It is officially December. And you know what that means? It is the start of my giving back series. Each day this month I will post either a way you can give back or profile organizations that give back. So check back every day to check out ways you can give back. Today I have a post from one of my dear friends and also another Melissa. You may remember her from her posts last year about the Zoe Ministry and the medical mission in Guatemala.
Well, the holidays are finally here! Thanks to some of my Christmas obsessed friends, I have been watching the days countdown to December on social media since …hmmm…probably sometime in the summer. For those of us who practice Christianity, this time is set aside to prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus. It is also a wonderful time full of opportunities to take in the beauty and celebrate with those we love. Sounds amazing, right? Then why do so many of us feel more overwhelmed than amazed?
As a mother of three, I will be completely honest, I dreaded December like the rotavirus! Unfortunately, like so many of you, I had managed to take this Holy season and cram it full of things that were draining and not life-giving. Our family was already trying to keep a lot of balls up in the air and I dreaded trying to add more balls to that mix… even if the balls did have holiday glitter on them! To put it quite simply, I had lost my holiday joy.
Sure, over the years there are wonderful memories of my children participating in holiday concerts and church plays, but as the years progressed, one thing began to disturb me deeply… the excessive gift giving. Every year as the holidays approached, I would begin to think about what to get people in my life who needed positively… absolutely…NOTHING! I felt like I was buying things out of the “obligation of the season” versus a true motivation of love.
As I shopped for these gifts, I felt more like the Grinch than Saint Nick and working as a family therapist just added more negative feelings about the situation. On any given day I would see such a stark contrast in my office. In the morning, I might work with a family living on the margin who was feeling defeated because they could barely put food on the table, much less offer elaborate Christmas gifts. Then later I would see families in my office who were taking out loans or charging up credit cards to keep this charade going. At the end of the day, I just felt like we had all lost our way about Christmas. Ugh, it was such a vicious cycle, but how could we stop it?
In 2012, I took a trip that flipped my world upside down, and unbeknownst to me, began to restore my Christmas joy. I met a remarkable young girl named Stella who reminded me what giving out of love should truly look like. I met Stella while in Maua, Kenya to learn more about an orphan empowerment ministry called ZOE (wearezoe.org). ZOE once stood for Zimbabwe Orphan Endeavor, but the program now empowers children in Kenya, Rwanda, Liberia, India, and Malawi. The word Zoe is also Greek for “life” and that is exactly what this program does…give children new life on earth and in Christ!
Stella, like so many kids in the ZOE program, was caring for her younger siblings due to the death of her parents. When our team arrived at her modest home, she had a table prepared for us and inquired from her mentors if she could serve us food. This young girl, not much older than my own daughter, who just a few months before had been begging for her next meal on the street, was now sharing what she had with complete strangers. As we sat at the table, she proceeded to lovingly wash our hands with a pitcher of water. For a follower of Christ, it was as if I had been touched by Jesus. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
The ZOE program that Stella and her group members were apart of uses a unique model that moves children from poverty to self-sufficiency in only three years. The head of the household, typically the eldest child, learns a trade such as a farmer, tailor, beautician, or business owner. During my first visit, Stella was farming, growing various crops and raising chickens and pigs. I last visited Stella in 2016, and she was thriving! In addition to farming, she was running two other successful business ventures as a tailor and entrepreneur.
This empowerment model allows the children to remain in their family home with their siblings while creating groups which would serve as their new families and training ground for success. The greatest thing about this model is that once they finish the program these children never need financial assistance ever. To date, 41, 375 children are actively learning in the program and 47, 045 have graduated from the program and will never need charity again. They are forever empowered!
After returning home I felt an incredible burden to share the story of how these children with almost insurmountable challenges were working through ZOE and becoming so empowered. It was also a priority to make sure that my own children would know how incredibly blessed they are and stress the importance to them that they always live their lives serving others. This passion led to a children’s book Elizabeth and Stella Meet Zoe written by me and illustrated by an NC artist, Amy Fetzer.
Since 2012, December has a whole new feel at the Harrell household. I no longer dread December as the pace is much slower. We now make it a priority as a family to soak in this Advent time and focus on the true meaning… shining the love of Christ. Our Christmas shopping is so simple and rather than the Grinch I feel more like a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol. Almost all our Christmas gifts are done through alternative giving to programs like ZOE Our friends and families have adjusted and love to receive gifts like chickens, goats, pigs, and cows!
In 2017 our family chose to sponsor an entire empowerment group of children for 3 years. This is a huge financial commitment for our family as we have all the expenses that go with raising three teens like braces, cars, and looming college. However, we know that there is no gift we could give each other that is even close to our ZOE family being forever lifted out of the chains of poverty.
This year I have really watched our children grow into sacrificial givers as they have each experienced some life changing events. It is a very beautiful thing to witness your children say they have more than they should ever have and do not want anything for themselves. Especially when you’ve been told that it cannot be done with kids today. Why yes Virginia, I believe it can!
This holiday I invite you to open your heart and join in partnership with these amazing children in ZOE. We are all blessed with so much, this year consider giving a gift that will help a child to Never Need Charity Again! Find your joy in gift giving again, head on over to wearezoe.org today and start new traditions for your family.
Wishing you a Christmas season filled with peace and restored joy!
About the Author:
Melissa Harrell is a wife, mother, and Licensed Professional Counselor. She is the founder of Resiliency Counseling and Consulting, PLLC where she speaks and blogs about mental wellness. She is passionate about her work as a global child health advocate serving programs in Kenya and Guatemala. She serves as an advocate for ZOE which transforms the lives of orphans through a unique empowerment model. She is also proud to serve as a Days for Girls Ambassador of Women’s Health which helps create and distribute sustainable menstrual hygiene kits around the globe. Melissa and her husband Johnnie live in Goldsboro, NC with their three teens, and rascally cats.