Bob Carlson has a 12-inch scar along his right arm where cancer had burrowed under his skin, nearly reaching his bones. He watched the surgery, determined to stare down his disease.
And he vowed to live his life, one steeped in generosity, even as surgeons said the disease may come back, somewhere else where it will be harder to remove.
Despite this precarious situation, Carlson’s story of giving to others is a holiday miracle, as amazing as it is simple.
The story begins 30 some years ago. Carlson grew up in northeast Minneapolis. At age 12, his parents sent him to our summer camp, Camp Bovey, still operating to this day as part of East Side Neighborhood Services. Carlson describes the camp as his first reprieve from a difficult home life. At camp, he watched the counselors and learned an incredible lesson for a preteen: how to lead with firmness and kindness, not the bullying he witnessed at home.
This newfound sense of leadership stayed with Carlson over the years, motivating him to start his own company, Our Vision Recycling, which recycles and refurbishes computers.
He hasn’t forgotten to thank Camp Bovey, and this is the start of his miracle. He gives our agency computers. Lots of them. All for free.
Carlson not only acts like Santa Claus, he looks like Santa Claus. He’s a big man. His eyes twinkle.
Some of the computers Carlson donated to us have made their way into our job training and employment labs, where just this year Shkendi, an immigrant mother of two from Albania via Greece, was determined to learn computing skills, hone her résumé and find a job as a certified nursing assistant. In March, Shkendi landed a job at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System at Fort Snelling, a job she found with the help of Carlson’s donated computers.
Here’s where Carlson’s miracle comes in. Carlson is a vet. He received his cancer treatment at the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center at Fort Snelling. If his disease returns or his pain gets too severe, and he needs 24-hour care, Shkendi, the woman who found a job at the VA thanks to Carlson’s donated computers, could be his nurse.
Even now, when Carlson is at the VA for treatment or follow-up, he and Shkendi likely pass each other in the halls, each unaware of the other or how intertwined their lives are, how dependent and how grateful they are to each other.
In the quarter-century I have been executive director at Eastside Neighborhood Services, I have seen such coincidences, such miracles, a thousand times. Yet each is unique and special. Our agency is celebrating our 100th anniversary, also something of a miracle, given the ever-dwindling resources for social services funding.
And, incidentally, Shkendi says it is a miracle that she and her family now live in the U.S. She told me this is the one country that she knew would offer a better life for her children and that she and her husband were willing to go through 10 years of uncertainty in temporary housing and subsistence jobs in Greece just to make it here.
I tell people never to be ashamed of what they can afford to give. It can be a can of soup or a bar of soap. Or a pair of gloves. I tell them that the very act of giving will change them in ways they can never imagine. Bob Carlson says that by giving back to our agency, he is both a different man and a better man. Carlson’s donations helped create programs whose graduates may give him comfort if he fights recurring cancer, something he never anticipated. Grace awaits all who give.
So if you are thinking of giving something back to your community, stop thinking and start acting. There is never a better time than now. And remember, no matter what you give, your own holiday miracle will be set in motion.
Bill Laden is executive director of East Side Neighborhood Services.