Change of Outlook

By Jennifer Hoeneise
Michigan, USA

I participated in an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in 2001 through Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. In ASB, participants travel someplace during spring break to do volunteer work. Education is a primary focus of ASB; before break we learn about the issue we will volunteer with.

I spent that spring break in Atlanta working with AIDS patients. My group helped Project Open Hand prepare and deliver meals to homebound patients. We also helped one day in a daycare for children affected by the virus. (Either they had AIDS, or their caregiver did, or both.)

On the third day, Wednesday, three of my group members and I piled into the van to deliver coolers of food. Several meal recipients lived in high rises and some had specific instructions for delivery: leave food in cooler next to door, knock loudly, and similar.

One client had no cooler outside because someone had been stealing his food. There was a note next to his name to leave the food with his neighbor. “He must have just stepped out because I just saw him,” the neighbor told us.

We wanted to leave a note on his door so he would know his food was waiting next door, but we lacked pen and paper. We went down to the building lobby to find what we needed.

We had just finished writing the note and borrowing a piece of tape when I heard a voice behind me ask “Have you already been upstairs?” I turned and saw a frail-looking black man, very thin with hollow cheeks. He gestured to our large red cooler bags.

“Are you Paul?” one of my friends asked. “Yes, that’s me,” he answered. We told him we left the food with his neighbor. He thanked us and then said, “Don’t forget to smile, your smiles make the world a better place.”

Even now I feel a shiver run down my spine and tears well up in my eyes at the thought of Paul. You could tell by looking at his body that he was sick, but when you looked at his face you saw no fear, anger or pain. There was a wonderful shine in his eyes and a broad smile on his face.

Paul was sick, sick enough that he needed to have his food prepared and delivered to him, but he didn’t let that get him down. I went down to Atlanta to help people, but I never expected one of them to help me. Now whenever I face a tough situation I think of Paul and his undefeatable attitude. If he can look death in the eye and smile — then surely I can get through less difficult situations.

I knew that my ASB experience was going to change my outlook on life, but I am surprised that I can sum it all up in one sentence. Don’t forget to smile, your smiles make the world a better place.

Originally published as HeroicStories #311 on June 6, 2002

1 thought on “Change of Outlook”

  1. In the 90s, when the AIDS crisis was probably at its worst, I was working in clinical lab sales. One of the clients I had inherited from a previous rep was not ordering the way they used to, and I went in to talk about it. I discovered that his practice had been focused on hemophiliacs. The clotting medication provided to hemophiliacs had traditionally been produced using a batch method in the days before HIV testing became common. The supply had been tainted with HIV and an entire population was virtually wiped out by AIDS. Even today this still gives me shivers when I think about it. There is a play based on a true story called the Yellow Boat. I highly recommend seeing it, if you ever get a chance.


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