"Hello! Would you like a hot meal?" I shouted to a big lump of blankets stuffed into a cement corner of an overpass.
The lump moved, and slowly a grimy old man shuffled over to take the heavy box of grub from my hands.
"Thank you so much," he said, gratitude beaming from his eyes over a big smile that suddenly made him seem much younger.
"Happy Thanksgiving," I replied, and handed him a package of new white socks before hopping back in the car that was stuffed full of ready-to-go Thanksgiving dinners, donated clothes items and three new friends that I had met at the volunteer center.
We would eat no such meals ourselves that day, but we were filled with something else – with the knowledge that we had provided a little relief and a lot of turkey and dressing to humans who needed it much more than we did. You know, looking suffering in the face is tough, and in fact many people actively avoid doing so. Indeed it would be very difficult to get up in the morning if you couldn't stop thinking about other humans' despair, hunger and suffering.
But sometimes it's necessary, and there's no better day to give of yourself and your time than on Thanksgiving Day. A little history of Thanksgiving reveals, no doubt the early Native Americans had far better things to do with their time than help the Pilgrims learn to cook and survive in the New World. They had probably been planning a nice small dinner with their loved ones and didn't particularly want to help out these starving, dirty, smelly white people. But they did, and their legacy of compassion will live on, not just for Thanksgiving Day, but also as an example of the innate goodness of human beings.
Have you been in touch with your innate goodness lately?
Volunteer to serve those who are less fortunate than you this holiday, and continue on a true Thanksgiving tradition. It will be one Thanksgiving that you remember without pause, and your encouraging actions will inspire others to turn a thought to their human families as well. There are many ways to volunteer on Thanksgiving or any day- start planning now and give yourself a holiday that is infused with the true meaning of gratitude.
- Do you belong to a religious organization? Many churches, temples, etc. have a system in place for reaching out to the less fortunate, and all you will have to do is show up and start handing out plates of pumpkin pie. Just ask. If an outreach program doesn't exist, consider gathering your friends and starting one.
- Many food banks and soup kitchens are actively recruiting volunteers to work on Thanksgiving Day right now; in New York City there are thousands of such locations. They may need donations of pantry items, or they may be hosting a big holiday dinner and need people who can volunteer their time. Food banks need people to cook, serve food, pick up donations, set up for dinner and clean up after it's done. Google "food bank" to get started, and don't wait until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to call them up.
- In some bigger cities, larger outreach programs like Gobble Gobble Give in Los Angeles deliver hot plates of food to those who can't even manage to make it to a shelter, but can be found under overpasses and sleeping in parks. Seeing how hard some people have it will illuminate the blessings in your own life.
- No outreach program in your town? Make your own. Double the amount of Thanksgiving food that you normally cook and package up half of it in meal-sized portions to deliver around your neighborhood to people in need.
- Cooking your family's dinner and can't bow out of the obligation? Consider inviting some extra guests to your meal, life's "orphans" if you will – students who are away from their family and alone on the holiday, a young couple who just moved to town or that quiet guy down the street that you have always wondered about. Make like the Native Americans and share your bounty with some hungry Pilgrims.
- Nursing homes are full of senior citizens who rarely get any visitors or love. Bring them some, whether it's a slice of sugar-free pumpkin pie, a bouquet of mums or just your smiling face. If you have children, bring them too – you will light up the life of the old folks, and your kids will learn a very valuable lesson.
- Absolutely don't have the time to volunteer? Most food banks are in desperate need of funding and food for the holidays. Find a local Thanksgiving dinner program and donate a chunk of cash far in advance of the holiday. For those of you in NYC, we've rounded up some amazing food drives you can contribute to.
What a great new tradition to instill in your family! Experience the true meaning of Thanksgiving and this year, give back to your human family.
image: Jesslee Cuizon