"My advice to this generation is -- give of yourself. There's no one who can't give something."--Mathilda Spak
Of all the people I have ever interviewed Mathilda Spak has to be one of the most extraordinary. At close to 100 years old, Mathilda is out there volunteering every day from morning till night. This feisty lady has more energy than people half her age even though she has severe arthritis and suffers from black-outs. Yet Mathilda completely relishes life. As she told me, "I'm having a ball!"
Every day Mathilda either takes a bus or gets a ride to one of her many pet projects. Pay attention to the following words of wisdom from this rare gem of a woman. People like her don't come along very often:
"I made a promise to my mother that I would work on myasthenia gravis-the fatal debilitating illness she died from-till I found out what caused it and how to cure it. I have been asking questions ever since. Twenty-five years ago I started a research project and we are getting closer to finding out the causes. We have been able to cut the death rate from 85% to 5%.
"I also work at the Children's Hospital in Long Beach, California. When babies who have been abused are brought to the clinic, their soiled clothes are thrown out and they end up being released wrapped in a towel. Can you imagine? When I saw that, I lost my temper. I told the people at the hospital, These children need decent clothes! So they put me in charge. I convinced a yarn company to donate skeins of yarn. Now I have members of different churches knitting beautiful blankets and sweaters for the babies. I also get donations of new clothing. Now every single baby goes home properly clothed, with a pretty new blanket.
"I also fund-raise for the City of Hope. Each year we have a Grand Prix fundraiser for 20 different charitable organizations. Hundreds apply to be included but the rule is that each organization can only participate every three years. A few years ago I made a deal with them to keep myasthenia gravis on their schedule every year. How did I convince them? I told them that I am in my nineties and I can't afford to wait around three years between cycles.
"I try to fit it all in. What I can't do at the office I take home. You have to stay busy, otherwise you get stagnant and you start to feel sorry for yourself. I also serve as a guide for the Long Beach Symphony, helping out when the children visit from schools.
"I got started on this path because my mother taught me from the time I was a child that you must always give back to the community in service. We had a little store in a poor neighborhood and my mother was always helping people. I learned it from her.
"There is a lot of goodness in people waiting to come out. One day I was on my way to work. I got off the bus and blacked out. Our office is in a very poor area of the city. Two down-and-out men came over and helped me. They could have stolen my purse and run away, but they didn't. I looked at them and said, Are you hungry? And they said yes. So I asked them come with me to the diner across the street and eat. But the men said, They won't let us in. And I said, Oh yes they will!! Watch! We went inside together and I would not take any guff from the waitress about serving them. We had a nice breakfast, then I gave the waitress a $20 bill and told her that she had to feed these men till the money ran out, and I would be back to check. The men ate all week long.
"I live every minute of my life as if it is the last, and I enjoy every second. I have two rules: At my funeral, anyone who sheds a tear will be haunted because I have lived a great life. The other rule is to continue my charity work.
"My advice to this generation is-give of yourself. There's no one who cannot give something. You can take care of a child, volunteer, help your neighbor. No excuses. My mother taught me you never say can't, and that's how I live. I have to walk with a cane. Big deal. So I buy myself fancy canes.
"Only by giving do you get back. My mother also taught me to only use the dollar for what good you can do with it, and to never turn away a hungry person.
"I get people to do all kinds of things. I go to the nursing home and have the older women knit for the babies. If someone says they can't help out, I ask for one Wednesday. But people started saying, don't let Mathilda ask you for one Wednesday or you'll be doing one Wednesday for the rest of your life! I have one man who has been doing one Wednesday for 40 years."
May Mathilda's story spark in you and your children a desire to get out there and make a difference. If you already are, please encourage people you know to join in. More than ever, the world needs all of us to care about each other and demonstrate our care through our actions. Small deed or large, what most matters is opening your heart and making a difference in any way you can.