Opinion:Giving back yields great holiday memories

Hundreds of people waiting for food lined the walls of a volunteer work site at a gym in South Boston, several miles from the Massachusetts Bay. It was late November and a few days away from Thanksgiving.

I was president at United Way in Boston at the time — it was about 14 years ago — and one of my sons, then-5-year-old Taylor, and I had been assigned to hand out frozen turkeys, roasting pans, sides and frozen apple pies for a Thanksgiving feeding program. Items were carefully arranged in stacks by the thousands.

Those items went into bags and finally into shopping carts rolled home by the recipients.

As the line wrapped along the table, an old woman pushing a cart caught my eye. As she got closer, I could hear her Russian accent. Like everyone else, she desperately needed food for her family. She was too frail to carry the heavy items, so my son and I placed them into the cart. I could see her eyes well up with tears — her cheeks, red from the cold wind, had turned to a smile.

At the last station, I offered to walk her home, gesturing toward the door. I left my son in the gym and walked silently with this woman to her nearby apartment, and then up three flights of stairs.

The woman reached her arms around my neck, tears streaming down her face, and she said —in broken English— “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” and “Happy Thanksgiving,” and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I then turned and walked back to the gym. I tear up thinking about it now.

I’ve made it a habit to volunteer around the holidays, but this instance was always memorable. Working to serve the elderly, families and children, dramatically illustrated the plight of hunger in our community.

Is it too much to ask us to have a special place in our hearts for those who need our help, and to want to respond with deeds of service?

Having my youngest son at my side 14 years ago made this moment even more memorable and poignant.

I consider my sons and the opportunities they were given when I think of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Child Well-Being Movement.

United Way launched its Child Well-Being Movement around the idea all children in Greater Atlanta’s 13-counties deserve to be well. Each child, regardless of the place where they were born, deserves access to the social supports, resources and opportunities they need to reach their potential.

Children need to be cared for emotionally, intellectually and physically, as well. And no child should be hungry.

This is what led us to launch our Silence the Growl program six years ago, and after handing out more than 230,000 meals in six years, we expanded Silence the Growl year-round.

We know families all over Greater Atlanta live in food deserts, miles away from the nearest grocery store and access to fresh produce. It can be easy for us to lose sight of the scale of the problem, but these children and their families are your friends and neighbors, and they are our brothers and sisters.

That’s what I think of this time of year. When I reflect on the needs of this region, I remember how one sister years ago generated so strong a sense of empathy, compassion and a need to act.

The time to make an impact is now. This Tuesday is Giving Tuesday. As you make plans this holiday, consider a time in your life that had an impact on you and your community, and if you don’t have a memorable experience, then go and create your own.

Support local nonprofits you connect with — you can give to Silence the Growl at www.silencethegrowl.org.

Together, we can meet the needs of our community.

Milton J. Little Jr. is president and CEO of United Way of Greater Atlanta.