Paying God's Love Forward

A boy alone at Christmas receives a gift that would change his life.

Posted in , Nov 25, 2014

Rick and his family in 2012; his foster parents, the Prices, are in the center

Whoops filled the room at the children’s home, the boys—a dozen teenagers—too distracted by all the Christmas presents I’d brought to notice I was there.

I was relieved. I’d come to finally introduce myself, to tell them I knew what it was like to be them. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to open up about my past. Part of becoming a successful businessman had meant putting my troubles behind me.

“We have a special guest to speak with us today,” the housemother said. The boys swung around to look at me. I saw them take in my suit and tie, their expressions wary.

I couldn’t blame them. When I was their age, I wouldn’t have trusted anything a guy like me had to say. Still, I needed to tell my story.

I’d learned early on that I couldn’t count on other people, especially adults, and that I’d have to make my own way. I had no memory of my father. My mother was a waitress and was sweet—when she wasn’t drinking.

When she was drinking, I stayed out of her way. That wasn’t hard, since she’d go out with her latest boyfriend and disappear for hours, sometimes days.

With the chaos at home, it was no wonder that I was drawn to structure and stability. I was five when I walked on my own into the church a mile from our apartment in downtown Atlanta.

I might be the only five-year-old in history who got perfect attendance in Sunday school without a parent taking him. On weekdays, I hung out at the neighborhood rec center doing my homework and playing baseball and basketball until the place closed.

When I was 12 my mother took me to visit my uncle and grandmother in Marietta, two hours away. It was good to see them. My uncle was in a wheelchair, but I never thought of him as disabled. He had an edge to him and reminded me of Elvis.

That evening, driving home, Mom was weaving all over the road. Finally she pulled the car over and almost passed out. I was tall for my age, so I took over the wheel. I drove the rest of the way home, too terrified to go more than 15 miles an hour.

We went to Marietta again for my thirteenth birthday. By afternoon Mom was smashed. No way was I getting in the car with her this time. She drove off without me (thankfully she didn’t hurt herself or anyone else).

“I’m done,” I told my uncle. “I’m running away.” I would’ve asked to stay there, but I knew he and my grandmother were barely for my scraping by on his disability checks.

“You don’t need to run away,” he said. “There are places where kids who can’t live at home can go. The government takes care of them.”

Anything would be better than living with Mom. My uncle pulled 66 dollars from his dresser drawer and gave it to me (I winced, knowing his check would have to stretch even further that month), then called a cab.

He told the driver to take us to the county building. There, a social worker asked me questions about my home life. I told her the truth—how I’d been taking care of myself for years. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll find you a good home.”

Eventually, she brought me to a two-story house outside of town and introduced me to Mr. and Mrs. Price. They had four children of their own and a fifth who was also a foster child.

Every day after school, Mr. and Mrs. Price asked me about my classes. They helped me with my homework. At dinner we sat together and Mr. Price said grace. “Thank you, Lord, for giving us our children to love,” he’d pray, then say our names, one by one.

I couldn’t get used to hearing my name in that prayer. Even though my Sunday school teachers said God loved us, I couldn’t believe it. My father didn’t love me enough to stick around. My mom cared more about whomever she was dating than about me.

So why would someone as great as God love me? And why would the Prices? They hardly knew me.

One day Mrs. Price took me to a department store. She had me try on a pair of pants and a button-down shirt. “Don’t you look handsome,” she said when I came out of the dressing room.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. But I couldn’t look her in the eye. That day she bought me an entire new wardrobe, more clothes than I’d ever owned in my life. I couldn’t believe anyone would do something so nice for me.

I didn’t trust anyone. The Prices were up to something, and I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what. A few days later I ran away, back to my mom’s. That’s how confused I was.

Before long I was calling the social worker, begging her to find someplace else for me to live. “There’s only one place that might take you,” she said. “It’s called the United Methodist Children’s Home. This is your last chance.”

I moved into a cottage there with nine other teenage boys. I liked the other guys. There were playing fields and a gym, and we’d play ball until dark. Our houseparents were kind.

But there was a loneliness I couldn’t shake, a feeling that even in the midst of all these boys, I was on my own. If only I had money to buy a record player, I thought. Elvis and the Beatles could keep me company.

The week before Christmas, the boys left one by one to spend the holidays with relatives. I didn’t have enough for bus fare to my uncle’s, and I refused to have anything to do with my mom. By Christmas Eve I was the only boy left.

My houseparents tried, but it didn’t feel very festive sitting there at the table without the other boys. The next day they’d have presents under the tree and stockings filled with goodies. Me? I knew better than to expect anything.

I said good night and trudged to my room. In bed I pulled the covers over my head, as if I could hide from the emptiness closing in. You’re 14. You don’t need gifts on Christmas morning, I tried to tell myself. It didn’t work. I cried myself to sleep.

The cottage was eerily quiet when I woke. Nobody horsing around in the hall, nobody banging on the bathroom door. I got out of bed, shivering as my feet hit the cold linoleum.

Strange. There was something on the floor. Someone had pushed an envelope under my bedroom door. I picked it up. “Rick Jackson,” it said on the front in unfamiliar handwriting.

I tore it open. Inside was a crisp 100-dollar bill. And a note: “Merry Christmas from an anonymous donor.” I’d never seen so much money! For a moment I thought I was dreaming.

I ran out to the living area clutching the envelope and the bill. “Where did this come from?” I asked my housemother.

“There’s a gentleman who gives a hundred dollars to any child who is here alone on Christmas Day,” she said. “You’ve never met him. He wants his identity to remain a secret.”

My mind was spinning. Who would be so generous to a stranger? Why? Finally I asked, “Could you get a letter to him?”

She smiled. “Yes, I can. That would be very nice.”

“Dear sir,” I wrote in my best handwriting, “I don’t know who you are, but I really appreciate what you’ve done. It means the world to me that somebody would care enough to give me $100 when they don’t even know who I am.”

The next day I went to an electronics store and looked in wonder at all the things I could buy with my windfall. Transistor radios. Instamatic cameras.

At the end of an aisle I saw it. A record player. I bought it for 50 dollars, tucking the rest of the money back in my pocket.

The other guys returned and showed me what they had gotten for Christmas: a baseball glove, a G.I. Joe, a toy space capsule. But five boys came back with nothing. I knew how it hurt to be left out. What could I do? Then I remembered the money I still had left over.

I went back to the electronics store and bought five transistor radios. I couldn’t wait to give them out. But when I gave my gift to the boy across the hall, he didn’t seem very excited. He just stared at the floor and muttered, “Thanks.” What was that about?

Back in my room I tried to figure it out. Maybe he didn’t like the radio? I thought about the times someone had done something nice for me. That’s when, with a stab of guilt, I remembered the Prices and the new clothes they’d bought me. The love they’d tried to show me.

It was more than just their love, which was considerable; it was a reflection of God’s love. It was because he was so great that he loved me when my own parents weren’t able to.

An incredible feeling, like an electric current, surged through me. To know love, you had to first be open to it, to trust that someone else wanted the best for you. That someone else cared.

My life was different after that. That envelope on Christmas morning, that one act of kindness, opened my eyes to how much goodness there was in the world, in other people, even in me.

I reconnected with my mother. She’d quit drinking, but she still wasn’t able to care for me. The Prices invited me to their house for dinner and asked if I wanted to live with them again.

I jumped at the chance and stayed with them until I left for college, growing to love them the way they loved me.

I got married and by 22 was running a company. I’d achieved more than I’d ever dreamed. But still there was something missing. Right before Christmas I was at the bank and the teller gave me a 100-dollar bill.

For a moment I just stared at it. Then I knew what I had to do. I got an envelope and put the bill inside, along with a note that it was from an anonymous donor.

“I drove to the Methodist Children’s Home and asked the woman in the office to give the envelope to a boy in the cottage I’d lived in....” I finished my story and looked at the boys sitting around me at the children’s home.

I hadn’t known how good it would feel to tell this story finally, even in my suit and tie.

The wariness in their faces was gone. In its place was a kind of wonder.

“That’s what I’ve done at Christmas for the last thirty years, given envelopes with a hundred dollars to kids in homes like this,” I said.

“But there’s something else I need to give you. I want each of you to know that you’re somebody. There are people who love you. And God loves you. Even if your earthly parents haven’t been there for you, your Father in heaven always will be.”

The boys crowded around me. I wrapped my arms around them and said silent thanks to a man I’d never met for the gift that changed my life

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