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Stop and think a minute: There are people you owe something to.

All over this country, people could tell you a story of someone that helped them once--or maybe more than once--but significantly.

A teacher that pushed you to try harder; a parent or sibling that let you be scared in front of them so you could be brave in front of everyone else later.

Here’s a big one--a stepparent or foster parent who didn’t keep to the guidelines of being a “partial” parent and sacrificed above and beyond what was expected with time, money, patience and faith.

All of these people extended a hand of guidance and confidence to you and, typically of such friends, expected nothing in return.

But what if instead you gave them something in return; told them that you remembered that they made a difference in your life and that you simply wanted to let them know you are here today and where you are today because they were there for you back then.

I did this one year at Christmas, and it was the most rewarding experience I could have imagined.

First, I wrote to my sixth-grade teacher. She had been one of the first to crack a smile at my sarcastic humor. When something would happen in class and she’d glance at me, I would give her that Johnny Carson deadpan stare like, “Yeah, OK, this person has lost their mind,” and she would bite her lip not to laugh out loud.

Her willingness to let me be myself gave me a lot of confidence going into junior high school. I sent her a holiday card and told her so.

I got a letter back within the same week that just gushed with emotion and gratitude for writing to her. She had long since retired and seemed so happy to relive those days, if only for those few moments.

Then there was a guy who was a mentor in my last year of college. He helped me find my first job and we grew incredibly close in the six months that I was his intern.

After I moved back to Cleveland after college, we’d been out of touch for many years. My note told him of my current career accomplishments and how the skills he had helped me hone were still being used today.

Again, I got a response within three days, and he was ever so grateful for the words I had provided and the favorable light I shone on our history together.

As the years have passed, I have found this reaching back to become a habit. I have done it often and for people significant in my children’s lives, as well.

For instance, there was a former football coach my son had looked up to when he was 10 years old. I’d called upon him to back me up when that same boy had come up against some discipline problems at school.

I’d called him for a little “back-up” and good old Coach answered the call and came in like a SWAT team.

A Southern-raised Christian he was proud to be, and his booming voice filled and echoed in my wood-floored home as my son stood shivering on the second-floor landing. A firm disciplinarian, he didn’t even wait until the kid cleared the steps before he started reminding him of how fortunate he was that his parents didn’t believe in paddles or belts.

“If you were my boy, you’d be unable to sit right now,” he bellowed.

Ten years later, when that son of mine graduated from the police academy, that coach and his wife were in the front row watching my boy finish with honors.

The letter he got from us that Christmas hit the mark. His wife tells me it is framed at home and sits over his desk.

See, it is not an expensive thing, this gift you can give. It simply is an expression from your heart and one that most of us rarely receive.

It is a simple token that speaks volumes about your conscience and the value of properly receiving a gift instead of just knowing how to give one.

When these people are taking time for you, they are giving the gift of themselves; it is a choice they have made to donate that to you. You mustn’t ever squander such a present.

Imagine what a lovely surprise to find that you acknowledge that gift perhaps years after they gave it to you.

I befriended an older man named Andy when I was about 35. He was widowed, and I won’t identify him any further for his family’s sake, but needless to say, he had some shadows in his life that haunted and saddened him.

One evening at one of my backyard fires he explained, after some probing, that after the loss of his first wife, he was so low that he probably married the second time in the hopes of simply relieving his depression.

His second wife had also been widowed and had two young daughters from her first marriage. Andy had never been a parent before, but evidently tried his best to stand in as one for the girls. Yet their rejection of him was constant.

He became relegated to simply paying their bills, providing well for them and never getting a thank you. He paid both of their college tuitions in full.

Years later, as fate would have it, the girl’s mother passed on before Andy, and once she was buried and her possessions split out, he never heard or saw from the girls again.

In time, Andy had a stroke, and another several months later. Unable to speak, he was visited by friends and family in a nursing home and I reached out to his stepdaughters and left voicemail messages explaining that if they wanted to say goodbye, it might be best they do so soon.

I never heard back from either of them, but one evening—actually, my last visit before he passed on--a member of the nursing staff said that “a fortyish woman had stopped by with her children and stayed only a few moments.”

Clutched in Andy’s hand that day was a family photo of a husband, wife and three children. He tried to indicate to me who was in the photo, and as I filled in the blanks in this game of charades we always played when he wanted to make a point, he nodded and smiled so happy AND SO PROUD to know they had finally acknowledged all he had done for them.

Andy slipped into a coma about 10 days later and died a month after that. I phoned the girls again to let them know and the call was not returned. But I did leave a message that whoever had come to introduce him to their family had made his whole attitude different and provided him with the fact that he’d made a difference and had a life worth living.

He died believing he had purpose and had served a greater good.

Holidays are almost over, friends. Whose life can you change today? How about yours?

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

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