Even though I realize that I say this every year, this year really has been the best Elves Project ever. It's been bigger and more complicated than any other project. It's had more ups and downs, more near-disasters, and more last-minute miracles. It's been messier, with more surprises and more fumbles and more heart than ever before. It has been, without a doubt, my favorite project to date. Become a Complete Fool
The story I'm about to tell you has many sentences that begin "unbeknownst to ...." - because this year, the project took place on multiple levels, all over the country, in houses and apartments and college dorms and offices, in the form of toys and books and gift certificates and checks and mittens and scarves, and finally came together on one glorious, improbable, never-thought-it-was-gonna-work day. I will try to tell as many of these concurrent stories as I can .....
Three weeks before Christmas: Unbeknownst to the elves, before we even began our project, Chicago's small Christ Universal Church thought that they had finally found a way to feed all the children who needed food on Christmas. They had contacted a large national charitable organization located in an Eastern state, went through a confusing application process, and were informed that a large truckload of food would be sent to Chicago to feed the homeless families the Friday after Christmas. The mood in the church was bright, volunteers were extremely proud that they had completed the application process successfully, and they were looking forward to Christmas.
Three weeks before Christmas, they were contacted by the charitable organization and asked how they intended to pay the $1,000 to pay for the truck delivery - money order? check? Church members were dumbfounded. They had no idea that they were expected to pay for the truck. Where on earth would they come up with $1,000? Didn't the organization understand that they were a church on a shoe-string budget, in the poorest section of Chicago, working hard just to keep the lights on? Needless to say, spirits dipped dangerously low. Church members realized that there was no way they were going to be able to feed every hungry person - just like last year, and the year before that. They were forced to politely refuse the truckload of food, and to start scrambling to put together Plan B. Around that time, I happened to stop into the church. Church members were pleased to know that they could expect a little help this Christmas, and they were hoping that the elves could assist them in buying a few extra turkeys. This little church was about to get a very precious lesson in the power of elfhood .....
Unbeknownst to church members, I sent out the annual elf call, and you all began to respond. Toys were carefully selected and mailed directly to the church, and mittens and scarves were sent with Chicago winters in mind. Checks and money orders began to pour into my home from college students on a budget, large sprawling families, single men and women, office co-workers, strangers, and friends. I recognized many names from past projects, and smiled when I read your "life updates." Seeing your return addresses in my mailbox was like welcoming old friends into my home. I also welcomed so many new elves into the fold that I began to lose count. Your letters made me grin ("Vaya con Dios!"), cry ("Am so very glad to see your joy in life return at this time"), beam ("It's nice to feel like I'm a part of something really special"), and laugh out loud ("You're a good dobee!"). Your family pictures were pasted on our fridge, next to your kids' drawings. Since so many checks were coming in each day, I decided to wait to tally them, figuring that I would give the church a final sum as Christmas Eve approached.
Two weeks before Christmas: Unbeknownst to the elves on the Foolish Elves Board, a new group of elves heard the call and swung into action. Led by 3blackdogs and chezjohn, the elves of the board known as "BBQ, Art of, Fun(ky)" took up a big-hearted collection and began sending yet more checks to 3blackdogs. While 3blackdogs and I fretted over details by email, chezjohn began calling every supermarket near the church, and sent me a detailed list of turkey names and numbers. As they morphed into BBQ Elves, the BBQ Board shared the kind of stories that elves so often have - stories of big gestures and big hearts. Using chezjohn's list, I called the supermarket closest to the church and spoke with a young man named Mike (the market manager) about purchasing a large quantity of turkeys. He seemed extremely responsive to our project, and promised me that he would have as many turkeys as we needed on the weekend prior to Christmas Eve.
Suddenly, Christ Universal church members began having encounters with delivery vans bearing gifts. For the first time ever, deliverymen were stopping at the church with big packages. When they opened the packages, church members found toys, books, stuffed animals, mittens, scarves, checks, and letters filled with good wishes. I received a telephone call from a young woman named Cynthia, who laughingly told me that the church had been receiving so many packages marked "Foolish Elves Project" that she had been appointed the Elf Project Point Person, just to handle gifts from elves! She sounded incredulous as she said, "We received FOUR boxes today and FOUR boxes yesterday, and I am not making this up!" I said, "Never underestimate the power of elves."
One week before Christmas: On Wednesday evening, I decided to do a final tally of all the checks. Although a few checks would be coming late, those elves had told me their pledged amounts, so that I could front their money. I took all the checks into the kitchen with a calculator, and began to add ... and add ... and add. Because the checks tended to be in denominations between $5 and $25, it had never occurred to me that we would be able to afford more than a trunk-load of turkeys. But, open-mouthed with astonishment, I saw that we had raised almost two thousand dollars. Quickly doing the math, I realized that (1) we could afford a whole lotta turkey, and (2) there was no way that two thousand dollars worth of turkeys were going to fit in the trunk of my little Honda. Sheer panic, tempered by punch-drunk amazement and great hilarity, ensued.
Thursday was spent finding a turkey truck; calls to friends resulted in the commitment of a minivan. 3blackdogs emailed me the incredible information that approximately one thousand more dollars from the BBQ board was on the way! I called Cynthia and asked her what she wanted to do with that money; sounding excited, she said, "Oh, we can use it to buy fresh fruit! These kids never get fresh produce." *gulp* I then told 3blackdogs to overnight the money directly to Cynthia, because Cynthia had designated a volunteer to do the shopping over the weekend. In the meantime, I needed to let Mike know that I needed two thousand dollars worth of turkeys.
Unbeknownst to me as I went to sleep on Thursday night, tired but hopeful, disaster was about to strike. On Friday, I called Mike at the grocery store close to the church. A man named Andy informed me that Mike wasn't the store manager, no matter what I had been told - he was. And no, he had never heard about any "Elves Project." And you want what? By when? Andy - who has since been nick-named "Scrooge" by me and Cynthia - began to yell at me until I started singing a Christmas carol very loudly to shut him up. Finally, after much cajoling, he grumbled that yes, okay, he could get the turkeys by Monday, no problem, just have someone come pick up the order. Hooray! Disaster averted! The elves shoot, they score! The crowd cheers!
Unbeknownst to me, at that very moment, 3blackdogs was missing the USPS overnight deadline by literally five minutes, due to an unforeseeable work crisis. Now there was no way the additional money could get to Chicago by Saturday! But without that money, the kids wouldn't get any fresh fruits or vegetables! There was only one thing to do, 3blackdogs resolved - drive the money to Chicago herself. A last-minute phone call to Cynthia saved Elf Blackdogs a long, long drive. Cynthia told 3blackdogs to overnight the money by Monday, since Monday was when the church was planning to do all the final grocery shopping.
Unbeknownst to 3blackdogs, at that very moment, I was listening to an answering machine message from the minivan owner, who was retracting the minivan offer due to unforeseeable in-law issues. More phone calls to the ever-patient and ever-good-humored Cynthia resulted in a church member's cousin coming through with a van. Exhausted and mildly freaked out, I went to sleep on Friday night happy that we had arranged to get the turkeys and the money to the church by Monday.
But unbeknownst to all of the elves, Scrooge was working on his evil plans....
I was woken up at 8:30 am Saturday morning by a frantic call from Cynthia. She had just called Andy to check on the status of the turkey order we finalized with him on Friday. She was astonished to hear him say that he didn't place the order after all, because he didn't want to handle an order that big. "Why didn't you tell me this yesterday?" Cynthia wailed, but Scrooge just got off the phone. "What now??" Cynthia asked me. I told Cynthia to begin calling every neighborhood grocery store she could find, and not to stop until she found an elf-minded manager. In the meantime, I needed to get to the bank to get enough cash to pay for the turkeys. I grabbed some breakfast, thought better of calling Scrooge and teaching him a new way to spell C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s, and drove to the bank.
Unbeknownst to me, as I was standing in line at the bank, 3blackdogs was standing in line at the Post Office, waiting to overnight the money to Cynthia. I can't do her story justice - she told it so beautifully in her Saturday email:
This PO closes on 11am on Saturdays. I'm there at 10:45. I start filling out the forms for the $885 and for the overnight envelope. The clerk then says, "the total comes to $904.75", and I start to whip out the checkbook. "No!", she gasps, "only cash or debit card!"
Damn! I knew I didn't make a big enough pot o' java this morning, why didn't I remember that! I look at the clock and wonder if I slam the Jeep into high gear, could I get to an ATM, get the cash and get back by 11am.....then my addled mind remembers that my Credit Union card doubles as a debit card. I fork that over, the PO clerk eyes me and says "Is there $900 in the account, and does your bank have a limit on transaction size?"
I shrug my shoulders, wondering why she's asking after my financial health while the line behind me grows long. I explain that this is urgent Elvish business, and we need to get these funds to Chicago so 3000 folks get food for Christmas. PO Clerk now looks at me with that "are you a whack-o?" look, and eyes my garb (standard Saturday am wear - workout pants and running tank, polarfleece and snow clogs...Total Tundra Queen). I'm sure she's wondering how to go about reporting postal fraud.
A hush has fallen over the burgeoning crowd behind me as I make my Elvish plea, the impatient shuffling has stopped, and all eyes are on the card reader as she swipes my pristine credit union card through......waiting waiting, cmon, I think, Rochester Minnesota isn't that far away, move those bits and bytes through the phone wires, cmon cmon cmon.
A sudden clatter begins, as the printer spits out the receipt, and the transaction concludes! And then...
applause from the little line behind me. As I turn to walk out, one woman touches my arm and says:
"You're doing a wonderful thing, Merry Christmas."
After I returned home and read 3blackdogs' great email, Cynthia called. She sounded palpably relieved, even jubilant. She had found an elf, a grocery store manager who found a way - via a number of suburban stores - to get her all the turkeys she needed. "It's going to be okay," she said, "We're getting it all here by Monday!" Then: "We'd like for you to come join us for services tomorrow afternoon - we'd like for you to see what the elves have done here so far." Filled with teeth-chattering anxiety by all the near-misses at this point, I spent Saturday night eating ice cream sandwiches and muttering "it's gonna be okay ... it's gonna be ok ... it's gonna be ok."
On Sunday afternoon, we attended services at the church. The church basically consists of three or four small, unfurnished rooms that were quite cold. The main room had some folding chairs and a podium at one end, and the other rooms had a couple of tables, but no other furniture. On Sunday the rooms were filled to bursting with church members, children, volunteers, and others. As you might imagine, this Jewish grrl found the services at the storefront church to be pretty amazing. I was so moved, and suddenly so optimistic, that I whispered "okay, let's go for it" to my husband; realizing what I meant, he grinned and took my hand. After our last miscarriage, I had decided that I didn't want to try to conceive anymore, a decision that had upset him very much. But as I sat through the services, I thought to myself, well, life is such an unpredictable and crazy thing - who would have ever thought that a thing like the Elves Project could exist? and the only reason that it does exist is because other people are willing to take a risk, so who knows? Maybe if I take another chance, something good will happen. (Although this marital moment might sound romantic on a message board, in reality, it resulted in my husband following me around for the rest of the day whispering, "Honey, do you feel at all, ahhhhh, spiritual yet?"). And then there was yet another small miracle: during services, the check from 3blackdogs and the BBQ board was delivered, which - as you can imagine - resulted in an awful lot of stomping and cheering for the BBQ elves. (Yes, I realize that the USPS delivers on Sundays close to Christmas, but the timing seemed miraculous).
After the services were over, Cynthia - who greeted me with a long, long hug - introduced me to the Pastor and the other church volunteers. I liked Cynthia immediately. She looks like your best friend - blue jeans, sweatshirt, with a big whistle around her neck that she uses to shepherd unruly groups of kids around the tiny church. She walked me through the back rooms of the church, where the project was unfolding. The Pastor enveloped my husband and me in a hug (I wish you could have seen my husband's look of shock and mild panic as the Pastor embraced him), and showed us the toys that the church was planning to give to the children.
Although there seemed to be a reasonable amount of toys (thanks to the elves who mailed toys directly, and to a local charity), I was struck by how little food the church had collected. Cardboard boxes of food were lined up across the floor, but they were barely filled - a couple of cans of soup, a box or two of stuffing mix. "This is what we usually have to give," Pastor Paul told me, gesturing toward the boxes, "Not very much at all. But this year, it will be different, because of what your friends have done. This year, we can give them some meat and some fresh fruits and vegetables." The Pastor then told me about how he went hungry as a child, and how his chronic hunger had diminished his sense of dignity. Now, no longer forced to go without food, he fasts each December for a full month, in order to remind himself of what his youngest congregants face. "You may think that you're giving these children some turkeys, some Christmas oranges," he said, tears filling his eyes, "But what your friends don't realize is that they're giving these children back their sense of worth and dignity."
The Pastor gestured toward the street outside and said, "Tuesday night, in the cold, you won't even be able to move down this street - that's how many families will be out there. They know we'll always do our best to feed them, and every year, they start lining up outside on Christmas Eve. I keep inviting the television cameras down to see it - children and families out in the cold, in the middle of the night, to get some food."
I gave the Pastor a letter I had written the night before, when I couldn't sleep. Elves, I hope that it does your great hearts justice:
December 22, 2002
Dear members of Christ Universal Church,
You don't know us, but we call ourselves "the Elves." We are a motley crew of people who hail from all over the United States and beyond. We come from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin, England, Israel, and Bahrain.
We represent many religions, many generations, and many cultures. We are as young as 14 and as old as 84. We are Christian, Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and agnostic. At this time of year, you can find us celebrating many different holidays that symbolize many different traditions. Our holiday tables may look different, our prayers may sound different, and the food on our tables may taste different (although we all love BBQ) - but we share something that, each year, brings us together in the service of doing good. What we share is a belief that our lives are made more meaningful and more precious by sharing whatever blessings we have received.
Most of us will never meet most of you. We may never have the chance to share a meal with you, or to learn more about your lives, or to tell you what your project has meant to us this holiday season. Therefore, we want to take this opportunity to thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for giving us the opportunity to join you in your good works this year. You are a big-hearted, wonderful, hard-working, precious group. In other words, you are our kind of people. And even though our paths may never cross again, please know that from now on, each of us will consider each of you to be a friend.
Your friends in spirit,
The Pastor read our letter to the assembled volunteers, many of whom were moved to tears. One woman, when she embraced me, said, "Thank them, thank them and tell them ... everything I don't know how to say."
And then I knew that it was time to recede into the background and let this small church have its extraordinary Christmas, thanks to you wonderful elves. The turkeys were on order, the vans were ready, the grocery shopping would be done, and church volunteers would work through the night on Monday to fill those cardboard boxes to bursting. On Monday afternoon, I received an "A-OK" telephone message from Cynthia: the turkeys, the fruit, everything was at the church. The commotion I heard in the background let me know that the volunteers were working overtime, and Cynthia sounded choked with emotion, half-giddy and half-sad. "Well," she said, her voice trailing off on my answering machine, "Bless you, bless each and every one of you .... We'll miss all of you .... Isn't that silly now? But it's true." And then she hung up.
As I sit here, the night before Christmas Eve, I don't think that I will ever be able to tell you elves the gift that you have given me this year. You are a huge-hearted, big-spirited, powerful, awe-inspiring bunch of goofballs. You are reckless and impractical and silly and hopeful. You radiate love and generosity. You spill over the edges. You can't be contained. You can't even be described. You are everything that I love most about being alive.
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Even though I realize that I say this every year, this year really has been the best Elves Project ever. It's been bigger and more complicated than any other project. It's had more ups and downs, more near-disasters, and more last-minute miracles. It's been messier, with more surprises and more fumbles and more heart than ever before. It has been, without a doubt, my favorite project to date.
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