Changing the world? No. Just a tiny corner of it.

When I was young and full of fire to change the world, I was rather disappointed to realize my lack of impact.

My purchase of lunch for the homeless man I saw each day on the downtown streets near my office building was a crapshoot. I never did know if he ate the ham and cheese sandwiches or tried to pawn them for liquor.

And my switch to recycled paper and soy inks for the newsletters I ran was a drop in the bucket of environmentalism.

But the beautiful thing about being young and me was I believed there were plenty of others like me out there. And that, collectively, we were changing the world.

I can point to only one firm instance of my impact and her name is Gladys.

The phrase Words Have Power  on a BlackboardI was in my mid-twenties and she was not much older. After musing about how I could have a measurable impact and discarding several ideas (Habitat for Humanity? Nah. No carpentry skills. Doctors without Borders? If only I’d gone to med school. And more than barely passed high school chemistry.), I settled on teaching someone how to read. I have been a book nerd since birth and am pretty good at making things simple. Within a month, I had the training necessary to be matched with a student as a literacy volunteer.

My student came in the form of Gladys—several years older than I was, with a young daughter. We began to meet at the Lincoln Park Library once or twice per week, after work and on weekends. I learned Gladys’ parents had not really spoken enough English to be of help to her in school. She had gone to the Chicago public schools at a time when just about everyone matriculated, whether merited or not. It was a cattle call of epic proportions.

I soon realized the texts the volunteer organization gave me were of no use. She could have cared less if Jack saw a rat or Jane ate an apple. At about a second- to third-grade reading level, we began to humbly and painstakingly work our way through Glamour and Cosmpolitan. Sure, she learned words like “conditioner” and “facial” before loftier ones, but she was hungry for those beauty tips. And the pics sure beat Jack and Jane. Her homework started to get done.Open book with folded pages

We worked together for about three years, Gladys and I, switching libraries as I moved to new apartments. Her daughter in tow, we’d hunker down at a table and work on more concrete items, like job applications and driver exam study booklets. The librarians, once they figured out what was going on, interested her young daughter in a bevy of books. Her homework also started to get done and her grades went up.

I thought I was just there to teach reading and comprehension but it was so much more. Gladys ended a bad relationship she’d been in for years, after seeing how my boyfriend treated me. She enrolled her daughter in summer camp because she said she realized she needed to “do things” and “be active.”  Gladys got her driver’s license, studied for her GED and took a better job.

It was one person and her daughter, yes. But I realized without my coming along, things might have turned out much differently for them. It was humbling. And awesome at the same time. I had been used for a purpose that was more than worthwhile. It was a good feeling.

Gladys and I still send Christmas cards. She has called me several times over the past few years and I am guilty of not staying in touch as I should. But as I write this, I realize I have a saved voicemail on my cell with Gladys’ sweet voice and a phone number. And I think I need to use it sooner rather than later.

She still calls me “Kristy”, a name I only allowed my grandfather to call me. But something about Gladys makes me let her get away with it.

I know I’m not alone. I know you all do phenomenal things out there in the world, big or small, for one or many. Will you share in the comments? I’m thinking we could all use a little inspiration on this Monday.


29 Comments Add yours

  1. I absolutely love this. Beautiful. I sometimes question what I’m doing, if I’m doing enough, if what I’m doing matters at all. This. This story is lovely. Sometimes it is in these “small” (I don’t think what you did is small, BTW) acts help us move forward and keep our “helping momentum”. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you for stopping by and for the kind words. I love knowing there are scores of other people doing their own small things. An army of good:).

  2. Roy McCarthy says:

    Great story Kristine. The thing about offering help, a guiding hand, coaching, volunteering etc. is that the benefit is radiated all around the receiver and back to the giver. Not only the receiver benefits. In this case the little girl gets the spin-off and you yourself have clearly been deeply affected. I do a fair bit of athletics coaching for the little ones and I also lead adults in taking up jogging as part of a healthier lifestyle. To see incremental improvements, smiles, hugs from parents and partners – that’s priceless.

    1. candidkay says:

      I love what you do, Roy! Plays upon your interests and talents–and you touch lives. That, for me, is what we’re all here to do.

  3. If you have stayed in touch with Gladys, then you definitely made a difference. People don’t remain in each others’ lives when that isn’t the case. Such a nice example of using the gifts you have to make a noticeable difference.

    1. candidkay says:

      Hadn’t thought about it that way, Renee. You’re right. The connection outlasted its original purpose. That’s a beautiful thing:).

  4. Lovely story. I also tutored a woman in a literacy facility a few years ago. I would listen to her life, astounded by the hardship — no car, walking home from her night job in a hospital in every weather, a young son to raise. I was humbled by her strength and so happy to see her get her diploma saying she could now read English because of my help. A very proud moment and your story brought it all back.

    1. candidkay says:

      Love that you did this! Do you still keep in touch?

  5. I believe that when you are down on your luck it may only take one person to believe in you to turn your fortunes around (by making you believe in yourself). You definitely seemed to be that one person for that lady. This is an uplifting story that shows me we can always change the world, one heart at a time.

  6. Amy says:

    This is such an uplifting story! Thank you for sharing it. I loved reading about how you were able to help Gladys, and I really hope you’ll pick up the phone and call her!

    Your story reminds me of another story I love (a brief adaptation of Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower). You may have read this before, but on the chance you haven’t, I’ll share it here:

    While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.

    As he approached, he noticed the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish and tossing them back in the water.

    Coming closer, the elderly gentleman called out, “Good morning! May I ask what you’re doing?”

    The young man paused, looked up, and replied, “I’m throwing starfish back in the ocean.”

    The old man smiled and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

    The young man replied, “The sun’s up and the tide’s going out. It I don’t throw them back in, they’ll die.”

    The elderly observer remarked, “But, young man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach here, and there are hundreds of starfish along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

    The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference to that one.”

    1. candidkay says:

      Funny, Amy, you’re not the first to mention that connection. I had not thought about it when I wrote it, but you’re absolutely right. If we each just take hold of our own starfish, imagine the possibilities:).

  7. Marie says:

    A lovely bit of warmth on this cold day. I think so many suffer the false expectation that generosity is gauged relative to external assumptions of ability, that we must give a certain amount of time or a specific percentage of our income. The truest measure of kindness, to my mind, is much like your example – finding a meaningful gesture of connectivity to another in whatever form brings joy/comfort/opportunity/community and creates a legacy of possibility.

  8. andmorefood says:

    hi kay! always love your writing, but this morning, this is exactly how I feel. I think with the lead-up to international women’s day, there are so many articles about empowering women, and disadvantaged women, and those make me so angry and feel ineffectual. I’m struggling with not being able to change the world, but hopefully doing a bit more in my part of it and hoping that translates to someone.

    1. candidkay says:

      I think that’s all most of us are asked to do, right? If we each did, what a sea change we’d make.

  9. Words do have great power. If I could show you what I now know of that power…never would an unloving word leave our mouths. For it does make a mark, even unknowingly, and reinforces all that went before in its own way.
    That is why, even though you say it wasn’t much, it has changed the world outward from that one humbling thing that you did. It has changed Glady’s world, who in turn will now change her daughters world, who will change her children and even the many friends around her by her actions.
    That is why when you get angry and pour that on to another, it is remembered by the power it was spoken and remembered because of the level of our self worth. And locked in for many years to come, only to be rubbed in further by any more of its ilk.
    Change the world by remembering what those words meant to you, good or bad, and repeat only what brought you happiness. Even if those words brings anger, understand why, and release them. It is your lesson.
    The day that you realise this, those words no longer have that power and you are free.
    Thank you Kay, a beautiful heartfelt post and a good read to boot 🙂 Mark

    1. candidkay says:

      I certainly hope the ripple effect continues, Mark. Thank you for the kind words on a “good read”. The writer in me just loves that:).

  10. I love this. It reminds me of Mother Teresa’s quote, if you can’t feed the world then just feed one. This is what life is made of. Our interactions with and love for one another. Thanks for sharing. I am a law student. I work on cases under supervision of clinic professors and attorneys. I work on asylum and immigration issues with clinics for clients, free of charge. Graduation is around the bend for me. I am currently praying and job searching while finishing up my studies. 🙂

    1. candidkay says:

      I love that you use your talents free of charge, for those who really need them. Particularly in the legal arena, where results truly can be life changing. Good for you . . . and sending you good energy all around that job search.

      1. Thank you! Blessings to you.

  11. Wonderful. I’d love you to write an update after you and Gladys have seen each other again, and to know what she’s doing with her life now.

  12. This was such a touching story about the power of human connection. I hope you pick up the phone and say hello to Gladys, who knows where a simple call might lead you.

    1. candidkay says:

      I certainly will! We are now in negotiations on dates to get together:). She’ll be coming for dinner–and I so love that.

  13. candidkay says:

    Thanks, Karen. It really made me realize the power of one. If only enough ones focus on what they are able to do in their immediate area. It’s so much simpler than we make it out to be . . .

  14. lisafab says:

    I don’t know how I found your blog, but I’m loving it! My favorite Instagram account is this one: The user recently posted this “It not what we have in life, but who we have in our life that matters.” SO TRUE!! I recently change careers and went from a librarian to a social worker-I spent the last two years assessing clients who were suicidal…I just posted about a teen gal I had to see and told her this: “I don’t know why evil happens in this world. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why you had to go through this and it’s not fair. Not fair at all. BUT, you can get better. You can have control over YOUR life and become someone you want to be. It will take time. Lots of time. And I believe you can be happy again.”
    p.s. I actually volunteered for Habitat for Humanity for a year. I was a Home Interviewer where I got to interview families who were interested in a property…no carpentry skills required for anyone interested out there =)

    1. candidkay says:

      I love the HfH role and that you’re helping people in tough spots like this teen! That takes a special kind of stamina. I have two friends who used to be in a social work role but after time, they had to back away. I know you know this–but refill your own tanks so you’ve got something to fill others’.

  15. such a beautiful story, Kay. I heard once that for someone to transform, it may only take one other person to take a real interest in that person’s life. That idea felt so powerful and hopeful to me. Even a teacher, a neighbor, an aunt, anybody really – can make a real difference to another despite the most difficult of circumstances. It sounds like you were that person for Gladys, and that is no small thing.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thanks, Karen. It really made me realize the power of one. If only enough ones focus on what they are able to do in their immediate area. It’s so much simpler than we make it out to be . . .

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