For Howard’s Birthday

April 15, 2016 Howard Kenyon No comments exist

For the past several years, I’ve invited friends to celebrate my birthday with me in a unique way. As April 17 has rolled around again and I am still here, let me explain.
In 2007, my family and I unexpectedly returned from living and serving in China. We’d moved to Taiwan in 1990 and then China’s Northwest, thinking that we’d live there until retirement. It was not to be.
I’ve chronicled elsewhere how depression brought on by childhood trauma brought me to live in Portland, Oregon, a place I’d never given much consideration. It’s odd to answer when asked, Why Portland? “Because of my therapist.” But so it was.
Fast forward to 2010 and, with the world still reeling from the Great Recession, I finally managed to land a job – as part-time manager of an emergency food pantry for those even more destitute than me in our community.  The program is one of several direct services of the Ecumenical Ministries  of Oregon, altogether helping some 30,000 people in need each year. Now serving as the Chief Finance & Operations Officer of EMO, I oversee all those services, but I still have a special place in my heart for my friends at a center we know as “NEFP”.
When I first started at the food pantry, I was delighted to encounter many clients – mostly older immigrants – from Taiwan and Mainland China. And they were delighted to discover that I spoke Mandarin Chinese. They’d come looking for me and we’d carry on conversations in a language that warmed all of our hearts. They especially loved to hear me tell how my mother was born in China. I was one of them.
I soon learned these friends had a common and frequent request. You meiyou you? Did we have any cooking oil? More often than not, the answer was no.
The sound of “meiyou” always brought back a startling memory from when we first landed in Taiwan. With our toddler first-born, Robert, in tow, we attended an outdoor bar-b-que hosted by some wonderful friends.
In the midst of the preparations, Robert suddenly started coughing and turning blue. We wondered if he had swallowed something, but these friends could only explain, “meiyou” which with our beginner Chinese we took to mean “nothing.” Finally a friend with more English than the others clarified that Robert had drunk some kerosene that was being used to light the bar-b-que. I’ve never forgotten how similar sounding the words for nothing and oilare in Mandarin.
I’ve also never forgotten how kind and welcoming those friends in Taiwan were to us who were new to their country. How confusing things can be in a new place. How difficulties can compound in a space where you don’t know the difference between oil and nothing. How much our friends looked after us while Robert recovered.
And so after hearing the familiar “you meiyou you?” in the food pantry, I started a tradition. Every April 17 I invite my friends to help me buy cooking oil for my immigrant and refugee friends in need here in Portland. This year I turn 61 on April 17. Not bad for an old man.
As I have done in years past, I invite you to donate $17 (the date) or $61 (my age) for cooking oil. When I first started this campaign, we could buy a case of 12 bottles for $17. I think it’s gone up a bit since then, but, no matter, every bit helps.
In a given year we serve some 10,000 people in need through our food pantry, half of them are non-native English speakers – refugees and immigrants from around the world. And a lot of those are from my beloved China.
Will you help me celebrate in style again? Send a check for $17 or $61 to NEFP, 4800 NE 72nd Avenue, Portland, OR 97217 and designate it “For Howard’s birthday.” Or, if you prefer, go online to, look down the list of programs that I am privileged to supervise and click on the one for “Northeast Emergency Food Program”. Also check the box for “in honor of or in memory of” and write “For Howard’s birthday.”
I look forward to celebrating yet another year over many a bottle of cooking oil with my friends from the Motherland. Cheers!
And thank you!

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