The annual holiday season starts Thursday with turkey and ends with bubbly drinks on New Year’s Day. During the next five weeks, we will sit down to sumptuous feasts, brave Homer crowds as we shop locally, ponder the mystery of the season, go to church, hold bonfires, sing and celebrate with a variety of traditions. How do people honor the spirit of the holiday season? How do families, individuals and groups show gratitude? In these short stories, we look at how some area residents embrace Thanksgiving and keep the spirit of the holiday alive all year long.
The Jansen family, Anchor Point
Looking through the toys, clothes and other belongings acquired by her five children, Beth Jansen of Anchor Point suggested they sell what they no longer used. Pointing out to Mercedes, 17, Savannah, 10, Isabella, 7, Olivia, 4, and Mitchel, six months, that “less is more,” Jansen promised them they could have whatever money they made.
After two weeks and selling $218 worth of dollhouses, unused school supplies, winter boots, hats, mittens, stuffed animals and other items through a Facebook garage sale group, the young entrepreneurs faced the question of how they should spend their earnings.
“They didn’t really need anything and they asked ‘Do we have to buy something for ourselves just because we have the money?’” said Jansen. “Then one of them suggested maybe spending on a canned food drive at school, so they decided to use all of it. We bought $218 worth of food and they donated it to their classroom.”
For the last two weeks, Chapman School — the Anchor Point school Savannah, Isabella and Olivia attend — has held a food drive benefiting the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10221 Thanksgiving basket program. Lila Little, the school’s interventionist, coordinates the school’s participation.
Shopping the sales at Safeway and Save U More, Jansen and her daughter Savannah purchased enough that they also received two free turkeys. The food purchased by the Jansen family makes up about one-third of what was collected at Chapman this year.
“We’re pretty excited about this. I can’t even walk behind my desk,” said Little of the 724 food items stored in her work area until members of the VFW picked it up on Friday.
After Jansen shared on Facebook what her family had done, friends began responding, letting the children know the significance of their gift.
“You are going to make some people very happy this year.”
“This brings tears to my eyes.”
“This is the most amazing thing I’ve read or seen in months.”
It isn’t the first time the Jansen family has put others first. When Mercedes was nine or 10, she asked guests to bring a donation for the animal shelter rather than a present for her. In the spring and fall, local school classes visit the family’s home on the Old Sterling Highway to spend time with their farm animals and garden. At Christmas, the Jansens have a tradition of baking more than 50 dozen cookies – each child gets to pick out a favorite recipe — and then delivering them while they go caroling in Nikolaevsk, Anchor Point and Homer.
Jansen knows personally how valuable the help of others can be.
“When I only had one child, there was a time when I was by myself, working two jobs, having a hard time paying the bills and the house payment was months behind,” said Jansen. “It was really horrible.”
She recalled the morning she woke up, it was twenty-degrees below zero in the Palmer area where she and her daughter were living, the water was frozen and the phone had been disconnected.
“I had to dress my daughter in her snowsuit and walk to the neighbors to use the phone so I could call my dad to come thaw the pipes and I thought, ‘How can it get any worse?’” said Jansen.
Her family came to her rescue, as did friends who paid the electric bill so she didn’t lose her lights.
“You don’t forget that. It’s a great experience, but at the time you think it’s never going to get better,” said Jansen. Surrounded by her husband and smiling children, she added, ‘That’s the thing about giving. It helps everybody.”
Trisha Davis, Nikolaevsk
After three weeks serving as a Red Cross volunteer staff wellness nurse supervisor in areas of New York hit by Hurricane Sandy, Trisha Davis was due to return to her Nikolaevsk home Wednesday. After being thousands of miles away, she’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband, Chuck, her 92-year-old mother and friends.
“We don’t do a whole lot on Thanksgiving. We don’t have family with us, it’s just us, so we’re always happy to be with friends in the community,” said Davis. “This year, in particular, I’m just thankful to be home.”
Davis was a reservist with the U.S. Army for 24 years and had just retired when the 9-11 attacks happened. Her husband also had retired from the Army.
“My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Now what do we do?’” said Davis.
Still at an age when she could have re-enlisted for another three years, Davis and her husband decided to wait on their response until it was clear if war was going to be waged on U.S. soil.
“If we were going to war on our own land, then I’d go back in (the Army). I’d be needed and it would be necessary, but that didn’t happen, so I decided that I’d try to get in with the Red Cross,” said Davis.
Volunteering runs deep in the Davis family. Chuck Davis has been a Hospice of Homer volunteer for the past two years. Several years ago, the couple’s daughter and son-in-law, Holly and John Chavez, and their five children were being transferred from Korea, where John Chavez was stationed with the U.S. Army, to El Paso. During the process, the Chavez family was nominated for “Volunteer Army Family of the Year for Korea.” However, the volunteer efforts of all seven family members elevated their recognition to “Volunteer Army Family of the Year.”
“I was so proud,” said Davis.
Of her Red Cross experience, which includes responding to Hurricane Katrina, Davis noted the strong ties that develop between volunteers.
“A lot of people get out here who have never done this before and can’t believe the good time they’re having, the camaraderie, the support,” said Davis. “When it’s time to leave, people are so glad to go home, but so sad to be leaving.”
Who takes care of Davis now that she’s home?
“My husband takes pretty good care of me. I’ll decompress for a day and then I’ll be ready to go,” she said.
Fran Van Sandt, Homer
If there’s an event to help others, Fran Van Sandt is probably there. The Lions Thanksgiving Basket Program is one example, but certainly not the only one.
Asked where she gets her motivation, Van Sandt recalled times when she was on the receiving end.
“When I was younger and had my children by myself, there were so many people that were good to me,” said Van Sandt. “Never in a lifetime can I pay back the things that were done for me when I was in need.”
She recalled when, as a single mom with four children between the ages of 3 and 8, she was “just barely making it.”
“Neighbors would come up and say they’d made a pot of soup and couldn’t possibly eat it all and give it to us. My girfriend’s mom would say she had a chicken that was freezer burned and needed to be cooked and I’d look at the label and it was dated the day before,” said Van Sandt.
In 2004, fire destroyed Van Sandt’s Skyline home and she once again found herself on the receiving end of other people’s concern and generosity.
“It really is easier to give than to receive,” said Van Sandt.
From helping prepare and distribute Thanksgiving baskets, Van Sandt said people have told her how important that box of food had been in their lives.
“There’s a lot of people in this town that do wonderful things. You say you’re going to do a benefit and people show up,” said Van Sandt. “This town takes care of its own. Why would you want to live anywhere else?”
Haven House: clients, shaff share the gratitude of giving
At first glance, there might not seem much to be thankful for at South Peninsula Haven House, a 10-bed shelter that offers housing for women and children impacted by domestic and sexual violence who need refuge. Thanksgiving gets down to the basics, said Haven House legal advocate Donna Beran.
“Look at what I have around me,” she said Haven House clients can think. “I have a warm place to sleep. I have food on the table. I have clothes for my children. It’s a great time of the year to think of those necessities that we all take for granted.”
For Thanksgiving, Haven House clients, staff on duty and even former clients will gather to share in the feast. The Lion’s Club donated a Thanksgiving Basket to the shelter. Clients will pitch in with the cooking, Beran said, like “Cora” — not her real name — who said she’ll be making potatoes from her grandmother’s recipe.
“The people who are residents in the shelter are very active in the kitchen as well,” she said. “Right now, definitely we have some culinary energy going on in there.”
Beran, one of the founders of Two Sisters with Carri Thurman, started working in the food business in her 20s and brings some culinary energy herself to the Haven House kitchen. Beran will work a shift starting Thursday afternoon and join the residents for Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s a great place to gather, in the kitchen, learning a skill,” she said. “But also, the conversations that come up are about life and learning. As in any family, the kitchen is a wonderful place to have a connection.”
This year, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority awarded Haven House a $10,000 grant for training in the Japanese philosophies of naikan and Morita therapy through the ToDo Institute in Vermont. Haven House also has been sponsoring weekly mindfulness meetings, a group for cultivating wisdom, gratitude and serenity, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Kachemak Bay Campus. Beran said Haven House uses those ideas at the shelter — ideas that relate to Thanksgiving.
Morita training, created by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Marita, seeks acceptance of both good and bad feelings so that we can take action that can lead to a change in our feelings.
“Naikan” means “inside looking” or “introspection.” At house meetings with residents, people start with a naikan and ask these questions, Beran said.
• What have I received today?
“It can be really specific: ‘What have I received from Haven House?’” Beran said.
• What have I given?
“That might be a contribution to Haven House — what have I done for people I live with?” she said.
• What troubles or difficulties have I caused today?
“They could be, ‘I was 15 minutes late to work. I forgot to hang the last roll of toilet paper for the next person coming in,’” Beran said.
Cora said she’s thankful for everything at Thanksgiving.
“Celebrating Thanksgiving being sober with the advocates I care about,” she said. “It means I have a safe place to come, that people are sober. .. Just how blessed I am and how thankful I am and where I’ve come. Very blessed.”
The spirit of Thanksgiving also means being grateful for being able to give, Beran said.
“Any one of us can be in a situation where we need help at any given time,” she said. “It’s the beginning piece, recognizing that you need help. When you ask for help, you’re giving people an opportunity to give. You’re really creating opportunities for other people to do something for you, and that in itself is a gift.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.