Popcorn and Starfish: An Update on James

I’ve questioned myself no less than a thousand times: “Why this family?” I’ve had conversations with friends who have reminded me that, even if I can’t do one thing to help James and his mama, Melanie, this may be God’s way of opening my eyes to people in my very own community who are in need and can use love, prayer, money, resources. I don’t have a clue why this family. All I know is, they were popcorn, and I think James may be my starfish.

I have been inspired in numerous ways by Leigh Ann and Sean Tuohy, who adopted one of my favorite Rebels, Michael Oher.

I read The Blind Side before I knew it would become a blockbuster hit movie, as well as the two books that followed: Michael’s book, I Beat the Odds, and the Tuohy’s book, In a Heartbeat. It was the latter that described the Tuohy’s personal theory on helping others, which they call “the popcorn effect.”  People with so many resources can do things that the rest of us can’t, but they also have a big burden in trying to decide who they can and will reach.

Here is an excerpt from their book, and you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.com/In-Heartbeat-Sharing-Cheerful-Giving/dp/B004KAB32A/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1340568827&sr=8-2&keywords=In+a+heartbeat

“It goes like this: “You can’t help everyone. But you can try to help the hot ones who pop right up in front of your face.”

The Popcorn Theory is about noticing others. It starts with recognizing a fellow soul by the roadside as kindred, even if he doesn’t seem to belong in your gated community and, at six foot five and over three hundred pounds, is the biggest piece of popcorn you ever saw. It’s about acknowledging that person’s potential and value. It’s about seeing him, instead of looking past him.

“Like with popcorn, you don’t know which kernel’s gonna pop,” Sean likes to say. “But the hot ones just show up. It’s not hard to spot ‘em.”

It pained us to realize that we too often failed at the simplest kind of giving. While we were waiting for a great cause, or focused on an agenda, we chose not to notice someone standing right in front of us. We looked right past the woman in the grocery store taking things out of her basket because she was short on cash or the elderly disabled man in line at CVS.

Ultimately, we agreed that by embracing a smaller and more cheerful kind of giving, we might ease a lot of everyday problems. It took several years but slowly, informally, we found ourselves arriving at a simple conclusion: it wasn’t important to do something great.

Instead, we decided to take this approach: do small things with great love. If we could do that, little opportunities to give might grow beyond our wildest dreams.

And that’s exactly what happened when Michael walked into our lives. We didn’t set out to take in a homeless kid. We just gave him a ride. He was the ultimate example of the Popcorn Theory.

Too often we think we lack the means to improve someone’s lot. We’re wrong. The Popcorn Theory doesn’t oblige all of us to write impressively large checks or take in every hungry child with a face like a flame. It only requires that we perceive the person standing right in front of us.”

I’ve never forgotten that.

I know that the Tuohy’s ideas about helping others starts in our own backyard, and this is what my friend reminded me in our conversation the other day. But at the same time, I believe that when God puts something in front of your face, even if it comes in the form of a People magazine article, when the voice is so loud, the tap so hard, there is a reason. I vividly remember just last week, that magazine spread open on the bathroom counter, looking down at the pages with James and Melanie’s pictures staring up at me.

I felt my chest tighten and the words jumped into my head: “Pay Attention.” I still can’t tell you what God’s voice sounds like (I’d expect a bit like Morgan Freeman’s), but I know those words were not my own. They were His. Of this, I am sure.

As I wrote my last blog post about what had just happened to me, I felt like a crazy person. I continued to feel like a crazy person when I spoke to James’ principal, Lino Rodriquez, on the telephone. He told me the article had made magical things happen: www.blessingsinabackpack.com received $50,000.00 in one week due to the publicity. He said that though there were many children at his school who had needs and could use help, this family was extraordinary, and he was so excited about all of the attention they were being given. He said the motel where they were living is truly dangerous, and they don’t go outside very often. He said they stick out like sore thumbs there, and the first step is helping them get out.

Realizing I could not find these folks a new place to live but wanting to do more than send them a gift card to Publix, I felt even crazier when I talked to the New York City based-writer of the People magazine article, Joanne Fowler, who may not have thought I was crazy but had to think I was something when she heard my thick, Southern accent come through the telephone lines. I found out she was recovering from a small surgery and in response said, “Bless your heart.” She giggled, but she didn’t hang up on me. Instead, she told me a little about the family’s background and what she felt were needs for James in particular: the first was a male mentor.  The second were day camps or classes or activities that could keep him stimulated, as he is curious little guy. Such opportunities could be just the right avenue to head off any potential trouble that can come from a child not having enough hobbies and living in crime and drug infested surroundings.

But I probably felt at my craziest when I dialed a telephone number in Orlando, Florida and heard Melanie’s voice on the other end. Within seconds, that crazy feeling turned to into a warmth, like a soft, worn quilt, mixed with an electric current….that feeling you get when you just know that something you are doing, something you are seeing, something you are experiencing, is just right.

With genuine excitement and tremendous relief, she told me that the first job offer she had gotten since she had been living in that motel had come that morning. The words came fast, so fast that I had to get her to email me the name of the town where she and her family may be moving, so that I could make sure I got it right. It is called Pinellas Park, which is very close to St. Petersburg, Florida. With this job offer, her new boss is going to secure housing for her. It is a dream come true: especially considering while spending 9 months in that horrible hotel, she filled out over 100 job applications and went on over 40 interviews. Especially considering that only 4 people could live in one room at the motel, so she had to send her 3 teenage children to live with their grandmother so she could take care of the little ones. Especially considering that during those 9 months, she found herself losing hope and finding herself in deep despair. She told me that in those moments, she and James would pray together at night and he would look at her and say, “Mama, it is going to be okay.” And now she can say back to him, “James, you are right. It is.”

While she told me about their struggles, she emphasized the unbelievable graciousness that people had shown to her, and the humility and utter awe at what people had done and were doing for them poured from her voice. One gift especially touched her: a woman in a similar situation, jobless, struggling, sent her ten dollars to buy fruit and vegetables for her children. Melanie told me that she would never spend that money. She said, “Marsha, when I have a house, I’m going to frame that ten dollar bill and hang it over my door so I can see it every time I walk outside to remind me of what that lady and so many others did for me. That woman doesn’t have anything, but she gave us what little she had to help our family. I know what ten dollars means when you are in the kind of situation we are in. I just can’t even tell you….” As her voice trailed off and I knew it was just too hard to talk, I realized what kind of person I was on the phone with. While recounting this selfless act of a stranger, she wept.

And I wept with her.

During our conversation, I told her that I had no idea what I could do to help her. I told her that I had never had this happen to me before, and I didn’t know where to start and I wish I could make her big promises, but I couldn’t. She didn’t seem to mind.

I told her that I wasn’t a preacher or a missionary or some extraordinary volunteer…she wasn’t talking to SuperChristian….and that I wasn’t so sure that God’s voice telling me to “Pay Attention” wasn’t meant for me, and not her. She seemed to know just what I meant.

Before we got off the phone, I asked Melanie to email me the name of the town where they believed they would be moving so I could tell anyone reading this and all of those praying for me to find God’s direction so we would know exactly where to concentrate our efforts. I also asked her to tell me the things she not only needed…immediate needs…but the things she dreamed of….the things that may seem too big to ask someone for. Here they are (in her words, just edited a little bit by me):

  • a van so she and her boys can get around and travel back and forth to Orlando
  • a Christian based daycare for her 6 month old and for James and Edward when they get out of school so she can work full time
  • to get off of medicine for diabetes
  • to have funds available so that no more of her kids would have to miss their 8th grade graduation, as her 13 yr old had to miss his
  • furniture and linens for them to sleep on
  • reading camp for James. He also is very interested in art and drawing; he loves basketball; possibly some drama classes as he is very creative
  • above all God’s Spirit and Peace

In her email, she called me her friend. What an honor for me.  Her son James may be extraordinary, but now I know where he got it from.

I know I may be biting off more than I can chew and that I do need to concentrate on what is happening (or not happening) in my own backyard. But in the countless hours I have spent thinking about and praying for this family, I was reminded of that story about the starfish, adapted from Dr. Loren T. Eiseley’s poem, “The Star Thrower.”

“There was a man who was walking along a sandy beach where thousands of starfish had washed up on the shore. He noticed a boy picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. The man observed the boy for a few minutes and then asked what he was doing. The boy replied that he was returning the starfish to the sea, otherwise they would die. The man asked how saving a few, when so many were doomed, would make any difference whatsoever?

The boy picked up a starfish and threw it back in the ocean and said, “Made a difference to that one…”

I’m determined to throw this one back into the ocean.

If you can help in any of the ways Melanie has asked for and is dreaming of, please email me at jewelryandjusticeforall@gmail.com, or if you have any connections to Pinellas Park, Florida, please let me know that as well. In advance, I thank you for just reading, and for anything you can and will do to help this family.

May we all be on the lookout for popcorn and starfish.

4 thoughts on “Popcorn and Starfish: An Update on James

  1. Your article is fantastic. I love the “Pay Attention” part. I have often felt that way myself. And it’s not something I can ignore. You said it so well in the whole blog. Very wise of you. Thank you for sharing.

    Where was the article where you first read about Melanie and James? I would love to read it, too. With your permission I would like to make copies of this particular blag to share with friends. It is very thought provoking.


    • Paula,

      Thank you so much for you kind, kind words. Of course, you are more than welcome to share anything on my blog with your friends. I appreciate that you would want to.

      Here is a link to the People article. http://www.blessingsinabackpack.org/peoplefirst2012

      Blessingsinabackpack.org is featured as one of People First, an organization that is partnering with People to feed hungry children. Amazing organization. Please share their information with your friends as well…you probably have heard of them…they are located in Louisville!

      Thank you again for your interest and comments. Means a lot to me.


  2. You article was fabulous! You articulated so well thoughts that I, and I’m sure many others, have had about “Paying Attention” to something. It’s something that can’t be ignored. With your permission I would like to make a few copies of your blog to share with some friends. I live in Louisville where we do have the “Blessings in a Backpack” program, but I don’t know how many of my friends know about it. I would like to help in some small way by educating them.

    In your blog you mentioned an article in a magazine that started all this. What magazine and when was the article? I would love to read it myself. I know that incident was the hand of God in your life. You must be a very special person to have paid attention as well as you did and follow-through. Bless you.


  3. Pingback: Surprise! God Answers Prayers! Let’s have 2 (Stella & Dot) Fundraising Parties to Celebrate! « jewelryandjusticeforall

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