Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2015

Before the Thanksgiving break, I asked students in our journalism class what they had planned for the holiday. Most were heading home to be with family.

A student visiting from Germany said she had no plans.

What? No one has invited you to share Thanksgiving? That can’t be right.

She shook her head. She said the dining hall would have a special meal. She and her fellow German exchange student would dine in the dorm instead of sharing the most American of holidays with a family.

I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t accept it. I called my landlord, John.

John, would you and Ellena be willing to have two German students join you for Thanksgiving? I explained the situation, that they had not received an invitation and had nowhere to go, that I would have hosted them, but I was traveling.

Gosh, Cheryl, I’d love to, but Lena’s not cooking this year. We’re having dinner with my sister’s family.

Less than 30 minutes later, I got a text from Ellena. Cheryl, I would love to invite the young women to join us for Thanksgiving. Change of plan and venue. Ellena went shopping.

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Ellena welcomed the students to her home with a monster turkey and all the trimmings. The students brought mulled wine they’d made as their Thanksgiving offering. Ellena, John and his son, Nick, and the guests from Germany ate, laughed and talked until 11 p.m.

My first semester at Allegheny, I went blind in my left eye. I was alone, new in town, fresh from recovery from a life-threatening illness. I needed help and I turned to people at work. I made a couple requests for assistance at the college—to no avail.

Far from friends and family, I was bereft. As a last resort, I asked my landlord, John, if he could give me a ride to my appointment with the specialist. John wasn’t available, but his girlfriend, Ellena, who I had not yet met, would take me. She switched her appointments with business clients that day and drove me to Erie. She was waiting for me when I returned, sad and scared, after learning that I would need surgery on my eye.

I am not good at asking for help. It doesn’t run in my family. I come from stoic New England stock, cross-pollinated with a stern military upbringing. We don’t whine. We don’t cry. And we sure as heck don’t ask for help. We don’t trouble people with our troubles. When we fall, we get back on our feet. We grit our teeth and persevere. We find a way or make one.

This semester, I noticed I was having trouble seeing. I bought drugstore eyeglasses so I could read the tiny vowel markings on my Arabic homework. Students would wave at me from a distance and I couldn’t recognize them. I had difficulty some days reading the board from the back of the classroom. In yoga class and the weight room, I found it hard at times to hold my balance.

I went back to the eye doctor. I was blind in my right eye.

I asked the students in our classes and on The Campus newspaper staff for their help and understanding. I explained that I have limited vision, that if they approach from the right, I might not see them. If they wave, I’ll probably ask them to identify themselves. I told them that I might feel awkward sometimes in front of the classroom, unbalanced. I told them that I would do my best.

These past few weeks, I’ve been finding myself in moments of joyful sadness when I reflect on the bumps in the road and the blessings in my life. As a photographer, I’ve been knocked off balance twice by the loss of my eyesight. And yet, I am so thankful that I have access to medical care and can afford the surgery that will restore my sight. Without either, I would now be blind.

I am thankful for my friends, John and Ellena, who have always responded with kindness and empathy when I’ve asked for their help. Through their generosity of heart and hearth, they made two strangers feel welcome in our country on the day when we celebrate our bounty and blessings.

My entire life I have been blessed by the kindness of strangers in trying times. Working in Africa and the Middle East, I’ve had people offer me food, shelter and safety when they barely had any for themselves.

A few weeks ago in church, the gospel reading was from Mark 12:38-44. It’s one of my favorite stories. Jesus is watching people put money into the treasury. Many rich people put down large sums and a poor widow walks by and offers two small coins. Jesus said the widow had given the most. The others contributed a small amount from their abundance. Out of her poverty, she gave everything she had, all she had to live on.

I read a story in The Washington Post recently about Guilford College in North Carolina. Headline: “What if every U.S. college campus offered a house to a Syrian refugee family?” What if Allegheny College did? What if Meadville did?

I’m a journalist. I read the headlines. I hear the stories. Of the politics of bullying and shaming. Of bombs that shatter legs, lives and dreams. Of suffering that drives families apart and far from home. Of a blatant disregard for the gifts of this planet.

There are other stories to tell.

We all need help at times in our lives. We all have the capacity to offer that help. A Thanksgiving meal. A few coins. A home and sanctuary.

Let’s keep our eyes, ears and hearts open. A chance to help will present itself.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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