Forrest Elliott grew up watching helplessly as his family members, notably his grandmother, struggled to make ends meet despite their best efforts.
His life's trajectory as a "selfless" person who thrives and finds delight in serving others is determined by that experience.
The retired Clifton teacher did many kind deeds, both big and small, without ever expecting anything in return, but karma had other plans for him.
Recently, Elliott talked about his childhood, his early years as a teacher, his good deeds (reluctantly), and how, 36 years after he and his high school sweetheart were forced to break up, she miraculously came back into his life. Elliott was eating breakfast of eggs and bacon with a bottomless cup of coffee in a booth at the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton.
The kindhearted man
When he is older and considers the meaning of life, his giving spirit is not something he discovers for the first time; rather, it has always been a part of who he is. He always made sure there were cereal boxes packed amid the books in his classroom when he was a young teacher in Clifton. "You never know what the students are going through or if they skipped breakfast and are sitting there hungry," Elliott added.
Elliott planned the breakfast gathering at the cafe because he wanted to promote the new nonprofit organization he is seeking to establish called "Children Are Our Future." The group wants to introduce art, particularly Broadway plays, to kids who might not have the resources to go.
Elliott, who never misses an opportunity to lend a hand, also brought along pamphlets and flyers for upcoming events and fundraisers near and dear to him, such as a meatball-tasting competition to raise money for the global effort to eradicate polio, a food drive to feed the hungry in Paterson, another to stock the shelves of a food pantry in Bergen County, and numerous upcoming events run by his Rotary Club in Fair Lawn, an organization he holds in the highest regard.
He then happened to mention that he would be in war-torn Ukraine for a week, almost as an afterthought. Last Thursday, he departed with a group of Rotarians from across the world as well as some members of his Fair Lawn Sunshine Rotary club. It is a fact-finding journey to determine the best way to provide medical care for Ukrainian children as part of the charity's Gift of Life program. Elliott and the Rotarians weren't going to miss an opportunity to help, so they were also carrying medical supplies to donate to Ukrainian hospitals to help treat the ill and injured.
Even while he claimed he was not overly concerned, he made sure his will and other affairs were in order before departing for Ukraine, just in case.
The primary goal of the trip will be to support Rotary's Gift of Life initiative, which offers vital cardiac care to underprivileged children from developing nations regardless of gender, religion, or place of birth. The life-saving procedure has been performed on over 47,000 youngsters in 80 different nations.
In the Route 3 cafe, waitresses bustled about while Elliott, now 72, spoke about how everyone has the power to influence someone's life.
The tale of his Grandma
Early in the 20th century, Elliott's grandfather "just got up and left" his grandmother and two young children. He claimed that back then, women's lives were very different and that a single mother with two kids didn't have many choices.
His grandmother received a government payment, which was referred to as "being on the dole," but she also worked as an embroiderer to make ends meet. She accepted "piece work," which meant that she was compensated for each task she accomplished rather than by the hour.
She would bring her work home and get paid one penny for each item, according to Elliott. He claimed that because she could not afford to acquire glasses, she struggled to see while working by the light of a kerosene lamp. When he was young, he saw her struggles and resolved, if he could stop them, that they would not befall him or other family members.
As he saw her struggle, "that stuck with me," he recalled. While still in college, he started volunteering and soon discovered that with a little bit of work, he could make a difference.
His work as a teacher also required that effort.
He went above and beyond the call of duty as a middle school and high school teacher to teach his students things that would last a lifetime. To supplement the teachings students were learning from books, he invited speakers. He claimed that one group in particular had the students' full attention.
Holocaust survivors discussed their experiences with his high school students. The speakers had such an impact on the students that they assisted Elliott in planning a survivors' prom. Along with their guests, students and administrators from the school attended.
The students then started a significant endeavor to preserve the survivors' stories. For others to observe and learn from, they gave video recordings of hundreds of the survivors sharing their testimonies to the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest in Whippany. All parties engaged agreed to meet again 50 years from now to discuss their efforts. This happened 20 years ago.
"You don't have to do a hell of a lot to help, but if you don't do something, something small like buy someone a box of cereal to help feed their family, then you need to reexamine who you are as a person," said Elliott.
'Pay it forward
The guiding principle of Elliott is "pay it forward and keep it going." He won the prestigious AARP New Jersey Andrus Award for Community Service in 2022 as a result of his attitude. It is the "most prestigious" prize given by AARP. Instead of giving the customary thank-you speech after earning the honor, Elliott took the chance to raise awareness about veterans and the high rate of suicide in that group. He said that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. "We need to do more," he continued.
Perhaps he works so hard to help veterans in memory of his late father, a Marine, he suggested.
One thing Elliott and his wife are doing more of is working with one veteran family at a time to bring serenity into their lives.
A few years ago, the couple bought a timeshare for a week at a vacation home in Sanibel Island, Florida. They enjoyed it so much, that they later bought two more weeks, one to extend their stay and the other as to gift. Every August, the couple offers a veteran and his or her family a week of free use of the property.
The family who will utilize the property for free is found and vetted by a retired admiral who is a member of the Sanibel Rotary Club. At the beginning of the week, Elliott and his wife, Diane, meet with the family, give them a nice meal, and wish them a good trip.
Elliott stated, "In some circumstances, this vacation may be a lifeline. These warriors are under so much stress that a week spent with their families might just save their lives.
He also lends a helping hand at the Little Ferry American Legion, a Paterson homeless shelter, and other places where veterans are known to congregate.
Elliott was fortunate that his wife, who also had a similar upbringing, possessed a similar altruistic mentality. Perhaps this explains why the cosmos brought them back together after so much time apart.
Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if anyone wants to volunteer or offer assistance.
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