“What’s your untold story about gratitude?”
That’s the question on the sign. It seems simple enough, but each person who sat down seemed unsure of how to answer.
Truth be told, the word “untold” psyches some people out. They figure it means their story has to be profound or momentous on a large scale.
While each person interviewed is a stranger, there will be something familiar in their story; how it resonates with you may uncover a connection to a complete stranger that you never thought possible.
Vincent Parham is grateful for perspective.
Vincent Parham just graduated college, but just three years ago he was homeless.
“It’s crazy because it’s not something you think about in regard to yourself unless it happens to you,” Vincent said.
Vincent was living with his mom in Kennesaw when she lost her job. He tried to get a job to help out, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads. Before long, he and his mom were living in the car and couch surfing at friends’ houses.
“You look around on the street and see people with their toes hanging out of their shoes or their clothes are falling off and you wonder how they get in that position. It’s totally something that can happen to anyone,” he says.
Things were hard for Vincent and his mom for a while. Not having a place to call home was definitely a problem, but Vincent said not having the distraction of material things helped him to stay focused on the goals ahead and allowed him to channel his energy into working on himself.
“That’s really the only way out of the situation,” he says. “You gotta pull up your bootstraps and work for it.”
Together, Vincent and his mom put in the work to change their circumstance. He took on two jobs and his mom found steady employment. Vincent earned his bachelor’s degree in music production and is now looking for work in the field.
Vincent knows firsthand how difficult it can be to climb out of poverty, but he says the experience gave him something invaluable: perspective.
“I still have trivial problems that I worry about, but I just remind myself every day that I wake up in an apartment now,” he says.
He shares that apartment with a roommate: his mom. And where many twenty-somethings may view living with a parent as a drag, Vincent is able to give a little perspective to that situation too.
“Honestly, it’s not that bad and you can have worse roommates than your parent,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t meet her on Craigslist, so it worked out.”
Sylvia Lee is grateful for second chances.
“Gratitude, what a beautiful word to use,” Sylvia Clark says looking at the sign next to her chair. She’s analyzing the words, as if they may provide some inspiration.
“You caught me off guard,” she says, “I might not be so good for this.”
A few seconds later, Sylvia’s expression changed and a smile appeared on her face.
“I’m breast cancer free. God gave me a second chance.”
On November 3, 2017, Sylvia Lee beat breast cancer. It marked the end of an exhausting stint of radiation and chemotherapy treatments and involved a surgical procedure to remove cancerous portions of her breast and lymph nodes.
“I was devastated. I just couldn’t believe I had cancer of all things,” recalling the moment back in April of 2014 when the doctors gave her the diagnosis. “I was really crushed, but I had to get to thinking about how I had to fight for my life. I couldn’t stay in that moment too long because it was very important that I get on track to fight for my life.”
Sylvia went to three different hospitals collecting opinions and treatment options from doctors around the Atlanta area. Eventually chose to undergo treatment at Grady Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where Sylvia was born decades earlier. Sylvia’s second chance at life came at the same place where her life began.
The symbolism isn’t lost on Sylvia. She ultimately credits God for saving her life, but knows there was some divine intervention working through the hands of the medical staff.
“He gave the doctors the knowledge to be able to surgically remove the tumor out of there. And the nurses they were good, right her at Grady Hospital over there,” she said while gesturing toward the hospital that sits just blocks away from where she was sitting during this interview.
“I’m ecstatic to be a survivor. That’s why I was in a cheerful mood when I came past you guys,” she said with an unmistakable tone of joy.
“So many people don’t make it, and I’m one of the ones that did, so I’m very grateful for that and I give praise to my God, Jesus Christ, because he saved my life.”
Olivia Nelson is grateful for compassion.
“I’m just gonna go off the cuff. Let’s do this,” Olivia Nelson said. She was scribbling her thoughts on a notepad in preparation for her interview, but she stopped and set it aside.
Olivia is originally from California, but came to Atlanta to study English at Georgia State University. She has ambitions to continue her studies abroad, and stays in tune with current events and global politics but Olivia admits she was getting disillusioned by what she was seeing.
“I think as a society we’ve become very desensitized to violence and corruption and other entirely unacceptable acts that seem to happen every day,” Olivia explained. “Every day I wake up and think ‘what’s next?’” It’s a question that’s permeating her personal life as well.
Olivia will be graduating soon and is facing an internal crisis that most students experience: What’s next? She was recently denied a couple scholarships that she had applied for and the rejection took a toll on her confidence.
Figuring out what’s next was proving to be a challenge. But then, a little over a week ago, something happened that nearly eliminated the need to make future plans.
Olivia was hit by a car.
Thankfully, Olivia wasn’t seriously injured. The car knocked her down and she was bruised and sore, but insists her injuries weren’t “a big deal.” The real impact came after the driver pulled over.
He asked if Olivia was alright and then he hugged her.
“It was a traumatizing experience, but the fact that his first inclination was to get out and hold me and ask if I was ok.. it restored my faith in humanity a little bit,” she says.
The man’s compassionate embrace didn’t just bring Olivia comfort in that moment, it gave her the strength to stand up after being knocked down and helped her realize that she’s ok. All the things Olivia had been internalizing—the negativity from the news cycle, the scholarship rejections, the fear of what’s next—seemed more manageable now.
“Since that point, I’ve seen a lot more compassion around me and I think that it’s about acknowledging it because it’s easy to get down about the world,” said Olivia. “All we have is each other and I’m grateful for that.”
Carolyn Carnes is grateful for fellowship.
It’s Christmas morning in 2014 and Carolyn Carnes is trying to convince a homeless man to take the clothes she’s offering him.
It’s become a tradition for Carolyn and her children to pass out food and clothes to the homeless every Christmas morning with other members of their church. Opening presents can wait. Give first. Receive later. That’s the rule at the Carnes’ house.
But this man is refusing the things Carolyn is giving. The reason wasn’t obvious to her at the time, Carolyn recalls during our interview, but it was to her son Cody.
“As adults, we sometimes don’t pay attention,” Carolyn said. “This little 13-year-old saw things we didn’t see.”
The homeless man told Carolyn the only thing he had to carry around the new clothes in is a garbage bag. It’s unreliable and lugging loose articles of clothing would be a hassle once it ripped.
While Cody listened to the man’s story, he saw two rolling suitcases come off the back of the donation truck. Then, the idea hit him. It wasn’t a particularly earth-shattering thought. In fact, the best word to describe it is “practical,” but it could make a big difference.
“Mom?” Cody asked on the car ride home, “Wouldn’t it be cool if every person that was homeless had a rolling suitcase?”
Carolyn eyed her young son. He was a typical 13-year-old boy, but he lacked the stereotypical selfishness that accompanied the age. She was proud of him and grateful for the influence the church has had on her son.
“I’m very grateful for the way that my church has grown my son’s heart into thinking that way because as a parent, that’s what we want for them, but don’t always direct them in the right place,” Carolyn says. “I have a group of people who have guided him in that direction.
Feeding the homeless that Christmas morning inspired Cody to create That’s How We Roll. The following year in 2015, Cody had 100 rolling suitcases ready to give away at his church’s annual Christmas morning outreach. In 2016, Cody collected 200 suitcases.
Carolyn says each suitcase is “collected from average people like you and I that have that one suitcase out of the five that you never use.” They even have a church member repair and refurbish the donated suitcases so they will be in top working order for their new owners.
“Last year when we went, we had a grown man stand there and cry. He has suitcases for his whole family. We kind of take that for granted.”
That’s How We Roll has given away 300 rolling suitcases in three years. This year, Cody is working to match that amount in a single year and is on a mission to collect 300 suitcases by Christmas morning.
“Everyone in the body of our church has poured into my son,” Carolyn says. “If we give more than we take in, we are rewarded and we don’t even know it.”
If you’re interested in donating, check out That’s How We Roll on Facebook to find out how.