It was Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 1969. My bride, Jeanne, and I awoke that morning for our first Christmas together as newlyweds.
We were far from our parents' homes in Utah. We were living in a very small adobe house in the jungle city of Itajuipe, Bahia, Brazil. Our diminutive dwelling, located at #46 Rua Rui Barbosa, had a red cement floor, a hardened clay tile roof, and one wooden shuttered window with no glass; a large mosquito net hung over our bed with a mattress made of fresh straw. Our home did not have a television, a phone or a radio. Jeanne washed our clothes by hand in a large metal basin. She purchased our food from an open-air market each Friday alongside the women from town.
We showered in cold water collected from tropical rain that filled a tank on the top of our roof. To prevent a rat from entering through the shower drain, Jeanne poured boiling water down the hole to discourage the creature. A large rock also provided excellent blockage. After our service projects each day, we would read classic novels under the glow of one 100 watt light bulb.
We spoke often of our families and of our native home in the mountains of the West. We pondered our adjustments to married life, a foreign culture and a new language, Portuguese. Were we living in poverty? Yes. Were we happy? Yes. We had each other and that was more than enough for us.
We were United States Peace Corps volunteers and had been assigned by our superiors to live in this tiny city of a few thousand people to serve as community development specialists. Our assignment was to help the wonderful citizens of Itajuipe with major challenges.
We noted there were two very serious issues.
The first and most devastating was the death of small children. Mothers would often lose several of their children before the age of one. They believed in voodoo and that an evil spirit had taken their babies. The real cause of death was disease spread by an open sewer system.
The second issue was the need for electricity. Most homes used kerosene fuel to light their homes. A source of electricity from a power grid was nearby. The community hoped copper wires would be connected to their houses. We worked each day with local informal leaders to remedy both situations. The U.S. government paid for our modest living expenses and paid us each a wage of 11 cents an hour for our labors.
On that first, very warm, Christmas morning, we excitedly exchanged presents. My highly anticipated gift from Jeanne was a cherished plastic webbed aluminum lawn chair; in fact our only chair. My gift for her was a pair of flip flops for her feet. For that special occasion, Jeanne fashioned a tiny Christmas tree out of green crepe paper molded over a cone made of chicken wire. For lights, she delicately attached several small flickering birthday candles and for decorations, she pasted colorful holiday pictures cut from a Brazilian magazine. It was a most memorable and delightful day, one that will always be treasured and remembered. For sure there will never be another Christmas like it.
Since that special day many years ago, our living conditions have greatly improved and our hourly income is more than 11 cents per hour. We are longtime residents of Weber County and have been blessed with six wonderful children who are married to terrific spouses.
We play with 15 healthy grandchildren that we love and adore. And yet, we still see people in need; folks living in our midst who have difficult challenges. In our hearts, we are still Peace Corps Volunteers and the clarion call to serve continues powerfully within us.
As an experienced business leader, we decided years ago that money was not the source of lasting fulfillment and joy. Indeed, we have learned from experience that true and abiding happiness comes from providing heartfelt service to others. The sweet tradition of helping the needy that began for us so long ago still continues to characterize who we are and what we do.
As we celebrate the birth of the son of God this week, let us not forget the source of all our blessings and that his life was one of everlasting service.
Alan E. Hall is a co-founding managing director of Mercato Partners, a regionally focused growth capital investment firm. He founded Grow Utah Ventures to help entrepreneurs, is the founder of MarketStar Corp. and is the Chairman of the Utah Technology Council.