Lessons in Gratitude

Former Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services client Lt. Col. Brenda Morgan gave an inspirational speech at a fundraising luncheon in San Antonio. Here is an abbreviated version of her talk.

Brenda Morgan and daughter at graduation I moved to the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services’ Itasca campus when I was ten years old. I lived there for nearly four years, then moved to a foster home until I graduated from high school. After high school, I joined the Army, where I studied Korean and served three years as a Korean Linguist. I’d always wanted to be a nurse, so I attended college and earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Eventually, I joined the Air Force and, after serving for nine years, was selected from among a pool of 2,000 nurses and named the Air Force Company Grade Officer Nurse of the Year. This past year, I completed a Ph.D. degree in nursing with a 4.0 grade point average and was recognized by the university with an award for academic excellence. I am a Senior Nurse Scientist in research and a Lieutenant Colonel. I would not have been able to achieve these goals if it hadn’t been for my wonderful husband of more than 22 years, Parrish, and my daughter, Katherine. I am also grateful to my PCHAS Home Parents, who exposed me to healthy ideas and values. Spending even a few years in the right environment can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

I don’t remember a lot about the events that led to my placement in the child welfare system. Some people, when they hear about my childhood experiences, are amazed that I have turned out to be so well adjusted. There are thousands of children passing through the same welfare system with similar childhood experiences. Unfortunately, some are unable to overcome the odds and break free from their pasts. We tend to focus on these failures. But I want to focus on the positive—children whose lives are literally saved when they are placed in loving homes. I am one of those children.

I recently requested my files from the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services’ “intake” process. The psychologist who assessed my mental health said that I had suffered “severe and prolonged emotional deprivation,” and that I was “impulsive and slightly isolated” and “very vulnerable to criticism.” The psychologist said that I required a great deal of adult support and affection. It’s sad for me to think about that child and what might have become of her. Luckily, there were people who cared enough to intervene on my behalf.

In the PCHAS Group Home, I learned about such things as responsibility and personal accountability. I also learned pretty quickly that if I studied hard and made good grades, I could be on the van that left for special trips to the zoo, the movies, the circus, or the museum.

I have learned that education can be a great discriminator and once you have it, no one can take it away. If, God forbid, you lose everything, if you have a decent education, you can recover and start over. I have taught my daughter these valuable lessons, and she has excelled. She has earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Applied Statistics. She has a very good job; she works as a data analyst in Atlanta.

There is another set of Presbyterian Children’s Home rules that have benefited me immensely over the years—rules about expressing gratitude. In the Home, we were required to write thank you notes to family members, sponsors and church groups for the clothes, school supplies, birthday gifts and other things that we received. This emphasis on showing appreciation to others evolved over the years, and now I seek out opportunities to show gratitude.

When I think back on the hardships in my life—whether early childhood experiences with hunger and homelessness or the death of my first husband when my daughter was eight months old—I always try to search for something within the experience that I can be grateful for. This focus on gratitude helps to keep things in perspective and reminds me that while there have been bad times in my past, and there will certainly be hardships in the future, I can still find something for which to be grateful.

The importance of gratitude is a life lesson I share with just about anyone who will listen, including my daughter. As soon as she was old enough, I began helping her write thank you notes for the many birthday and Christmas gifts she received. Of course, she eventually reached the age where, like all children, she rebelled, but the rule was simple: if you’re not thankful enough for the gift to write a note, you simply return the gift. My daughter knew that no checks would be cashed or gift cards spent until the thank you notes were mailed. This was something she enjoyed reminding me of this year after my graduation.

This brings me to the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services programs that support children both emotionally and academically. There are two which really excite me. At this year’s Itasca Exes Day, a reunion of Group Home alumni, we toured the schoolhouse, and I admit I was a little jealous. It is wonderful that the students have access to tutors who can help them strive for academic excellence. The outcome for these children is nothing short of miraculous.

I attended a graduation reception for one of the San Antonio Presbyterian Children’s Home graduates. What a beautiful, extremely bright, poised young woman.

As I learned about the Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services support offered to the graduates, I was amazed that so much effort is expended to ensure they get a good start and don’t “fall through the cracks” as they maneuver through the sometimes very difficult transition to college. It is very tough to navigate these waters without parents. It is reassuring to know that their Group Home will still be there—a place to return to on holidays, school vacations, or just when they need to be reminded that they have a place in this world where they are special and loved. And by the way, I received a very nice thank you note from the graduate for her graduation gift.

My doctoral dissertation explored the effect that gratitude has on one’s resilience. My research shows that the act of looking within oneself to identify in our lives that for which we are grateful will, in turn, spur us on to search outward for opportunities to share those blessings with someone else. This cycle of gratitude is self-perpetuating. There are children who, like me, will count the support they receive from PCHAS as a blessing. Like me, this feeling of gratitude will lead to great things and they will want to share the joy of these blessings with others.

I have experienced that self-perpetuating cycle of gratitude and today, as part of that cycle, I would like to express my appreciation to each and every one of you. I represent the many children in need of help today; you represent hope for the children who will be taken out of harm’s way and placed in the care of Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services.

These words by Melody Beattie sum up my thoughts:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

I truly believe, without a doubt, that who I am and all that I have accomplished is a direct result of my time in the Group Home in Itasca. I will be eternally grateful to those who cared for me and supported me both emotionally and financially—those who taught me values and life lessons that set me on a path to success. Thank you so very much for what you’ve done for me.