On 6th street in Austin, I had taken a seat in a lounge, a stack of postcards laid out in front of me, my hand busy with the borrowed pen, inking my thanks on the back of each one. The man seated in the booth beside me was curious, looking over the edge, asking me questions about the mission I’m on.
I told him about my dream, Operation Elf Box, creating a brighter Christmas for children, that I’ve been pouring my heart into my purpose for the last five years. The story I shared with him came with some of the sacrifices that I’ve made along the way. He was attentive, listening to me tell him about some of the most significant moments in my life and the progress I’ve experienced.
The man sat there looking back at me like he understood it all, but when I finished speaking, he spoke, asking me this question. “Why are you doing all of this for others?” He followed up with this statement, saying “America doesn’t give a shit about you.”
My heart broke silently when his words reached it, but it didn’t break for long.
I began thinking about the first question he asked me; why?
Last December a woman came walking into Operation Elf Box, in Bend, with what appeared to be a permanent frown. She was walking slowly through our doorway, a look of curiosity on her face. I invited her to sit with me and gave her the warmest, friendliest welcome I could offer her. She asked me if I knew her, to which I replied that I did not, and then she began telling me her story.
Her husband had been physically beating her for several years. One of the attacks had landed him in jail, a neighbor calling the police when they heard the cries coming through the apartment walls.
After he was released, she said she felt guilty about him not having anyplace to go, perhaps he would be homeless or that he might have to stay in a homeless shelter. In a moment of weakness, on the phone with him, she agreed to let him come back home.
But before he arrived she made an agreement with the neighbor, that if a dispute broke out, and if she pounded on the wall three times that they were to call the cops for her.
It was later that night, his first night in the house, when he was pounding her head on the ground, trying to kill her. She said that she was almost unconscious but was trying to slide herself across the floor to reach the wall, to hit it, hoping the neighbors would hear and come to her rescue before it was to late.
I listened to every word she said, taking notice as I did of her scarred eyebrow, the broken blood vessels in her eye and I could observe the lumps on her head through her winter hat.
And then she said this “I have not been able to make many choices of my own for a long time”. She referenced how something as simple as her buying the wrong toothpaste or spending to much money at the grocery store could trigger the violence in him.
I learned a few years ago that choices are empowering, especially at a time when a person has fewer to make. It was a counselor at Saving Grace, a nonprofit in Bend that provides services for families dealing with domestic violence that told me this. So that’s what we like to do at Operation Elf Box, offer choices, lots of choices, and love.
I watched as this lovely mother became at ease, spending an hour or more inside the Elf Shoppe, a free toy store, looking over everything closely. She chose her children’s stockings, the stuffers that went in them, several books from our library, a puzzle, a stuffed animal and a nice gift for each of her children. She took her time choosing her paper, the bright bows and then handwriting her own labels before wrapping them herself.
As she was leaving, she struggled to get a single word out of her mouth, trying to thank us while the tears welled up in her eyes, but also with a smile on her face.
Love, it is the reason why I do what I do.
I hope that this writing answers the man’s question who I had met in Austin. And despite his statement, I actually believe that America does give a shit about me.
Shoeless and I are in Panama City Beach. We camped at the fire station last night. I’ll be pedaling around the big bend along the coastline for a few days. They say these are the most beautiful beaches in America.
I’ve tried to make a practice out of not worrying, instead, asking people to help, those who love me and Jo. If you’re still reading this, I have less than $100 in my bank account and could use your help. I’m expecting it take me another eight days to reach the Atlantic and then there’s the process of returning home to Bend which I haven’t completely figured out yet. Here’s a link to my GoFundMe, if you feel inspired and are able to give.
With Love & Gratitude,
Josh Hart & Shoeless Jo
P.S. I took these photo’s yesterday, riding the fifty miles or so from Niceville to Panama City Beach. Jon, the fire captain let us camp out last night which was really kind and another firefighter brought me coffee in the morning. It was like staying at the Ritz.