Local Heroes

As Christmas approaches, here’s a chapter from my Spartan Life book about Robin and Betsy Miner-Swartz. I first wrote about them in 2010. They will continue this compassionate tradition again this year.  Enjoy!

Betsy and Robin are refugees from old media, escaping from the ever compressing newspaper industry and totally re-inventing themselves. They epitomize the passion-seeking lifestyle that I often write about in my Monday Motivators. They each built new careers that challenge and delight them. They chose to live in a part of Lansing that some would have abandoned and, along with their neighbors, have reinvigorated the neighborhood and raised the property values. They are unabashedly and totally in love with one another and are role models for all the things that make the best marriages. And they have a disarming sense of humor about the joys and challenges of their same-sex lifestyle that makes me proud to call them friends.

What sets them apart is what they do on Christmas Eve.

I’ll let Robin tell the tale:

After sharing the story of last year’s inaugural Christmas Eve mission, at the Walmart in Betsy’s hometown of West Branch, giving away two $25 gift cards to people in need, several friends and family members wanted to contribute to this year’s outing. What did they want in return? Just the story about what their contribution meant to the person receiving it. This year, we chose the Meijer store on Lansing’s south side with nearly $300 in an envelope and a mission to remind some people having a tough time that Santa might just be real.

We bought a number of $30 gift cards and one $50 card. The checkout lines snaked through the store and the aisles were packed. Betsy and I walked around for for a half hour looking for the right person or family we thought could use some help to supplement their modest — or non-existent — Christmas of 2010. Finally, we overheard a 45-ish woman tell her friend she hadn’t bought a gift for her mother this year: “I didn’t have any money,” she said. Betsy spun around and approached her, offering a $30 gift card. The woman was surprised, happy and grateful. “I’m going to buy my Mom a present right now,” she beamed.

OK … we were up and rolling. And our hands were jammed with plastic cash.

Walking toward housewares, we heard a voice behind us. “Merry Christmas, Robin and Betsy!” We turned around to see Jenni, a childhood friend of mine. I knew Jenni worked undercover security for the store, and a switch flipped in my head. “Jenni — I think you can help us.” We told her what we were doing and asked if she knew about anyone in the store with significant need.

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “We just caught a couple stealing food to feed their family. It’s all cheap stuff — just basics, and they’re very upset.” Jenni knows the difference between criminals and people who are just plain desperate. The husband lost his job a month ago and his wife works as a home health-care aid, taking home a mere $254 a month. They have a young daughter and it was the end of the month. They were flat broke. And it was Christmas.

When the team at Meijer offered them information about Lansing-area social services available to help them, they wrote down every agency name, scooped up every phone number and listened intently as they were coached about working to upgrade their employment skills. “Most people just blow us off when we offer information,” Jenni explained. “They’re different.”

Jenni thought we could help. We couldn’t wait.

She called the woman out of the office, telling her there were two people who wanted to talk to her. Betsy approached her and explained that we were visiting the store in hopes of helping people at Christmas. “We’re hoping we can help you with money to buy your groceries.”

Betsy handed her a fist full of our cards — worth $200.

The woman immediately began to cry. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. She reached out and hugged us both hard, crying through her “thank yous.”

“Take care of your family,” I told her through my own tears.

“Don’t forget to buy something nice for yourself,” Betsy said.

We walked away stunned ourselves. We had just nearly matched one woman’s entire month’s salary with a few contributions from good people in our lives.

We headed back to the aisles in search of more need.

Twenty minutes later, Jenni and another undercover security officer tracked us down, this time pointing us toward a fellow Meijer employee. This single mom was off the clock and shopping for groceries to feed her five children. Two of her kids have sickle-cell anemia. They told us she’s a hard worker who helps chase shoplifters out of the store — and she struggles to cover her family’s needs. She rides the bus to work and sometimes runs into those shoplifters on the ride, “She always stands up for herself when those people confront her,” Jenni said.

Out of gift cards by then, Betsy pulled $30 out of her pocket and approached her as the woman was shopping for bread. Betsy offered her the money: “We’re playing secret Santa, just trying to help some people at Christmas,” Betsy explained. “Could you use this?” She didn’t move or talk at first as she wrestled to figure out why random strangers would hand her much-needed cash at Christmas. “Yes. Yes, thank you,” she said finally. She took the money, slipped it into her pocket and began to tear up. “Thank you guys so much,” she said, reaching out to hug us both at once. “Merry Christmas!” she said as we turned to walk away.

“Merry Christmas to you,” we hollered back.

It wasn’t much to us, but it was very big for her.

Christmas Eve 2010 mission accomplished!

Colleen and I love Robin and Betsy Miner-Swartz for many reasons: Their authenticity, their commitment to things they believe in, their humor, and the reckless abandon with which they chase their joy.  And beyond all of that, they have figured out what life’s true essence is really all about: Helping others learn that they, too, can do all of these same things.

And find happiness in the process.