Who can remember a Thanksgiving when they had nothing to be thankful for?
My friend Joseph can. He was an abused child who was shuffled through the foster care system for seventeen years.
But this year, Joseph is confident his Thanksgiving will be a great improvement from years past. And here's why. Joseph told my colleagues recently, "Starting at the age of five, I experienced sexual abuse for three years. I didn't know my parents. I went from foster home to foster home. At 17, I was homeless."
Joseph is like many Los Angeles residents who have never experienced a holiday surrounded by loved ones, with food on the table, or even a roof over their heads. For most, they may even look back at the holidays as a time filled with turmoil or depression.
This time of year, it's important to remember that each of us may be in the midst of traumatized individuals for whom Thanksgiving certainly does not stir memories of thankfulness.
Growing up in foster care, Joseph endured both physical and sexual abuse. By the time he was seventeen, he was broken mentally, physically, and spiritually. When he heard there was a safe haven at the Dream Center for folks who have similar stories, he reached out and was immediately connected to our Foster Youth residential program. He moved in and everything radically changed in his life.
"When I was old enough to work, I saved up and enrolled in Pasadena City College," Joseph told us. But even though he was enrolled in school, he was still homeless. A mentor he found along the way of his traumatic life, from the African American Male Education Network Development, told him about the nurturing and uplifting environment here at the Dream Center and suggested he land there as he finds his path to self-sufficiency.
"Now I'm ten million times more focused on school and graduating with a 4.0," Joseph exclaimed. "I don't have to stress about finding a place to sleep. I have housing. I'm meeting heart-warming individuals. I'm provided with three meals a day. This place is allowing me to go to church, to mature, and to focus on my goals."
Joseph's plans include finishing college and starting his own nonprofit organization to help young people like himself in the foster care system.
With the holiday season upon us, each of us needs to be aware of the "Josephs" all around us who are struggling. For people who have experienced pain, financial burdens, trauma, and homelessness, the holidays can be a sad and triggering time of year.
"I've never celebrated Thanksgiving with anyone," Joseph told us, "So I look forward to the meals and for all of us to get together and just spend time with each other. For me to say this is a blessing is beyond an understatement."
Thanksgiving is indeed a holiday of joy and gratitude for many of us. We need to be thankful for our many blessings; it's a healthy exercise and helps keep our lives in perspective. Joseph said it best: "Thanksgiving represents love, family, generosity, community, and most of all, selflessness."
As we reflect on the ways we've been blessed, let's also catch that spirit of selflessness. I'm challenging those of us here in Los Angeles and beyond who have food on our tables and a roof over our heads to look around for the people who we can help. And, as always, if someone needs more help than you can give, send them our way. There are thousands of men, women, and children who have benefited from our residential programs over the last 27 years and left strong, independent, and ready to rebuild their lives.
This Thanksgiving, if you do find someone to help, nothing will cause more gratitude in your own heart than to be able to impact another person's life.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: GettyImages/AlexRaths
Matthew Barnett is the co-founder of the Los Angeles Dream Center and senior pastor of Angelus Temple. The Los Angeles Dream Center is a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of individuals and families in Los Angeles through residential and outreach programs.