Happy holidays to one and all! Hard to believe we are once again at the holiday season. Yet, here we are. There is snow on the ground and there’s more than a chill in the air. It has been a particularly wonderful year here at Boomer Retirement Briefs. As 2019 comes to an end, I had the good fortune of meeting yet another incredible Baby Boomer who is doing remarkable things. You’re going to meet Sharon Curry from Boston. Let me share her inspirational journey as a gift to you this holiday season.
The warmth of a large family
Sharon is one of nine children, born to a strong, capable, and dynamic mother. She is the youngest of the six girls. Her mother is not only still alive at age 85, but she’s a cancer survivor and a force to be reckoned with around town. Mom started a Community Center many years ago as part of the Theroch Tenants Association. It comprises several apartment buildings in Dorchester, MA, a large neighborhood in Boston. The Community Center is going strong with Sharon at the helm for the last 15 years. Both Sharon and her mom are champions for children. They go that extra mile to help each child go further than they ever thought they could.
Kids naturally gravitate to Sharon. She is an incredibly warm and kind woman with a no-nonsense vibe you can’t miss. She sets high expectations and the kids reach for the stars. Making everyone feel like they are part of Sharon’s own family is the very essence of Sharon.
Sharon has three sons. When her boys were young and moving through the Boston schools, she wanted to “keep an eye on them.” So, she started volunteering at their school. That position turned into a paid school aide and then into an elementary school teacher. She taught first, second and third grade over the years, and loved this job.
Like so many people over the past two decades, Sharon’s job didn’t last. Boston Public Schools went through a very rough period about 20 years ago, and Sharon lost her job. It was in November. After the early years of barely making ends meet, that teaching job provided Sharon and her family with a good paycheck. And, she readily admits, she was living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Losing her job was very bad news and came at the worst time of the year. She knew this meant they were all going to lose their happy holidays. The boys were still so young. There were no gifts for under the tree, and very little food in the cupboard.
Asking for Help
We never know how the various public assistance programs work until we’re faced with the very real need of putting food on the table. Sharon applied for unemployment, but the first check wasn’t going to come for four weeks — after Christmas. She talked to various state and local programs, like food stamps and welfare, but she didn’t qualify at that time. It took a lot to swallow her pride and ask for help. Yet there was no help available.
In her darkest and scariest hour, a friend told Sharon about the American Red Cross in the Back Bay area of Boston. “Get over to the Red Cross behind the train station,” this friend said. “They have everything you need.” And, boy did they ever!
Sharon went by herself as a last-ditch effort. She walked in, saw the riches there, and broke down in tears. She can still see the image that greeted her some 20 years ago. “There were clothes, boots, gifts, wrapping paper, food. It was my Christmas miracle. The Red Cross made it possible for my family’s happy holidays that year.”
How do you say “Thank You”?
When no other program was available to help, the Red Cross was there. Sharon was so grateful that she returned a few weeks later to say how much she appreciated their generosity. As a thank you, she asked if there was anything she could do to help. Indeed there was. There are never enough volunteers in charitable organizations. Would she be willing to help out? She started her volunteer duties the next day.
Fast forward a year…the manager of the facility asked Sharon to come into her office. Sharon remembers how nervous she was about that. “What did I do wrong? Why does she want to see me in her office?”
Turns out, nothing was wrong and everything was right. The manager offered Sharon a job. It would be a part-time job, but one that came with a paycheck. They asked Sharon to be the manager of the volunteers. She raised her arms and said, “Lord, thank you, thank you!”
Seventeen years later, Sharon not only coordinates all of the volunteers, but she’s also the concierge for every client who comes to the Food Pantry each month.
The Red Cross Food Pantry (RCFP)
Very few Red Cross organizations across the country have an ongoing food pantry. Their focus is on critically important disaster relief efforts. Turns out, though, that in Massachusetts, the Red Cross Food Pantry is a vital link in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Boston’s RCFP is the largest food pantry in New England.
When I met Sharon, I knew she was a force to be reckoned with just like her mother. Dan and I volunteered at the RCFP with our University of Rochester alumni organization in September. Sharon trained us newbie volunteers. She is crisp and clear and direct: The clients will be coming in for their once-per-month visit to the pantry. They are welcome here and no one is turned away. Each person has a story and very likely a tragedy they are dealing with. A warm smile, a happy greeting, and help packing the groceries into their carts and backpacks will make a world of difference. We saw this in action, and it truly warms your heart.
Sharon fundamentally understands how this visit can affect a life. She loves the Red Cross organization because it touches lives in hunger, heartache, and illness. She never forgets what it felt like to be in that line, to be a client of the food pantry. It is not shameful, but sometimes it does require one to swallow a bit of pride. She still sees herself in every person who comes through the door. “It was the Red Cross, and only the Red Cross, who helped me when I needed it most.”
Faith and gratitude are constants in Sharon’s life. She is certain that God has a purpose for her, and it includes serving her community and those in need. Between helping children in the inner city and clients who need a helping hand to prepare a hot meal, she is fulfilling her purpose. But, not necessarily filling her wallet.
As in all things, Sharon is crystal clear about her situation. “I’m not poor. In fact, I am very rich. Not exactly in money, but in love. Every single day.”
When you work in lower-paid jobs, there are no vacations. Sharon has never been on a vacation. When working as a teacher, her boys were young, so vacations were a luxury beyond her budget. Now, as a part-time, hourly employee, vacations mean no pay.
So, you can imagine how Sharon’s face lit up when she told me that she is going on her very first vacation. This December. For Christmas! She is going to Atlanta to visit her son and daughter-in-law and her two youngest grandchildren. She could not be more excited. Not only is this her first trip, it will also be her first time on an airplane.
Sharon and her family will be having happy holidays this year.
Moments of Great Family Pride
From a humble start, each son has exceeded even her high expectations. Sharon couldn’t be prouder of her children. She had tears of joy when talking about her son who was graduating with a bachelor’s degree this year from an elite college. Another son is in law enforcement and has been gainfully employed for 20-plus years. The third bought his first house.
She’s also incredibly proud of her students at the Community Center. Every one of the 15 pupils in this year’s group passed their MCAS tests this year. (The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is a state-wide exam that all students must take at several key points in their K-12 education. Key assessments are in achievement of grade-level reading, science and math.)
This is no small feat in a community that does not have the resources that wealthy suburban schools have. Some of the children live in families that are not stable. Several children don’t know if there will be dinner on the table tonight. Educational success is their path to future success. Supporting these children in their academic endeavors is incredibly important to Sharon.
Even More Reasons to Be Grateful
Sharon’s eyes fill with emotion when she talks about Michelle Obama’s visit to Boston. “Of all the places in Boston, my Community Center was blessed. We were asked to select a student to welcome and introduce Michelle Obama.” One of her young teen Girl Scouts was selected to introduce Mrs. Obama during her Becoming book tour. The event was held at TD Bank Garden where 20,000 people attended. What a heartfelt, meaningful moment for Sharon to celebrate.
And, then there was the “family feud”. Sharon and other family members were selected to appear on the game show Family Feud with Steve Harvey. They came out the big winners of their episode just last year.
When we got talking about her future and “retirement,” Sharon was of two minds.
On one hand, she wants to do whatever she wants when she retires. Though she’s not quite clear on what that will be. Now that she knows her family is safe, healthy and prospering, and her grandchildren hold promise and potential, she can think ahead and about retirement.
On the other hand, “retirement is a long word,” she says. “It’s hard to figure it out.” Her entire adult life she has focused on making it through one day at a time. As a result, she never really thought she would be on the cusp of retirement. Sharon doesn’t feel old, so how the heck did she get to “almost 60”? She has a bucket list that includes going to Niagara Falls. But what Sharon would really like her retirement to be is in her own home. That special place that is all hers, where she can be comfortable and peaceful.
She has a picture in her head, a long-held dream of having a white picket fence. “It’s not about the fence. It’s what that fence represents: a house behind the fence that’s your own. A yard. A happy, healthy family who is enjoying their happy holidays.”
Hope for Happy Holidays
Sharon’s hope for her future is not extravagant. It’s simply the American dream. It’s about happy holidays in the living room with a Christmas tree covered in hand-made angels and ornaments from her grandchildren. Having hope and keeping the faith is the joy of the holiday season.
It’s rare to meet someone as clear in that belief as Sharon is. Her journey has been not been easy. But never does a day go by when she isn’t living life to the fullest. Sharon is truly an inspiration at a time when we can all use a little bit of extra hope.
Here’s wishing you and yours time to celebrate.
More Happy Holidays Posts
For more holiday blog posts from the archives and some ideas for finance fun to add to your happy holidays, you might enjoy reading again about my family’s annual tea party and family finance fun or some holiday happenings in my kitchen.
Or if you need a last minute gift for your mom or daughter or girlfriends, what would be better than a book about making smarter Social Security decisions?