Seventeen years ago, Jonathan Smith and his family started “The Lighted Christmas Balls” tradition in their hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. What started out as a fun-family project has turned into word-of-mouth coast-to-coast initiative, raising $48,139.00 dollars and 32,118 pounds of food in the past six years alone to feed families, children and folks in need.
Happily married to the love of his life for 42 years, Jonathan is a father of two, grandfather to five children under the age of 7, financial advisor and altruist who wildly enjoys his family (including his 2 dogs), refrigerator art his grandkids create and making new things out of old things.Tipped off to Jonathan’s altruistic side through our community (Jonathan publishes the Never Give a Dollar a Day off ) I just had to learn more about his project.
Not many people are able to transmit the enthusiasm and positive vibes as Jonathan Smith did during our conversation, and after only a few minutes into our first call, I knew he and his story were going to be simply magical! Enjoy!
You started the Lighted Christmas Balls tradition with your family; what was its main purpose and did you ever expect it to grow this much?
To be sure, it was all about our family in the beginning: college-aged daughter, high school-aged son, my wife and me, shared fun, decorating our yard for Christmas, building traditions. For years it was just us and there wasn’t a social-good aspect built in. It was just about creating memories and a family tradition.
But it wasn’t long before neighbors and friends and the local newspaper caught the magic and we realized that true fellowship really is inclusive. So we moved our backyard workshops to the front yard and got a permit to close down the street for a Sunday afternoon block party/ball making workshop. Just before the workshop, a neighbor said, “Let’s have a canned good collection at the workshop,” we said sure, grinned and replied “What’s the worst that could happen?”
When the party was said and done, we had taken in 527 pounds of canned goods and a several hundred dollars for the local soup kitchen. Where before the workshop the Lighted Christmas Balls had beauty and merriment and good will, now they had real life. And the same neighbor said, “Why don’t we leave the food collection trailer out in the front yard for the whole month?” So we grinned wider and dragged the trailer to the front yard with a sign on it that read: “Donate Canned Goods for Food Banks.” And by month’s end, fans and friends of the Lighted Christmas Balls had deposited 2,974 pounds of canned goods and $734 for donation.
That was six short years ago and honestly, I never thought to it would grow like this. Not in my wildest dreams. When I find an idea I like I often say, “What happens if this idea turns out 100 times better than we think?” And The Lighted Christmas Balls, in its short 17 year existence, has been one of those 100 times better, maybe 1,000 times better-than-we think-ideas.
What could you share with us about the reason why you keep this tradition? What drives you to continue this tradition year after year?
Seeing joy ripple out and into others. Seeing old, young, rich, poor, male and female, from every background, belief, walk of life, race, religion and ethnicity fill five collection depots in 2012 with 10,003 pounds of canned goods and money enough to buy 169,183 meals for the hungry. Seeing people who might not agree on many things agree that feeding the hungry in our midst matters. Our blog has captured lots of these images.
My friends and I are passionate about making positive differences. We’re relentless about taking hold of something bigger than ourselves and sharing it with others.
A community is made up of people with diverse backgrounds and opinions, what are some ways members of a community overcome differences and unite to do good?
We had a TED talk recently in our hometown around a central theme: IDEAS WORTH SHARING, on the belief that shared ideas harness the collective power of a community and helps it identify its dreams and goals. And so 200 people filled out Imagine When cards (which arose from a project named Imagine Installation, begun in Winston Salem, NC in 2011) to record our dreams and discover what others have shared. Instead of writing about hunger, say, you would write, “Imagine When…every child has plenty of healthy, delicious food every day.”
So, let’s say we want to do something for our community but we don’t know where to begin, can you share some advice with us?
I’d say grab a friend or two and spend some time talking to folks in civic clubs, churches/synagogues, food banks, public transportation systems, hospitals and clinics about what really hurts in your community. Then go out on scouting expiations and strike up conversations wherever you see hurting people. You will find different needs in different communities, but if you follow your hearts and honor everyone’s contributions, you’ll land in the right places.
You have been a Financial Advisor for many years, what kind of lessons have you acquired by helping people manage their wealth and how have those lessons helped with you leading the tradition of the Lighted Christmas Balls?
Money, I believe, is a renewable resource, like air, soil, trees and water. But if money lies fallow, it soon runs out. But if we learn to live beneath our means, so to speak, when we find and remove the failure ingredients and employ our capital wisely, then money has a chance to grow. The Lighted Christmas Balls are magical and all, but the lesson for me, is to see how much joy a single strand of mini Christmas lights can produce.
Aside from being a Financial Advisor, you also serve as a trustee for the Greensboro Symphony Endowment Fund and as a board member of the Greensboro Children’s Museum and Edible Schoolyard. What have these experiences taught you regarding community building?
These resources are true community gems and reinforce my dedication to be involved in things bigger than myself. What comes to mind first about community building is that true collaboration honors everyone’s contributions. The other thing that comes to mind is that people of all ages yearn to be bound together in heroic purposes, and community building is so much bigger than an endowment fund or children’s museum, or even one’s self.
We’d love to hear some of your anecdotes about the Lighted Christmas Balls. Can you share some?
One cold night my friend Gardner and I went outside to box up that night’s harvest of non-perishable food items before the rain soaked cereal and macaroni boxes, bags of rice and flour and canned goods labels. It’s not unusual to find small bags with one or two items in it, but this particular brown bag looked like it had been used.
We looked inside and saw two small cans of deviled ham, half a sleeve of Saltine crackers fastened with a twist tie and a well-worn pair of work gloves. A little too indignantly I said out loud, “Who put this in here?” And in the cold, dark silence of falling rain, Gardner’s eyes met mine. “That was somebody’s lunch for tomorrow; they gave everything they had…”
Another stands out.
The mother of Hannah, whose 13th birthday was the day of the workshop, called to ask if Hannah and 10 girlfriends could come and make Lighted Christmas Balls; “Were we set up for this sort of thing?” the mother wanted to know. It turned out that Hannah had instructed her girlfriends she wanted canned goods, not the usual UGG boots, concert tickets or iPhone accessories a 13 year old usually wants.
So the mother, Hannah and her 10 girlfriends arrive with three bags of groceries in tow and in this crowd of 200 I would say that probably only a few knew what Hannah and her friends were up to.
The next day, a stranger in an old blue pickup truck stops in front of my house and gives me a big manila envelope; there’s no return address or addressee. “Here,” he said, “if you’re the guy who had the ball workshop.”
I thanked him and he quickly disappeared out of sight. I opened the envelope and took out a hand-written letter that was wrapped around a bank-teller’s envelope. “Dear Sir,” it started, “I heard about a high school girl who had a birthday party and then returned all her presents and took the money to buy food for the poor (he had the basic story right, and I followed to see what else he said). It renews my faith in mankind, and in teenagers in particular, when I hear of someone who realizes how lucky in life they are. So I want you to send my money wherever you sent hers. Signed, a friend.”
I opened the bank envelope. I counted out all the twenties, tens, fives and ones. This was not fresh, brand new money from an ATM. This was hard saved, once crumpled now straightened money, all bills face up, three-hundred dollars in all.
In the hands Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, for every $1 donated, they distribute $12 worth of food, which is the equivalent of seven nutritious meals. Hannah, her friends and the stranger in the old blue pickup truck bought supper for 2,100 people that night. What a birthday party!
Jonathan, how can someone get started creating their own lighted Christmas Balls Project in their neighborhood?
It’s easy. Grab a friend or two and fix a meal and invite a few friends over to create some Lighted Christmas Balls. It’s really fun!
For more general background on our tradition and project, we created this short video “History of the Lighted Christmas Balls” and you can watch my son Justin’s TEDxGreensboro talk: Justin Smith Tells the Story.
Do you share a tradition with your neighborhood? What do you think about the Lighted Christmas Balls, is that something you would you consider starting? What are some good examples of community building? Let us know!
Feature photo courtesy of Thomas Hopkins (c) 2009-2013
Jonathan Smith’s photo courtesy of Bert VanderVeen (c) 2012-2013 Jonathan Smith & Co.