“Helping people is the right thing to do”
From the time she was a little girl, Erika Blaszak’s grandma taught her to give to the less fortunate. So when Erika grew up, she knew she had to find a way to continue Grandma Jennie’s caring . . .
In the kitchen, six-year-old Erika Blaszak watched as her grandmother, Jennie Louise, heated up dinner leftovers in the microwave.
With her parents working long hours, Erika often spent time at her grandparents’ house. “Follow me,” Gram said then, and they went outside, where a man with a scruffy beard stood at their Newark, New Jersey, stoop.
“See you tomorrow,” he said, nodding in gratitude as Gram handed him the plate.
Watching him walk away, Erika wondered, “Who was that?”
“Oh, he’s just a nice man who needs a little help sometimes,” Gram explained.
For Grandma Jennie That
incident stuck in Erika’s mind. And though she was only in first grade, she realized: Nobody should go hungry! I want to help, like Gram. So she started using her allowance to buy dog food. Packing kibble into plastic bags, then tucking them inside her Flintstones backpack, Erika waited until Gram was watching from the porch, then dashed across the street to where stray dogs otherwise had to rummage through dumpsters.
Watching the pups gobble the food, a warmth filled Erika. “They were so happy to have
something to eat!” Erika reported to Grandma Jennie, who hugged her proudly. It was only as she grew up that Erika realized that the man her grandmother fed had been homeless. Even as an adult, Erika loved spending time at Grandma Jennie’s, helping her cook and doing crossword puzzles together. But then, when Erika was 27, Grandma Jennie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer— and after a valiant effort, lost her fight. Erika was devastated. And seeing her enormous family— Grandma Jennie had five children, 13 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren, even one great-greatknew Gram had been the glue that held But she wouldn’t have wanted us to give up, she thought— and vowed to find a way to keep Grandma Jennie’s legacy of caring alive. So after much brainstorming, One Kind Step (Onekindstepnj. org) a nonprofit to spread kindness through the community for those in need, was born.
Legacy of love As
their first act of kindness, Erika and her family packed up bags of toiletries and brought them to a shelter near her Rahway, New Jersey, home so the women there could feel a little better about themselves.
“Knowing someone cares can keep them going,” a worker there smiled.
Erika and her loved ones had sometimes volunteered at soup kitchens, and they noticed that the folks there—while thankful for the warm meals—seemed lonely.
“Want to play hangman?” Erika asked an older gentleman.
“I haven’t played that since I was kid. I’d love to!” he said, his eyes brightening. So One Kind Step began dropping off not only food, but also games like Pictionary, and stickers and markers for the kids.
“I love it when you guys are here. It makes it so much fun!” one little girl sang, wrapping her arms around Erika.
On Mother’s Day, One Kind Step brought baskets of nail polishes and perfumes to a children’s hospital. They helped little patients wrap them up with cellophane and bows to surprise their moms— and made extra gifts from the tiniest patients. “This is my first Mother’s Day, and I’m spending it in a hospital. I can’t tell you how much this means!” one new mom beamed.
But for Erika, it’s the “Christmas at Gram’s” event that touches her the most. One day every holiday season, the city of Newark closes Vincent Street where her grandparents lived for 60 years so One Kind Step can host a holiday party, complete with Santa.
“This is exactly what I wanted!” one little girl squealed.
Another little boy tugged on Erika’s sleeve. “I’m so happy for my football. ‘Cause I’m gonna be a football player when I grow up!”
As countless other children flipped through new books, Erika remembered the years she’d spent decorating her grandparents’ house and sharing Christmas dinners. And she was certain: Grandma Jennie was smiling down.
Today, through One Kind Step, Erika and her volunteers have helped 2,000 people, never forgetting their angel inspiration.
“What I found most amazing about Gram was that she didn’t think she was doing anything special. She just believed helping people was the right thing to do,” Erika beams. “And because of her, we believe in changing the world, one step at a time, too!”
— Kristin Higson-hughes