Let me tell you about a woman I know named Susan Haines.
Hers is the kind of story you'll want to hear if you can't afford the $200 Wii that little Andre has his heart set on, no matter how steep the Black Friday discount. It's a story you should hear if you're struggling to find something to be merry about.
Susan, you see, won't be shopping for gifts this weekend. Can't afford to.
But she's convinced she still has something to give.
I met her about a year ago as she prepared for surgery. She was in constant pain, her body rejecting her breast implants. She had gotten them in 2006, after having a double mastectomy because of tumors and a family history of breast cancer.
She had the implants removed on Dec. 15, 2008 — just a few days after her mother died suddenly. Still recovering from the surgery, Susan couldn't even travel to attend the funeral.
Needless to say, the holidays weren't a particularly festive time last year.
Not only was she in a bad place physically, but financially. Earlier that year she had moved here from Indiana and landed a job in health insurance. But her new position didn't pay nearly as much as she made in Indiana. In Tampa, she couldn't afford a condo on Harbour Island or one of those new townhouses surrounded by restaurants and little shops in the suburbs.
The 49-year-old settled into a University area studio apartment not far from Nebraska Avenue and a community with a reputation for drug dealers and prostitutes.
The tight budget. The mastectomy. The implants and the pain. Her mother's death.
"Why me?" she wondered.
Now fast forward to the present. I run into Susan at church over the weekend. Her smile is wide. She's eager to show me some pictures on her cell phone. I see images of cardboard boxes adorned with butterflies.
She got the boxes from her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield, she explains. The company bought new computers, and the cardboard packages that held keyboards and other accessories were shaped like jewelry boxes.
Susan got an idea.
She loaded them into her Hyundai Accent and headed home, where she had craft supplies that she hadn't used in awhile. For more room, she took her project outdoors, on a grassy area near the entrance to her apartment complex, and used the hedged bushes as a work table. She began painting the boxes. Then she'd cut butterflies and other designs from wallpaper trim.
Soon, neighbors in the complex were stopping by, offering help. One lady brought over a gob of what looked like Gasparilla beads to add to the boxes. The landlord offered to give extra paint, if needed.
And so, despite no budget for gifts or extravagance, Susan continues crafting her boxes. She'll likely go to a dollar store and get basic toiletries to put inside, she says. She plans to finish 35 by Christmas, although she isn't sure yet whom she'll give them to.
Now, Susan says, "I'm happier than I've ever been."
Years ago, "if you would have told me that this is where I would've been living and everything going on in my life, I wouldn't have believed it," she said.
The past year, however, brought a change — not in her circumstances but something on the inside.
She saw the man who had only one leg and a shopping cart hobbling along; she befriended the lady who had been addicted to drugs, did hard time in prison, then turned her life around.
"By the grace of God," she thought, "I don't have an addiction."
She started noticing neighbors in her complex walking along the street because they didn't have cars.
"Hey, do you need a ride?" she'd ask.
From her neighbors, Susan says, she got something more valuable in return: the inspiration to push on.
"Those that have so much less than me, I see them not giving up; it tells me not to give up."
One of her boxes has already found a home. A wide-eyed little girl walked by with her aunt as Susan was decorating one day.
Susan handed her one of the boxes.
Days later, Susan says, the aunt returned to tell her that the little girl was so happy that she had started putting everything she could find into her new little cardboard box.
Sharon Tubbs can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or [email protected]