to get her attention, and we approached the man. As we got closer, I saw that he was drawing something, someone actually. The person, a woman, was smiling and holding a baby.
“Excuse me, sir,” Anna said, startling the man, and me as well. “I’m Anna, and this is Sarah. We were wondering if we could talk with you?” The man stared blankly at her. Then he shook himself like he had just been woken from a daze.
“What? Oh, a talk. Um, sure, I guess. I don’t have anything better to do,” the man said nervously, quickly covering up his drawing. The sad, depressed look in his eyes was unbearable. I was already blinking back tears when luckily Anna started talking to the man.
“Well, what’s your name. Mine is-
“-Anna, and the other girl is Sarah. I’m not deaf, you know,” the man interrupted, surprising both of us. “Anywho, I’m Samuel. Nothing else. Just Samuel.”
“Okay,” Anna said, not sure what to say. The man’s sudden outburst had taken the words from her.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, sitting down across from Samuel, “how are you?”
“You know,” Samuel said, “the question ‘how are you?’ is stupid. I mean, most likely, you can tell how someone is by just looking at them. Do you really need to ask how am I? I’m living in this place with only the clothes on my back!”
“I’m sorry.” I said quietly. “Instead of ‘how are you?’, here’s a better question: ‘What can we do to help you?"
The man leaned back in his chair, a smile creeping onto his face. “Well, if you want to know how to help me, I’ll tell you. About six years ago, I was probably one of the happiest men in Mississippi. I had a great job as a manager for a restaurant not too far from here. I lived in a nice house on a nice street in the Belhaven area. And best of all, I was married to the kindest woman on this earth, and we had a beautiful baby girl named Katie. They were the light of my life. But then, everything was taken away.
“On the way home from the movies, our car was hit from behind. I, out of both cars, was the only survivor. I was so angry at the world that I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I was a mess. After a year, I realized that I had to try to go back to work. On my first day back, I got in a fight with a new coworker. I broke both his legs. I don’t even remember what started the fight. I was fired and had nowhere to go. When I got home, I found that my house had caught fire. Everything I owned was gone. With absolutely nothing left, I came here, hoping life would straighten out. I’ve been here ever since. All I’ve ever wanted since I’ve lived here is to have somewhere to go for the holidays where I’m not so lonely, but I doubt you can give me that," Samuel finished with a sigh.
Anna and I were in tears. I had no idea that someone would actually open up and talk to us. I didn’t think that someone would ask us to help them with something life-changing. “Mr. Samuel,” I said, “I will try my absolute best to give you the Christmas of your dreams!”
Just then, Mrs. Daniels called all of us over, saying that it was time to go.
“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Anna said, squeezing Samuel’s hand. “Merry Christmas!”
Once we were all back in the bus, Mrs. Daniels asked, kind of sarcastically, “So, did anyone do anything life-changing?”
“Actually, we did,” Anna spoke up, surprising Mrs. Daniels. She then told the whole class Samuel’s story, bringing over half to tears.
“That was an awesome story,” Mrs. Daniels said, wiping her eyes. “Well, we will be coming back here tomorrow. I hope you and Sarah find a way to make this a Christmas Mr. Samuel will never forget!”
Back at home, sitting around the dinner table, I told my family about Samuel. As soon as I finished, my seven-year-old sister Emily exclaimed, “Let’s invite Samuel to have Christmas with us!” She looked at my parents expectantly and said, “You always tell us that if we see someone in need, we should do whatever we can to help them.”
My older brother James chimed in. “Yeah! It would be awesome to have a new person at the table,” adding, “I’m tired of just the usual Nana, Papa, Aunt Jenny, Uncle Tom, and Elise and Mikey.”
My parents looked at each other and Mom shrugged. “The more the merrier, I guess. It wouldn’t hurt to invite Mr. Samuel to have Christmas with us and my side of the family. And James, you need to be glad you have a family to spend Christmas with, even if they are a little boring.” She smiled. James, Emily, and I cheered.
“But,” Mom added, “It will be your responsibility to make him feel at home, Sarah. We’ll all make him feel welcome, but you are the only one he actually knows. When you ask him tomorrow, don’t be upset if he doesn’t want to come. Even though he wants somewhere to go, all the new people may be overwhelming.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll make sure that he has the best Christmas ever!”
As soon as Anna and I sat down on the bus to the homeless shelter, I told her my plan to invite him to have Christmas with us. “Sarah,” Anna said, “I love your idea, but I was planning on inviting him to my family’s Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve. What are we going to do?”
As she told me this, my heart sank.
Then I had an idea. “Well, why can’t he come to both of our Christmases? You said that you were going to invite him to your house on Christmas Eve, and my mom’s side of the family has Christmas the weekend before.”
Anna smiled. “Awesome! We can tell him when we get there! He will be so excited!” Just then, the bus stopped in front of the shelter and Mrs. Daniels called all of us off the bus.
“Perfect timing,” Anna said as we stepped off of the bus.
When we walked into the courtyard, Samuel was sitting at the same table, drawing another picture, but this time of a tree. I walked over to the table with Anna and sat down. “Hey Samuel! I like your drawing,” Anna said, sitting down as well.
“You two again?” Samuel said, trying to sound gruff but not succeeding.
“Samuel,” I said, “we have a surprise for you. Remember when you said that you wanted somewhere to go for the holidays? Well, we were wondering if you would come and have Christmas with our families. My family is meeting next weekend and Anna’s family meets on Christmas Eve. So, what do you say? Will you have Christmas with us?”
“Do you mean it?” Samuel said barely above a whisper. “You would let me come to your family gatherings? I don’t believe it. There is still good in this world!” His eyes were welling with tears as he said this. “Thank you!”
Anna and I both went over to Samuel’s side of the table and hugged him. “Of course we would let you come for Christmas! I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend Christmas alone,” I said.
This was it. Today was the day of our family Christmas gathering. Everyone would be here at ten-thirty to play games and open presents. Then we would all sit around the table and eat lunch. I was so nervous about Samuel coming that my hands were shaking as I helped Mom prepare the food.
“Honey,” Mom said, “I’m so proud of you! Even if Samuel doesn’t show up, just know that you’ve done a great, powerful thing that not many people have the courage to do. You invited a person you barely know to gather with us for Christmas because he has no family of his own. Your kindness has changed his life. I just know it.”
Just then the doorbell rang, and I rushed to open the door. Instead of Samuel, it was Aunt Jenny and Uncle Tom with their kids Elise and Mikey. “Oh, it’s you,” I said disappointedly.
“You’re not looking so happy to see us,” Aunt Jenny said. “Were you expecting someone else.
“No. Well … actually, yes.” I told her about Samuel and that he was supposed to be coming today.
“I see,” she said. “Your mom told us yesterday that someone new would be coming today. You did a great job inviting that man to have Christmas with us. It seems that he is in need of some Christmas cheer.” She motioned Elise, Mikey, and Uncle Tom, who was carrying a stack of presents through the door.
At that moment, I saw a figure walking towards our house. As it got closer, I saw that it was Samuel. He was carrying a small package wrapped in brown paper. When he reached the door, I hugged him, not caring that James and Mikey were snickering at me from the kitchen.
“I’m so glad that you came, Samuel. You’ll have so much fun!”
He walked awkwardly into the living room and set the package under the tree. I took him into the kitchen and introduced him to everyone. After I had done this, it was time to open gifts and play a Christmas tradition, Charades. We played, but Samuel didn’t join in.
When that was over we gathered around the tree to open gifts. After ten minutes, all of the gifts had been opened except for the one from Samuel. I picked it up and realized that it had my name on it. I slowly unwrapped the brown paper. When I took off the last layer of paper, I gasped. It was a drawing of a tree with roots going for miles underneath the surface.
Samuel looked at me and said, “You changed my life and helped me grow out of my anger. You showed me kindness for the first time in many years. Thank you so much, Sarah!”
I looked at him with tears in my eyes. “Thank you!” I said quietly. I know for certain that this was a Christmas no one would forget.