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As a hardcore road warrior for ten plus years, I had learned to find subtle joys in traveling. I’ve been able to find positives in seeing new cities, meeting new people, and embracing the unknown. Despite these benefits, there are certain parts of travel that were really difficult to appreciate. The long hours, being away from family, missing the kid’s sports and events, the list goes on. As most road warriors can attest traveling on a Sunday is the worst. It takes away that one day where you can focus on your family and what is important.
Sure enough, I needed to fly out on a Sunday to a city that made missing the family even that much more difficult – Orlando. Now don’t get me wrong, Orlando is a great place to travel – with your family. But when you leave your kids at home and all you see if happy families all over the place, it makes the trip fairly depressing. So flying on a Sunday, to Orlando was a double negative. I was in a pretty bitter mood while I paced around the airport.
After my prayer, I walked into an airport convenient store to grab a bottle of water. As soon as I closed the door to the stores drink display, a fellow traveler’s suitcase tipped over and whacked me right on the side of my leg. I chuckled to myself and thought how the person who hit me with their suitcase better be thankful that I just tried to put myself in a good mood. As I bent down to pick up this stranger’s suitcase, I almost fell over when I noticed that the suitcase belonged to an elderly nun. I am not Catholic, but I couldn’t believe that happened right after a prayer. I stood up straight and told the nun that I was going to treat her to anything she wanted in the store. I will never forget that she bought a water and a KitKat bar. She was almost overly thankful as we walked out the store. I thought that was my sign that I needed to be in a better mood and get over my pity party.
As I went back to my gate, more good news happened. I was upgraded to first class! Now this happens a lot to frequent flyers, especially on weekend flights. But this news, coupled with the encounter with the nun had given me a totally different attitude than what I was experiencing an hour ago.
When they started boarding I went to row six, on the left-hand side of the plane next to the window. I started getting everything prepped for the flight when my seatmate started to sit down. She was a lady, maybe around 60 years old, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. With my new found positivity I gave her a pleasant hello. She responded with a ‘whatever’. I once again found myself chuckling internally, and thought ‘Wow – she is having a worse day than I was’. As I reached for my headphones, she placed a hand on my knee and apologized for her reaction. Turns out she had been traveling overnight from Asia and this was her 4th flight in the last 24 hours. She said ‘whatever’ as she was not sure if it was morning, afternoon, or the evening. What happened during the rest of the flight changed my attitude forever.
For some reason my seatmate, Brenda Lee, started sharing her life story with me. She grew up poor in a small town in Ohio, and ended up getting married. After the marriage, money continued to be tight. She showed me pictures of their home. It was essentially a very small house that was painted white. It reminded me of a mobile home, minus the wheels.
Brenda and her husband were desperate to take a nice vacation. So they saved and saved until they were able to afford a trip to St. Thomas. As luck would have it, a hurricane blew through the Caribbean shortly before their trip. They debated on whether or not they should take the trip, but ultimately elected to.
When they arrived in St. Thomas, the damage from the hurricane was still fairly substantial. Repair work was going on everywhere they looked. Brenda told her husband, who was a tile layer, that they should stay as there was plenty of work that he could find. Sure enough he was able to land a job. His first job was putting down tile at a hotel. Turns out that in St. Thomas, at the time, all tile layers were paid by the hour. In the States, Mr. Lee was paid by the job. This seemingly minor detail ended up changing their lives. Mr. Lee became highly sought after since he worked at such a faster pace than others. He was able to find so much work that he was able to start his own tile company. As things continued to progress, Mr. Lee ended up buying one of the hotels that he first worked on. Over the years they were able to buy additional hotel properties. They went from a low income household to successful business owners. As their fortunes started to build, Brenda and her husband made a promise to each other. That promise was that when one of them passed away, the surviving spouse was going to give away all of their money to those in need.
Brenda’s husband had passed away just over 10 years since I met her. They had accumulated a net worth of several million dollars. What she did with that money is as inspiring as anything I have ever heard. Brenda had saved over 4,000 women from the sex-trade industry. She was able to work with the company, Singer, to give these ladies refurbished sewing machines. These women were then able to sell clothes, to help provide for themselves. Brenda had adopted over 30 orphans and took them in as if they were her own. She worked with homeless people on the island. But one story that she told, stuck with me like no other.
Brenda started out by asking me if I had heard of the company called Office Max. Keep in mind that she lived in St. Thomas, so this was a perfectly logical question for her to ask me. I laughed when she asked as I had spent the first decade of my career selling pens and pencils for Office Depot. Therefore I knew a ton about Office Max. She then went on to explain that when Office Max received returns these items were either salvaged, liquidated, or even destroyed. Brenda knew this because Office Max had started sharing, with Brenda, their returned items that they couldn’t resell. Rather than throwing items away, they gave them to Brenda so that she could give them to the kids in the orphanages that she took care of.
Over time, Office Max, started giving Brenda new items. One of these items was several cases of the 64-pack of Crayola’s. Brenda took these crayons to an orphanage in Ghana. As she pulled out the first box, a little boy ran up to her. She said that he was so excited to get his first ever crayons. As he opened the box, the boy began to hand out a single crayon to all of the other orphans. He was giving out each kids’ favorite color. After handing out 63 crayons, the boy was left with just a single black crayon. Despite this being a color nobody wanted, this boy was thrilled. Even though Brenda had enough crayons to give every child their own box, she was so struck by this child’s act of kindness that she waited another day to pass out the rest of the Crayola’s.
She came back to the orphanage the next day and the children had drawn her numerous pictures. As she looked at each picture, she realized that these were probably the first drawings that many of the kids had ever drawn. As I was listening to this story, I was so humbled. I reflected back to my bad mood and the prayer that I had in the airport. At first I thought the nun hitting me with her suitcase was my sign, but it turned out Brenda was.
Brenda went on to tell me how she started working with restaurants in the United States. She would have the restaurants send her the barely used crayons that kids would use while they were waiting for their meals to arrive. She said in America we throw away so many things that people in other parts of the world would love to have. I thought about how many times my own daughters had colored a picture in a restaurant only to throw away the crayon 10 minutes later.
As we started our approach to land, Brenda turned her body and said there was something she wanted to show me. She slightly pulled down her sweatshirt and showed me a visible lump right above her bra line. Turns out Brenda went to Asia to see if they had any alternative procedures for curing the cancer that she had. Our plane touched down, and as I carried Brenda’s luggage across the airport terminal, I knew I needed to start giving back in a bigger way.
Broken Crayon was started as a legacy to Brenda, and all the other people like her in the world. We are focusing on many of the same areas as Brenda did; orphans in Ghana, homeless and underprivileged children here in the States. The story of teaching someone to sew, where they could sell clothes resonates as well. One of main focuses is to provide education, while also instilling entrepreneur skills in children so that they can break the cycle of poverty. This is a charity where no one takes a salary, or sits in an office. Rather everything that is donated is being shared with children that are in need.