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December 23, 2009

Joy, By Helen Plenert

By Helen Plenert

Seven years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed, amazed to be alive, depression knocking on the door, I made a commitment to find joy everyday. It’s that commitment to joy that led me to work at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services years ago.

I am the Manager of an art program for women who are going through hard times. "Hard times" is much more complicated than that very broad term. We tend to visualize the women working the streets or men panhandling at the intersections, and shopping carts with worldly belongings. I don’t expect an explanation from the women who come to this program but eventually their story comes out. Stories of illness, lost jobs, lost love, lost dignity, expensive medication and eventually, lost hope. I was surprised to find out that we have women who had worked in the legal field, military, medical field, and yes, state workers. Their illness, whether mental or physical, or income has sapped the joy out of their lives. They’ve come to this place to look for it among the art supplies.

This has been one of those days that I can only explain as pure Christmas joy. Monday morning I pack up 2 vans with women to go on a tour of the EPA building’s fabulous collection of art. One of my students, Judy, came running up last minute and apologizing for her late arrival. Our tour guides were waiting and took us up and down the 25 story building to view the amazing fabric art of Merle Serlin and glass art of Dale Chihuly. The women just stood in amazement at every turn.

Two hours later we were in the wonderful Ten22 restaurant in Old Sacramento. We were seated at a long conference type table to accommodate all 15 of us for lunch. The women were all buzzing about the art they had just experienced when the waiter brought bread to the table. The conversation went softer and soon to a dead silence. There is a sacredness to breaking bread among friends.

I was seated across from Judy and watched her slather the butter 1/2 inch thick on her slice. All I could think of was how much fat was on her bread. She took a bite and with pure joy in her voice said,” I haven’t had real butter in years.” Suddenly the whole fat in butter thing went out the window. We were all trying the butter and smiling the biggest smiles. We were instantly transformed into giggling little girls at a birthday party. When the soup arrived Judy spoke up again and started to explain that her sense of taste was coming back. She could actually taste the subtle flavors of the butternut soup. She had spent 20 years addicted to medication and eventually crack which ruined her sense of taste. For years her idea of a good meal was McDonalds. Judy is now clean with a new outlook on life and a new job. It’s a humbling job and I’ve never seen her happier.

The conversations at the table started up again and I really took to heart what Judy had said about the sense of taste. The women sitting at the table all around me have such different stories. We had 2 women in wheel chairs who didn’t want to miss our adventure. Neither one of them started out in the world in this condition. One worked as a civilian on the air base where she was severely and permanently injured. The other woman has Multiple Sclerosis. Each woman has a story and was eagerly spreading the joy to the others. The women in the group include injured military veterans, a medical doctor who gave up her practice because of her own illness, and mothers who spent 30 years raising children, in this group. One woman had a traffic accident that left her with no job, medical bills and no insurance.

How did this motley group get to a place where we could enjoy a tour of some of the best art in Sacramento and enjoy a beautiful meal where we are treated like princesses? Short answer is that the women earned it. While I was busy finalizing details for an art show, the women had created a cottage industry to raise money for their program, our program, Women’s Wisdom Art. When all was said and done and they handed me the money jar, I insisted we use it to have a fun-filled field trip.

Spreading the joy has become contagious in our classroom. Soon we will gather again for our annual Holiday Tea Party/gift exchange. This year I suspect we will be overflowing with joy and giggles as we all talk about our favorite moments in 2009.

Spread JOY daily, at least ½ inch thick, on everything you do and watch it blossom.

Merry Christmas.

For more information about Women’s Wisdom Art, a program of Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, please visit

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