2016 Post-Christmas Eve interview with Anthony, Shenail and the kids.
For those of you who are new this year, this is always a bit of a long story and you will want to make time to read it privately. Sometimes these stories make you cry.
Part one -Moving the Gauge
I had just pulled out of the storage unit from unloading the truck when the call came in. Geeze that was fast…
It’s Shenail’s phone, she is sobbing, yelling into the phone, with high pitched child screaming in the background.
She is panting with excitement. “Oh my goodness!!! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! You said, you said this would be a miracle but I didn’t know what you meant – this is a for REAL miracle. This is not the house I left this morning.” Tears. “This is unbelievable.”
The kids are screaming random sentence fragments in the background. “My bed, the table, the tree, I have a lamp. It has my name on it!”
Laughing, shocked tears are flowing. I can hear her struggling to talk through the raw emotion, her voice is quickening and becoming one long run on sentence of excitement.
“This is a miracle! Legit. Girl do you know this is a miracle? This is crazy amazing, I mean it feels different here. I can’t believe this is our house, nothing feels the same, I can’t even tell where to look! I just, I just don’t know. I haven’t even been upstairs. I haven’t even GONE upstairs!”
Finally a single breath in. “I just can’t believe it is this great.”
Her voice falls to a hush quiver “I don’t know what to do, I really don’t, it’s so, so, so nice. This is a blessing. This is a real Christmas miracle.”
She breathes in and hears her own words. BAM! The deep tears come instantly. The kind of tears that grab you hard and force you to your knees. Sobbing, moaning tears that are not going to get put away quickly. “My phone’s gonna die,” she lies “I’ll call you back.” -click.
I’ve been doing this a long time. I know those tears and I usually don’t get them at Christmas.
One of the things that happens when you achieve the thing the heart was afraid to dream -BAM the pain of never having that becomes very real and the body coughs up all that it’s been stuffing. A powerful emotional release. The lesson is that tears of joy release hidden pain quickly and efficiently. “I’ll give her a few minutes,” I say to whatever angels might be listening.
Being human is a funny thing. After living in survival mode over a period of years, the deep gut wrenching tears will frequently come when individuals reach the shore of safety or achievement, NOT when it’s just plain awful.
Many of you reading this have cried those tears. For Shenail today was a double whammy – these are also tears of cellularly feeling loved deeply and loved without judgement. Every ounce of love that was sent to that family just hit the target.
I pull the truck in to my driveway, put my phone on the charger, and get ready to get into the car to drive over personally to check on those releasing tears.
Part 2 Peace is Powerful
Before I ring the bell I opt to NOT tell Shenail that I am showing up on her door 50 minutes later to double check on her emotional wellbeing. I see all the lights on in the top floor and no overhead lights on in the main floor. The good news, I tell myself, is that most people can’t cry deeply for more than about 20 minutes. She should be good.
No answer to the bell and no response to the knock. I dial her up. “Are you home? I’m standing in your hallway.”
“I will be right down!”
Joyful and bright I hear her flying down the stairs and the door flies open so fast I thought Peter Pan himself was coming out.
“I can’t believe it!” she beams (we are back to the run-on sentence speak). “This is so nice, this is a blessing, it’s so different, you told me this would change me, but this is a blessing, Ohhh let me hug you!” she lunges right at me with that get over here love hug.
Anthony is at the top of the stairs with a smile the size of Texas. Anthony is a quiet guy, but he is more than ready with a divebomb hug.
“Thank you so much, this is so unbelievably awesome!”
Up the stairs and into the living room the scene is quiet, no children screaming, no tears, just very laid back. I get a second look at the space now that it is evening and it REALLY looks nice. I’m a little re-impressed with the work of those elves.
The shift in both of them is physical and they are straight postured and assured. “Soooo,” I lob out coolly “ya think this is going to work out ok?”
Laughter erupts and their heads shake yes furiously. “YES, it is going to work out. Thank you so, so, so, so much. We love it.” Shenail shares first. Her words are slow and clear. She’s on her game and has emotionally got this.
“It’s so calming to be in here. I feel pride. It washed over me. I don’t know how to explain it other than I am filled with pride. I mean a proud kinda pride. I am proud of my home, I’m proud to have people willing to be good to me, I am proud that my house has all this love in it. It’s a blessing but I didn’t know a blessing would make me feel me so personally and extra deeply this pride. THIS, right here is why people want to go home. That’s a new feeling. I knew I was not proud of my home, it was not even a home, it was a house and THIS feels like a home. This experience gave me something I was not able to find ever really.” She laughs at herself “I can be me in here and not fuss about it.”
Anthony is Cheshire-grinning, taking in all her words shaking his head in agreement. He looks like a school boy with a really good secret. “What’s this been like for you Anthony?” I ask.
“This is my dream, right now, really. My dream is to have a family and to BE a family. We are sitting in a house that has everything. You don’t understand what a blessing it is as a man and as a father to have all your kids happy at the same time, have every need met, and you can just sit here and be thankful. AND hold still. My mind can take a minute and clear itself. I am not thinking about how much I should be doing something else, or how we are going to make a bill, or hearing the kids argue because they are bored. My heart feels comfortable.”
He takes in a deep breath and sighs deeply “I am at peace because all of this is peace” gesturing around the room. “Peace is pretty awesome” he grins.
We all three sit for a minute and think about how powerful that statement is: I am at peace because of all this peace. His tone is meditative, “You know, I’ve spent over half my life in prison and when you’re in prison you just think about what it could be like to have a different life. This feeling right now is greater than anything I could’ve let myself wish for. I’m just gonna be with it.”
He exhales slowly “I sit in this spot all the time, and this seat has never felt like this. I love how peaceful the twinkle lights feel, it feels like I can rest. I am leaving those up all year. Everyone is happy, there is nothing that needs to be done, we don’t need anything from the store, the house is full of food, nothing is broken, and THAT is a really an odd feeling.” (he laughs at himself) “I mean in a good way. I cannot remember a time in my life that things felt this straight. Nothin’ twisted here. Like I said, I’m just gonna be with it.”
The kids pop out to see who is attached to the voice in the living room and we let out the truth. “THANK YOU!” and their kinetic energy is dancing as they speak.
“Do you want to see what happened to your house today?” Parents and kids come close to look at the pictures on my phone of the people that worked in their house. I love kid’s raw reactions.
I show them the group shot and in unison came ONE word from every member of the Evans household, “Daaaaang.” “That’s a lot of people” broadcasts the oldest boy.
“Ooohhhwie thasss crazy” says the middle daughter and she snap her head like a dance move and slides away from the screen in disbelief. “All of them people were in OUR house? That’s cray-cray” and she starts spinning with her older sister trying to get her to hold still.
I had an elf video that was only a few seconds long that shows everyone waving and saying “Yay Project Elf!” Good news, 10 times in a row is just the right amount of times to push re-play.
“Now you gotta see my stuff” chime the girls, and the boys flash back to their rooms because they’ve already spent too much time away from it. That moment of the kids needing to go back to their bedrooms is THE moment when I know that our team has done not just a fantastic job but a life changing job.
When I walk into a house on any given year the children will literally lock themselves into their rooms because somehow this event gives them a sense of being and having their own identity that has never been present before. And in this case, there has never been a moment in these children’s entire lives that everyone had their own bed or enough space to have their own stuff.
The girls have, in under an hour, already rearranged their closet so that they each have EXACTLY 50%, a marker line added, and they sorted all the gifts and clothes to identify which things were theirs and they have been slid into the correct side of the closet. The television is on and blaring the game show Family Feud, and the middle daughter is bouncing up and down on her bed waiting to see what the answer will be.
“SURVEY SAYS” she shrieks at the TV. DING the answer is revealed. Things look good here. I move onward.
The boys already switched their sleeping space appointments to who had the highest seniority. The oldest boy decided that he absolutely did not want his little brother sleeping or bouncing over him and the middle boy was sure that he loved the idea of now being crowned with the largest bed. The boys hunted out all the coins from the sandbox and are jingling them in their pockets. Dad makes them put them back in the sandbox.
They are giddy with all the details of the room. “It looks like a store in here.” says the newly crowned biggest bed middle child who is heading back to the sandbox. This may now be HIS favorite space.
I move the parents towards the living room and edge myself towards my own holiday in waiting. It is Christmas Eve. I let them know that they are loved, it was an honor to work with them, and I’d just like give them a few extra details about the gift cards, and what are some of the offerings that they aren’t seeing and then I’ll be on my way.
I told them that I had taken a broken microwave out of the house, and they both laugh and smile. “Yes, but we have plenty of money” laughing about their gift cards. “We can go buy a new one. If we need something we can just go buy it!” Gift cards were placed inside a very special box next to the parent’s bed with the cards that we call letters of hope.
All the people that volunteer on delivery day can write a special note to the family. It’s one of the most treasured items that a family receives. They will save and re-read those letters for years and years. They are both in on the good fortune joke.
“Ohhh, we read EVERY ONE of those cards. We read them to the whole family and then we kept finding all these gift cards! The gift cards were so generous and amazing and it made our minds think “wow we can go DO anything with our family as a treat. That isn’t even an idea that we’ve have on ANY day, ever. We are always trying to use our extra money to save up to meet the basics, replace something that is broken, or just try to get something put up in the house like groceries.”
I can see my job here tonight is almost done, this is a set of parents that is not just hungry for personal change, they are voracious. But they have no idea what happens next, because tomorrow they will wake up in a beautiful home that feels loving and wonderful and they will have to go back to the same job and same life but they will feel very different and their sense of self has now changed.
The next step is to apply resources. I go into my helper mode “Here’s the schedule that is available for you if you choose it, we have cooking lessons on Tuesdays that will be delivered to your home so that you and the older children can learn how to use the pantry and learn how to cook ahead and freeze meals. We have a cleaning coach coming in three times, and we have an online video series that will give you some new ideas about thinking differently. Oh, and you both need to start adding new friends that are different than you.”
Anthony looks at his feet and Shenail sort of drifts into another room because she does not want to be here at this part of the conversation. Apparently, this is Anthony’s lesson.
“I know I need to expand my ideas and my relationships” he looks down at his feet and a big sigh comes out. “It’s hard to trust, it’s real hard” his eyes grab and scan the glowing holiday lights around the room. “It’s hard to know what to do next, I don’t have hookups like that, I just keep trying on my own. I’m a grown man and I just got my first ever job this year, 18 months ago I had a baby with my girlfriend and now I am parenting six kids! I just try to be strong each day, be a good person, not get into trouble or make bad decisions.”
I am about to give him the same sentence I have given to CEO’s, community leaders, people coming out of poverty, and even felons…I grab his eyes with mine. “Anthony- you’re NEVER expected to do this alone.” Gesturing with two hands I say, “Look at this house, this beautiful expression took FIFTY people putting in six hours. It took 300 hours of work to make this house look like this, and that’s with all the resources being sourced, sorted and delivered.”
My point drives home with a whisper. “No one does it alone.”
I can see relief push his shoulders down and he gives me the nod of understanding. Message delivered.
Shenail has now found the makeup video that the makeup blogger has made specifically for her as her big wish gift and she is now bouncing into the dining room with her phone lit up. It’s a 30-minute video and she is back to her run-on sentence excited voice.
“Did you see ALL MY make up? Whoa, did you see the wrapping, it is so fancy I took a picture, she wrote me notes in every package, I am saving those, and the – oh my Lord, I have never in my life had such an experience or array, so do you know I have 50 make up brushes, I mean I HAVE 50 make up brushes, who has that? And I have a space to put make up on, with a sliding chair, and its makeup that I have only ever seen in magazines and tutorials” and then out pops the announcement: “I am going to stay up ALL night tonight and do my make up.”
Anthony smiles and shoots me the “you know what’s up” eyebrows. He knows that she’s about to disappear to her room and play with all of her toys, just like the kids. That’s the break he was looking for. He is going to sit in the living room and listen to the peace and just BE with it.
As each one of us left that house just hours earlier, peace and pride is the feeling that we all got and gifted. Today was the peace that is only offered when we love freely. Be with it.
Casandra was our 2015 Christmas family, and here’s her interview the day after Christmas:
The Interview with Casandra:
“Oh my goodness! It’s amazing!
“I think the biggest thing that I was surprised about was how different I would feel. I FEEL different in a miracle sort of way.
“While I am thankful for the furnishings the landlord had previously dropped in, it just never helped me find my center. When you live in a house that has little bits and pieces put together that are not one big planned out group that can mix together, you just feel confused all the time.
“Right now my confusion is gone and THAT is the real gift that I am the most thankful for. Sitting in this house right now I feel clear, it’s like fogginess has left me and my mind can settle down enough to actually work.
“The children have completely settled down, I am not yelling at them all the time. We all just feel at ease.
“I knew I would be thankful for this gift, I didn’t know that I would be this internally thankful. I’ve never had a gift that made me find myself. I am so amazed at all of you people and how well you KNEW us.
“I was hoping that I would enjoy the gift that was given, but no one could have prepared me for how this gift is changing me in this way. I heard Mickey and Toni tell me that this would change my life, and I listened to that, but I also did it for the surprise to my children…I wanted their lives to change and be better.
“I didn’t understand that it would bring us all peace.
“When I say this is a blessing, I need all of those who worked so hard on this place to know that I can physically and emotionally FEEL all of the blessings that all of the people that were in this house gave to this space. I know what it felt like when I left and I know what it feels like now, and those two feelings have nothing in common.
“I can’t tell you how annoying it feels to always be in a state where you can’t think. I was always fighting being on edge. I was frayed all the time and now I can just rest on my couch and just enjoy thinking straight.
“And I love everything about this place, I love my home! I love every single thing! I’m looking around and I can’t think of anything that I would have asked to change. I don’t remember a time in my life that I could say that.
“This dining room is my space! Oh my goodness I love this room. The dining room table has not even moved – not one thing. I won’t let the children sit at it, we all just want to leave it because it’s so beautiful.
“It makes me happy to just see everything so perfectly placed. It is my hope.”
She laughs. “I am not kidding. I am straight on this. I have asked the children to please not BE in the dining room. I have strongly asked for them to just walk through it and don’t disrupt anything because it’s so perfect.
“I don’t even want any of their things in that room. I’m sure there’s going to be a day where I’m going to let them sit at that table or that we will move the dishes, but it’s not anytime soon. I like that it has so many details and each time I sit here I see more details and it makes me love it more.
“WE ALL love the beds! The beds are absolutely a surprise in a whole bunch of different ways. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is for us to have beds that no one else has used. It feels so special to have a mattress that is only yours. As my family grew it’s always been too much to ask for that ALL of us could have something new at the same time. And these beds are ours, they are new and that makes all of us feel like we are loved.
“I can’t tell you enough times how much that means in feeling value. Having mattresses that no one else has ever used is SO meaningful as a person who has not had that option in their lives. It is like a fresh start to life. And they are SO comfortable. These are not just new mattresses, these are really nice mattresses and new bedframes. So to all of you that gave us that gift, we understand that you gave us not something that was on a budget or second rate, you gave us the best gift.
“This whole gift is unlike anything I have ever known, seen, or heard of happening from where I was raised in Gary, Indiana. People just don’t do this for strangers. Everything is beautiful.
“We just got the chance to sleep on those beds last Saturday night (she laughs). I’ll tell you this; they were so comfortable and everyone loves their home so much our entire family overslept for church.
“And I mean we overslept by hours!!! (more laughter) Every single person in this house slept so peacefully and so comfortably that the day itself could not even wake us.
“Oh my goodness, I have never been late to church.
“I did find out that the boys probably stayed up till almost 4:00 in the morning playing with all their new stuff.
“The children have been nearly silent and they have not left their rooms. They haven’t even come out to tell me that they’re hungry. I actually brought them lunch to eat in their room (just this one time). They are just happy being together. I know that they feel settled with themselves and their environment when they don’t fight.
“This gift shifted them – they are playing together, and they are so happy to stay in their own private spaces. I have no idea what they’re going to tell other people. They have not told anyone about this event yet. It doesn’t seem like it’s real unless you’re inside of it. We all just want to BE.
“I keep saying the word peaceful but it is so spiritually different to be in space that is pulled together and is created just for us.
“Did I tell you I can feel all the blessings from all of those people in my house? My whole family feels that.
“It’s still here.
“I am so speechless by this whole gift, on how people choose to love strangers. I just can’t believe that all of you people exist, it’s like a flock of angels. The ability to HAVE someone open the door of opportunity freely is completely foreign to me. I have not had a stranger just wish me well and go out of their way to help me because they just felt love and they had no other motive.
“I don’t know how many ways I can thank all of the Elf team other than I am smiling in my heart and so are my kids.
“It feels so awkward to realize how large the world of love is and how many blessings are out there. Mickey always says ‘we don’t run out’ and ‘take what you need’ when we are at the closets, but that’s clothes and everyday items…this is my WHOLE HOUSE. Each piece that was pulled into my home not only has a story, but it has a person who gave it and it has arrived in my home, put together in a way I can’t even comprehend.
“When I wake up I can’t wait to look at every room, to be in a space that is so complete. I love the colors, I love the way that the boys’ room has so much space. My oldest, Joseph, laughs that he has enough art supplies to last him a lifetime, he has never had the privilege to NOT worry about using too much of the nice paper. He has always had to draw on paper that he could find, and save the nice thick paper for things he was really going to try hard on. The boys even cleaned up their own room before going to bed!
“For Joseph it’s awkward to think that he can draw on paper and make a mistake on it; that there’s so much nice stuff that he can draw as much as he wants and not use up all the supplies. He just keeps picking up stuff and sitting at his desk and just doing whatever he feels like. His brother follows but he has his own stuff to play with, I am so glad he got totally different things to pique his interest.
“Zion is so thankful that you decorated her space up high so that it was her own little world. She felt so special to have someone think about what it would be like for her to be in that space. That someone would actually think about her in that way is not lost on us.”
She sighs. “Every single detail that team put in, we actually FEEL. That’s really remarkable that love transfers in that way.”
Tears start to softly move down her cheeks and she wipes them away, then she remembers where she was in the conversation and starts back on the topic of Zion: “There are so many new books to read she doesn’t even know where to start, I think she is putting the books in some sort of order of which to read first. The person who sent in all of the Nancy Drew books, that was a blessing in itself and I love the case that they came in!
“It’s ALL those details that are for every single person in our family that is just so amazing, it’s so wonderful that everyone had something built or gifted that was just for them. The painted furniture is all so just fabulous. I want to make sure to tell that artist thank you.
“AND OH MY GOODNESS I cannot forget that Minnie Mouse, tell them that was amazing and that just made Sarai’s entire holiday so perfect! It’s almost as big as her and she loved getting a box that big! She just won’t let go of it, it travels with her everywhere. They are so cute together.
“The girl’s room is so much more functional the way you set it up and everyone has their own space. I think it’s so helpful for my children for me to be in the same bedroom as they are. It will help the girls stay centered. And I’m glad that I have my little space, but my three-year-old is not showing any indication that she going to sleep in her bunk, she keeps crawling in with me with the big Minnie, and that’s fine!
“I am finding details every day and the more I stare at certain things the more I just enjoy it. For now I want to just thank all of you and my entire family is enjoying all of the blessings.
“Oh my goodness” she exhales.
Round table with the children, December 26, 2014
I was supposed to interview Fadoumo on Sunday morning but she was called into work and she really does need the money so I opted to sit down at the kitchen table and have an in formal roundtable discussion with the children and Fatoun Ali their translator/mentor/advocate for this year’s report.
These seven children have had a huge journey and they have so much to say and so many details that they want to share with the Elf group. There are not many that families that we have reached out to that have ALL of their children above the age of eight. The first five children are girls and the youngest two are boys- here are the names and ages of the children. Nimo 17, Najma 16, Nadifo 14, Nade 13, Nasteho 12, Mustafa 11, Mubarak 9
As I pull my car up to the house it is absolutely gleaming in the sunshine. The windows shimmer in what appears to be the only sunny day in a week. I enter the front porch that is also spotlessly clean and Fatoun greets me at the door grinning “Welcome to our home!” her arms swing wide to gesture me inside and she bursts out laughing. You can feel the elation vibrating out of every pore in her body.
Fatoun herself is a success story from our community that has been seven years in the making. She is blown away with how much has happened for Fadoumo’s family. Fatoun herself struggled in America and pure determination and a willingness to make friends with people that do not look like her has paid off a hundred fold in JUST this experience.
Fatoun has a secret that we all share. She (like the rest of us) has fallen head over heels in love with all of Fadoumo’s children. But there is more to her secret: It has also been Fatoun who has been the first hand witness to all the struggles that children have had in America and she has been its largest Ambassador negotiating the food, the culture, the poverty, the racism in their own community and in the larger community.
She is the one that found the training program and the job for Fadoumo, negotiated the rent and the landlord to take the family with no rental history and no work history, she is the one who has been having them all sleep in her 2 bedroom apartment to get them out of the shelter that kept throwing them out every three days (because in MN you have only a shelter permit for 3 days at a time and they did not have enough skills or bus fare to keep getting a three day voucher for the family to stay in the shelter) One day she had enough of the stupidity of making 7 children walk outside three miles each way through the city in the cold with no winter gear and she picked them up and hid them in her apartment for months.
Fatoun is also the one who got the kids enrolled in schools, got them basic physicals and found them female doctors, she has been loading the whole crew and her own kids into a red van that is akin to a “mother ship” that carries everything to everywhere. Numerous Doctor visits for the kids because of the long term effects of malnourishment and no dental care, she drove Fadoumo to the closets that Elf hosts, and it was her that was giving Fadoumo bus money and teaching her how to take the bus. No one has worked harder for this one moment than Fatoun and she is floating on air. Enough on the door keeper.
For years I have re-walked into every single home we have done as a team. They all have one thing in common: there is now peace. Deep energetic all-encompassing peace.
It is hard to explain how much of a difference it makes to the ones that receive the gift of having a team of crazy awesome do-gooders raid your life and create a home for you -but in following the other families it brings a new measurement of what “home” should feel like. It is the new “possible”.
As I walk into the house I can hear ALL the children upstairs talking quickly and giggling and it is the sound of light and bright that assures me that those children absolutely found all the love that all of the volunteers had put into the effort of their new home. That is the proof I needed that exactly what I was hoping for has already happened, the children had gravitated to their beds and to their own physical spaces. They are becoming the “new” story.
The house smells so clean it makes me want to go home and clean my own home. On the main level was just the translator’s son was sitting cross legged on the floor quietly playing a game.
Mustafa age 11 his first down the stairs with the paper in his hand, and his eyes look up at me and he says “I’ve written you a piece of paper.”
It’s a small piece of paper ripped out of a Spiderman notebook that was placed in his backpack on his new bunk bed (he now rules the lower bunk). His hands draw back quickly as if I might grade his paper harshly and his hands quickly turn to twirling the spine of the notebook nervously.
“Thank you, may I share this with my friends who helped on the house?”
He nods, yes he is sure that I can share his paper. I set it down to look at him and I am sure in all of the years that I’ve done this experience there’s never been a young man as adorable as he is right now. That means I am gonna break out the hugs.
I give him a huge hug that pulls him off his feet and the smile of surprise explodes on his face. I let go and he reorients himself and he quickly does not know what to do with his smile and he disappears to tell the others that I have arrived. .
Here is part of the paper he has written for all of you, I left the language as it was written and the original letters are available on facebook:
“This is the best day in the world. I think that I am dreaming when I see in the house. I am laughing the best laugh. And I say waaww. and I see my bike, it was the most beautiful and the bed too and all is beautiful. I say thank you all- thank you very much what did you do to us? I will do to people come in America -to help them -what did you all do”
That’s as far as I get before the rest of the gang comes piling down the stairs in abrupt silence. They are nervous to see me, they are wanting to tell me so much and still don’t always have the words to tell me everything they want to. The girls have also been writing in their journals and hand me additional pieces of paper that have the edges all scratchy from being ripped out of little journals that I lay with Mustafa’s. I know those sheets of paper will make me cry and I still have an interview to do.
The children look absolutely great in their new home and the house has not changed in any way since I left it the night before. The children don’t even have their shoes left out. They have picked them up and placed them out of the way to not spoil the perfection. Not even a drinking glass has been left out in the kitchen. The table is still set as it was and the children will not even sit at the table when I invite them to sit with me, they hang over the tops of the chairs and pay close attention.
I ask them is they would like to see the pictures of how the house was created. It is an odd mix of emotion at the table, the children are shy and at the same time they are filled with life, plus right now I am a near magical stranger in their life. If “America” had a unicorn it would have red hair, a giant laugh, and be sitting at the dining room table answering to the name Mickey.
I lay my phone on the table to showcase all the people working on their home, They are spellbound and everyone is curious but no one can believe the pictures. I explain to them what was happening in each image. The children have wide eyes and hey- it is downright weird to see 30 strangers in your house. They constantly look around trying to imagine what all of those people would feel like in these two main rooms.
I verbally unwrap little information pieces and stories of the day earlier. About the woman who picked the bedding for the boys also bought their teddy bears- but on different days and that the whole family of that woman had come to help and they worked on the bathroom too and that they have design talent and that’s why it is so fancy. I told them about the bathroom shelf was a real trick and that woman had taken the measurements of the cubby area to at least 9 stores and was about to give up and then she looked over and this one was right there-waiting for her JUST as she was about to give up hope and that it felt like good fortune to find the perfect shelf.
I told them about the woman that designed the girls bedroom took at least 12 trips to different stores, and about the nine people that were in the room to make the girls’ room happen. They were astonished to know that it took three men all day to fix all of the broken things in the house and that the bunk beds were built inside the rooms and they were carried in as flat boards and had no directions on how to build them. They liked knowing that that the light bulbs on their beds had to be changed as we were walking out the door because we were worried they would be too hot, or that young men were running like mad to put all the trash in the truck so the house would be clear of all of the trash.
Each bit of information of this experience is food. I went very slowly through the pictures because I knew that THIS is about to become the most important story of their life- now it is the NEW story of their life, the story of what has happened to them now that they are in America.
Mild digressions here: on a side note: It is only been in the last two years that I’ve allowed children to be on site for Project Elf delivery. I was worried that children would be difficult to take care of with all the chaos of doing this project and I’m so glad I did, because it is the children helping other children that has become such a joy in how this project evolves. Back to the story.
The children flocked around my phone are absolutely thrilled to see a faces that are their own age in the photographs. I show them a picture of a girl named Lily standing outside on the roof with her aunt cleaning the windows. (That was not an insurance safety measure that I would have allowed, but it worked out and turns out the roof is fairly flat there) Lily if you are reading this- no more rooftop adventures without a safety wire.
The youngest girl Nasteho erupts in admiration (Nasteho is the same age and Lily)
“You mean that girl was only my age and she was on the roof?” The notion that someone as small as they are to be able to make such a significant change in another person’s life was more than just intriguing, it was power. This fact is also not lost on Mubarek who is giving me the “ whatyoutalkinabout” face.
Right now-it is a moment like this, which you know that a young person has taken a piece of information and logged it into their memory file as “THAT is what I’m going to be when I grow up”.
Mustfa had already decided that this gift was one he would emulate as a man but the other children now understand that they do not have to wait to be adults to create positive change.
I query for details on what they liked about the gifts: The clean windows are by far the most enormous change in how the house feels. All of Fadoumo’s and Fatoun’s children were amazed that someone would take so much time to make sure that the windows could be seen through, when I pulled up it’s the first thing I noticed that the windows were gleaming and sparkling with clarity.
They will need that sparkle and clarity because right now their whole life feels like a dream. The girls are very close and most of the time spend together as a little cloister. Even when they’re talking to me they are physically on top of each other trying to make themselves like a ball of girls.I tell the girls that we had to make them a beautiful room because they are so beautiful they all whacked up their eyebrows with a sense of “that’s insane” and all except the youngest default to instantly blushing and look down to the ground. Having a stranger tell you that you’re beautiful is apparently awkward if you’re over age 13.
The girls’ loved having something with their name on it laid on their bed.
They boys loved the bikes and the bunk part of a bed. It was weird and awesome to sleep in an individual bed. They are so cushy and cloudlike and made for dreaming. The girls like the space to get dressed and to have a huge mirror but modesty will not allow them to undress in front of it and they undress privately in the bathroom.
Najma the second oldest is also the tallest girl and is often mistaken for the oldest. “It was like a gift bow but better”. Najma likes to smile and her English is more relaxed that her older sister. She eyes dance quickly in the air to pull out words and she has now had enough time to work out the English to explain her feelings. “I was wondering what you would like for us to “do” to repay this gift of kindness.”
It was a heavy ball to lob over the table and the younger siblings shoulders show relief that Najma had asked. I let the question unfold thoughtfully and this was an answer I had no problem giving but I was not expecting.
I look down to my phone for emphasis “All of these people” I scroll back to the photo of all the people standing in the living room. “Every single person in this picture and more ALL have the same wish for you kids. We wish to welcome you to new life, we are all proud of you, and we believe that you are all brave and have courage.”
This is just the news that Mubarek and Nasteho had wanted. That they could just enjoy the gift by being themselves and start playing with all the games in the living room.
“I will speak from the hearts of many, and we want to see you smile and laugh, to have the freedom to play outside, the opportunity to do well in school, and to allow yourself to fall in love with our country and to share your country with us”
Nade( age 13) was in stunned and her face scrunched up and retracted like she was sure that was not translating well. What was this lady saying?Clearly she did not expect that answer.
Nasteho blurts out “I can do that!” and this seems to let Nade relax and just go with the flow.
I query if it was tiring to be in a place where everything was new every day. That hit the pile of them as being funny . Najma says it’s funny because no one else had asked them that type of question and they collectively breathe a sigh of relief.
“Yes everything is different!” the floodgates open up with all the details they have been holding onto.
Nasteho cried and cried about coming to America because they had to leave her grandmother behind. She misses her and worries about her with none of the children there to help her in frailty and love her as she ages. She has now been told that they can apply for Grandmother to come live with them as soon as they can prove that they can support themselves. Her mother working long hours also means for her that they can perhaps save their grandmother.
They are very tired every day and school is exhausting. They sleep all day Saturday to try to recover from school. Listening to a foreign language all day, even if you know the language is tiring and you don’t always understand what the words mean when they are in a sentence with other words.
It is totally annoying that sometimes there is NO word in English that means the same thing in their old language. It makes the anxious to talk to everyday people people in America because they talk very fast, and there are too many words that are smashed together and are slang. “whodat” is an example AKA “Who is that” but really means “is that your family member or a friend?”. The transcription of a word is the not the culture of the word.
Grossest part is premixed foods from the food shelf. They shiver with the idea – it’s just so gross. Food that tastes like chemicals or just not good. The tap water is different and tastes funny and milk and eggs are not powdered.
They are also not used to the quiet in their home, they have always lived in a village with many people and children and noises that are moving around 24/7. Walls that are thick and insulated and make it feel more like a dream.
Even though food in the United States has been very odd but they have found out that they ALL like French fries and there are so many different kinds of French fries! Some are thick, some are very thin, some are spicy salty, and some have different dipping sauces
They see other children that look like them, but they do not share a common history with those other children, many of the Somali children they are in school with were actually born in America. There is also a heavy tradition of their homeland that does not help them transition in this land. The girls have been taught to be invisible and quiet. So the simple act of being seen or being bright has been repressed out of them to keep them safe during uncertain times of war and criminal conduct of transporting refugees.
The refugee camp for the children was a known variable. In many ways America is much harder than the life they knew in the past. The children had friends, the youngest boy announced that at his old place he had TEN friends every day and here he has no friends.
The friendlessness echo is true of all the children suffer with homelessness. The lack of friends on top of unsecure housing as a child is deeply lonely. These kids have not fit into a “friend” place other than Fatoun’s children. No friends in school is the hardest part of coming to America for five out of the seven children.
I ask the friend question to the oldest Nimo, she informs me that she has four sisters and is never had friends. Being the oldest means that it is her job to care for all of the children and that is a lot of work. And this role of oldest you can see it in all parts of her. The way she rests in the doorway and just watches what’s going on as opposed to being part of the gaiety. She is quiet and waist for someone to ask her something directly, she lets all of the other children unfold their stories but she does not offer hers unless I directly ask her.
Nimo is also the keeper of information when her mother is not present, she is the one that knows what is the name of the camp they were in and what day they had a camp picture taken, she is the one that is expected to be remembering every detail. The oldest has perhaps paid some of the deepest traumatic prices of keeping her siblings safe, and making sure that no harm come to the little ones. I am sure she has paid prices that none of us would like to hear.
The oldest boy Mustafa has a similar pensiveness about him that he also carries a role for his mother and his sisters, and that he is the oldest male child and he will become the man of the house with great responsibilities. He is eager to become a man and he needs a role model on how to be an African young man in white Midwest America. Mustafa also watches before he engages and waits to make sure he understood the question before he responds. But when he is just happy and in his home with his siblings he a quite the personality and likes to pick at his sisters.
Whereas his younger brother is fast like lightning to tell you what he thinks and what is exciting in his life. Mubarek is the youngest boy AND the youngest child and he is the firecracker of this family. Everything in his world is quite delightful and he has many siblings to clean up after his antics. Mubarek just looks snuggly, has a wide easy grin and gets out of most everything with his cuteness.
I asked them what it was like travelling to Minnesota and they all let out a groan and their arm flail with classic child annoyance. It was so LONG! They had four buses that they had to change on, they spent the entire trip hungry because they spent all their money to buy food at a restaurant stop ($50) and the food was so slow they couldn’t get the food and get back on the bus on time. They were so upset and worried they left all the food at the restaurant and went hungry for the rest of the trip and part of another day. They drank a lot of water at every bus stop.
You see a lot of a country when you’re on a bus, and they each took turns being in a window seat. They were not prepared for how much land was in the United States and that the bus just kept plugging along- so the flatland just kept going and going. No one ever told them there were farms and mountains in America just BIG cities, fast cars, and casinos. It was also surprising when they found out that after all that bus ride they were only halfway across the United States!
All in all the children are happy and glad to be in their new home. The world “palace” was used a lot by the all the kids. Because they feel like their home is now a real fancy place with all the American trimmings. They are proud to host others in their home and now they have quite a lot compared to others who have not been helped by others who have resources. They know they have been blessed and they are sorting out what to do about that. I believe they are Ambassadors and the greatest hope for all of us to understand that we are ALL citizens of the world.
I hug them all and make my way back to the door and gesture to my car that I have some friends waiting for me – the children look at my car to see that my dogs are patiently breathing up the windows. The kids scream out YOU HAVE DOGS! “They are so cute” and “are they are real?” and “awwww” come from the girls. Fuzzy Poodles have a way of making people think they are stuffed animal. But they had NO intention of actually going out to meet the dogs. That’s just a little too scary…
I cannot thank each of you enough for all that you as individuals DO to make these stories happen and these lives change. It is really an impressive feat to accomplish that we few can manifest from something as pure as a hope for a better world. This family is very unique in its story, and for the ongoing story with Project Elf. We are a simple group of individuals who are willing to place resources in a pool and gift them in a way that creates lasting change for just a few. This year’s story is one of the first BIG magnifications of the work, thought, and the effort that all of you put into the idea of rearranging resources. Fatoun has been invested in enough so that she can invest in the next family. I would like to personally thank each of you for that effort.
It’s quite remarkable to consider that if we just take a sliver of our extra resources and in a very meaningful and directed way pass them onto another that in this case those slivers become 100% of another person’s resources and a solid foundation.
This family has had all season to shop the closets at the Headstart location and I was able to make sure that the night they moved into their house that they had the ability to cook, to have blankets, and to be able to do very basic functions because of the stockpile that you create all year round from shopping on clearance, estate sales, or just asking friends to donate the “the good stuff” to a worthy ideal.
Living in poverty in the United States is soul killing, but living in poverty anywhere else in the world is not just soul killing it is violent and women and children feel the most of this violence. There has been so much that has already been written in their journey, and at the same time I am so excited about what has not been written yet.
This is also the family that I got the most pushback on from many people. We had church groups that asked to be removed from our mailing list, emails that said they wouldn’t participate because of this families Somalian beginnings and that was supporting terrorism, and people that just chose to not participate because of the fact that we weren’t delivering a Christian holiday or expecting these people to convert, or that it was not American.
At the same time we had people that had never considered participating KNOW that this was their time to make a difference. We were coming into the start of this project with only 1/3 of the normal resources that would have been donated in. I have to tell you my staff was worried that we may not be able to make to make magic.
My position is always the same- TRUST the system and allow it to unfold. Project Elf always works out to be perfect! And it has once more.
YOU as a group rallied $1,250 cash on account at the nonprofit that Fadoumo can use on months she is short on rent, she had three months of bus fare on account, six months of toilet paper, trash bags, toothpaste, and laundry supplies. They have a beautiful home and a community that loves them and is interested in hearing and telling their story.
It is crazy how LITTLE is actually takes to give security to an entire family as they transition in very difficult times and how important it is to continue to invest in this family over the next 5 years. I want to give you permission to keep sending in random bus cards, laundry supplies, and gift cards for this family whenever their story touches or inspires you throughout the year.
The Project Elf storage unit is a lifeline to all of our past families and our future families and that YOU make happen. Keep doing the good stuff and enjoy the good fortune and foundation you have created for eight really-really happy people.