There wasn’t much snow left by Christmas, but plenty of people scurried about like snow bunnies, each acquiring the materials needed to enjoy their own version of this festive day. On my way to join family on Christmas morning, I had a memorable encounter with a new neighbor.

I saw her at the end of the alley, earnestly looking through a red garbage dumpster. I sat in my car for a few minutes and just observed. She didn’t appear to be in a hurry as she searched each bag she could reach with her 5-foot-5, 110-pound frame. 

“This can’t be happening on Christmas morning,” I thought. But it was.

I shut off my car and walked over to her. Being careful not to crowd her personal space, I stood a foot away, smiled, and said, “Excuse me.” She lifted her head out of the dumpster and stared at me with caution and curiosity. “Can I leave this with you?” I asked as I extended my last two 10-dollar bills her way. I smiled with my eyes and lightly nodded my head to assure her it was OK.

Her eyes never left me as she turned her body squarely toward me and took the gift. We both smiled and she said, “Thank you. This is such a blessing.” She went on to explain that she wasn’t scouring the dumpster looking for food but for a box to mail a Christmas gift to her 10-year-old daughter in another state. 

“That’s pretty awesome,” I said. She let me know that the money would allow her to complete her task since she had no way of paying for postage.

She opened up about her life and told a harrowing tale of surviving various types of abuse and the drug addiction that led to separation from her daughter. 

“Almost a year clean!” she proclaimed and we both smiled again.

We talked about accessing some of the social services available in Oak Park and how little information is obvious to newcomers. Turns out she already attends Narcotics Anonymous support meetings and has a temporary place to live. Finding employment has been difficult. But after having once been on the verge of death, she is hopeful for her future.

There we were, two strangers sharing a moment near a red garbage dumpster. The encounter certainly changed my perspective on the Christmas Day I thought I would have.

Look around and you’ll notice she’s far from the only person searching dumpsters in Oak Park. Not all are looking for boxes.

Ken Woods is a resident of Oak Park.

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