A Life That Matters

I recently came across this photo of my old friend Elmer McGee. Elmer was a gentle soul who fought a life-long battle with alcoholism. Toward the end, Elmer won his battle with demon rum but lost his battle with lung cancer. Through it all, Elmer demonstrated the value of a life that matters.

I first met Elmer about 20 years ago while a rookie program coordinator for Gateway Rescue Mission. I served as intake coordinator, which involved listening to stories and filling out forms for men entering our program. Elmer served as my assistant, playing the bad cop to my good cop persona. I loved on the guys while Elmer dealt with discipline problems. 

Elmer always shot straight, like the day he walked into my office and said “I’m leaving.” He confessed to using drugs the previous weekend and refused to stay around and play the hypocrite. That would serve as Elmer’s pattern over the years. He would show up, work hard, and do great. Then after six months to a year, he would suddenly walk away.

Elmer could do construction, plumbing, painting, replace light ballasts, the works. He could make a mean pepper sauce from the garden peppers. Over the years, Elmer became wiser. He mentored the young guys coming into our program. Said he was home for good and would never “go back out there.”  He stayed true to his word.

Elmer McGee personalized my nonprofit world. When I think about the work we do in the charitable, nonprofit arena, Elmer’s face comes to mind. Scores of nonprofits exist, each with its own Elmer. The Elmers of this world give nonprofit work context and meaning. In the midst of the struggle to raise funds, update policy and deal with conflict, our Elmers link hands with us and answer the question “why do you do what you do?” 

Whether you work or volunteer at a nonprofit, or simply do good work in your corner of the world, give your Elmer a hug or handshake today. A life that matters will still be messy and filled with problems. If you strive to help others in their struggle, those very people will help weave the strong cords of purpose in your life. 

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