"She’s the one who took a chance on me!” A foster youth hugs her supervisor as part of a "Gratitude Bus" trip where foster teens expressed appreciation to people who had made a difference in their lives. (Photo provided)

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ride in the “Gratitude Bus” alongside five foster youth. The five teens, ages 15-18, had earlier been challenged by I Pour Life, a local nonprofit, to think of people to whom they could express their appreciation. Gift bags were filled for each person, tailored to what the youth thought their special person would like. 

Two of the girls chose to recognize their first boss. Petrified that no one would ever hire them or even give them a chance, the two teenage girls said they were scared to death to go to their first day of work. Both bosses made the first day so easy and fun, they couldn’t wait to go back the next day. The two loved their jobs and wanted to show their appreciation for grace extended to them. 

As we pulled into the local YMCA, the first young girl quickly pointed to a woman nearing the bus, “There’s my special person! She’s the one who took a chance on me!” Everyone cheered for the YMCA supervisor as she took a moment away from work to be recognized. Humbled and grateful for the recognition, the supervisor waved as she headed back to work. 

A manager at Popeyes hugs a young boy who was part of a group on hand as a foster teen expressed gratitude to the manager for supporting her. (Photo provided)

Our next stop was Popeyes. The bus group unloaded and waited for the second girl to take steps toward the front door. A little nervous, the teen giggled as she approached the door. As she began pulling open the door, she could see a few customers inside. Soon she saw her Popeyes manager and immediately started crying out of appreciation for her boss’ kindness. As our group gathered around cheering for the amazing Popeyes manager, she was overcome with gratitude for being recognized and cried alongside the youth. Seriously, there wasn’t a dry eye at Popeyes! Customers stood applauding and cheering as the teenage girl and manager hugged in appreciation for each other. 

Exercise in mutual love and admiration

The third teenage boy wanted to thank his caseworker. This youth knew he had been hard to handle but the caseworker hadn’t given up on him. The caseworker had stuck by the youth through thick and thin. We entered the youth group home and waited for the caseworker to appear. Once he did, our gratitude crew whistled and cheered as the caseworker and young boy embraced in the sentimental moment. Wow, I couldn’t hold back the tears as we all felt the mutual love and admiration between the two. The unconditional love and support were beyond this moment. Years of building trust and love were captured that day.

As we later approached a weathered home in a central neighborhood, the excitement from the fourth youth was unmatched by the others. She was bouncing in her seat and could hardly wait for the bus to stop. The female girl hopped out of the bus, ran up to the door and within seconds a lady stepped out. The teen couldn’t hold back her thankfulness, for when she was homeless, this lady took her in. The young girl said, “I had no place to go but this amazing lady let me stay at her house until I found a place to live.” Tears of joy, happy jumping, and people twirling around all took place on the front porch. We all were celebrating the selflessness and kindness of this amazing lady who saw a need and did something about it. 

One young man writes thank you notes as part an exercise where foster youth were challenged to think of people to whom they could express their appreciation. (Photo provided)

As we loaded back into the bus, I noticed the fifth young man who was holding red roses and a small bag of lotions and soaps. He sat in the front row of the bus, watching the front window as we neared his person’s stop. We pulled behind the pizza place and the bus stopped. The teenage boy sat for a moment in his seat. While the other teenagers had immediately jumped out, this young boy was hesitant. I asked, “Are you alright?” He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head yes. 

Alone he stepped out of the bus and knocked on the back door. We all stayed on the bus and waited. Soon another lady stepped outside to meet the boy. The teenage boy immediately gave her the flowers and gift bag. The lady stood stunned, just looking at him. Soon after small talk, the two hugged each other, shared a few more words, and then the teen hopped back on the bus. Others on the bus patted him on the back conveying their support for his courage. 

But who was that woman in his life? His birth mom, whom he had never met. The youth found her on social media and wanted to meet in person. He had finally thanked her for being his birth mom. 

Unashamed approach to express thanks

My heart was filled to the brim with gratitude. These sweet foster kids showed me how to express genuine gratefulness. I will never forget their unashamed approach to expressing their appreciation for opportunity, kindness, love, and family. 

We never know what story a person is carrying and the heaviness it brings today. However we have an opportunity to recognize people that cross our paths with kindness. Who in the past has shown kindness and love to you, that a simple thank you note, text or phone call would make their day? 

‘Tis the season to host your own gratitude day. Take the time and be intentional with ways to express your thankfulness. 

One act, one word, or one expression can change the moment for someone. And, as my grandma always said, “A kind word can warm a cold winter day.”

Julie Higgins

Julie G. Higgins is a Springfield entrepreneur and a partner in Higgins Business Consulting. Her mantra is: “Teach with your life.” Follow her on Twitter: @julieGhiggins or email her at: juliehigg@yahoo.com More by Julie Higgins