It had been a crazy week -- starting at 5 am every morning, falling into bed exhausted at 11 pm, only to start at 5:00 the next morning.
It was 2003, three years since we had founded the world's first diaper bank. Our executive director had resigned, and so it was left to me to "mind the store" until a replacement could be found.
I stepped into that position at the most hectic time of year -- the celebration of our 10th Annual December Diaper Drive, a month-long series of events to raise one million diapers for those in need.
With the turmoil of the executive director's departure, we were two weeks late getting our annual mailing out. We were a week behind in arranging for our big event. There was a grant deadline we had just learned about. And of course, there were all the normal day-to-day things of running a community benefit organization.
Friday afternoon at 4:00, the last deadline was done. But with our staff and volunteers in the other room feverishly finishing the mailing, I felt guilty saying, "I'm exhausted. I'm going home!"
So I started to sort the stack of mail that had accumulated during that week of insanity. Bills. Donations. Invitations. Junk.
And the next thing I did saved not just my whole day, but my whole week.
I went through that stack of donation envelopes, and I called every person who gave, thanking them for their gift.
This was nothing new for me. Since stepping into the position, I had called to thank every donor, no matter how small the gift. It took a few minutes every day, and mostly I ended up leaving messages. But it just always felt like the right thing to do.
It had been a whole week since I'd touched the mail from our annual campaign. The stack was high. I started dialing.
Many of the checks were for $5 and $10. Written and signed in shaky handwriting, those checks were usually from elderly folks on fixed incomes. Their $5 gift was dear to them. They were usually the first ones I'd call.
I had made a number of calls before I got to Mrs. Fontaine. When she finally picked up the phone, it was clear she was having trouble breathing. Picturing her struggling to get to the phone, I thought to myself, "Oh great. She has taken all her energy, thinking this is an important call, and it's just me." I felt guilty for bothering her.
"Is this Mrs. Fontaine?" I said.
"Mrs. Fontaine, this is Hildy from the Diaper Bank. We received your donation, and I just wanted to thank you."
Mrs. Fontaine was not happy. Clearly she thought I was calling to solicit her, probably to ask for more money. I don't blame her; that's probably how I would react if any charity I ever gave to thought to call and thank me. (Hint -- no charity I have ever given to has EVER called to thank me. Not one.)
I continued. "Your gift means a lot to us, and I really just wanted you to know that it will help a lot of people."
"But I only sent you $5!" I could hear her move from anger to confusion, but clearly she was softening up.
"But every penny counts!" I told her. "We just really appreciate your helping out, and I just wanted you to know that."
Now her voice was positively warm, surprised, happy. "Well thank you, honey. Really it is so nice of you to call. How very, very nice!" They say you can hear a smile over the phone, and I heard hers, loud and clear.
Mrs. Fontaine put me on a roll. I dialed with a fever. I forgot about the week behind me, where the mountain of work had overshadowed the reasons we were doing the work in the first place. I listened to donor after donor tell me what amazing things we were doing, and how they wished they could give us more. I heard THEM thanking ME, telling me how they appreciated what we do, encouraging us to keep it up, telling me how important it is.
I remember as if it were yesterday the smile I left with that evening. Yes, I was exhausted, and yes, I am quite sure my bed felt great that night.
But I had found a joy I never expected as I thought about clearing my desk. It wasn't the joy of finishing the job, or getting through the pile. It wasn't even the joy of remembering why we do the work we do.
It was the joyful sound a "thank you" makes when it lands in a donor's heart.