Saying thanks in 40 ways: For a year, woman shows her gratitude with good deeds

She cried because that birthday somehow felt different, like her existence was pretty much over. Tami Greenberg had a soggy, full-on midlife crisis last November before she turned 40. But when she really thought about it, there was little to bawl about.

She has a loving partner, two great sons, a solid circle of friends, a career that she likes. A lot to be thankful for.

So she dried her tears and came up with a plan, something “very Tami,” her friends say.

She called it “A Year of Being 40 and Grateful” — completing 40 service projects and acts of good will dedicated to 40 people who had helped her reach this ripe new age.

So over the last 12 months, in her spare time, Greenberg has (deep breath here): planted trees around town, read books to Head Start kids, donated soccer balls to Hogan Academy, taught Sunday school, chaperoned a third-grade field trip, wrapped Christmas presents for senior citizens, served meals to people with HIV/AIDS and the homeless, led a support group for LGBT teens, collected supplies for Wayside Waifs and volunteered at nine charity walks for diabetes, suicide prevention, ovarian cancer and several other causes.

Last Thanksgiving, the Prairie Village woman and her partner, Mary Chris Blickhan, and their sons, Alex and Ben, helped serve the holiday meal at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.

And that’s truly not even the half of it.

“This has been such a gift to me,” said Greenberg, a senior vice president with the United Way of Greater Kansas City. “It kind of gets you outside of your own head for a minute and that’s what I was seeking, because I was kind of too in my own head about turning 40.”

She and Ben performed the last project just days before she turned 41 on Nov. 19. They donated a box of new Legos to the Ronald McDonald House on behalf of 12-year-old Ben, a Legos fan from back in the day.

As appreciative CEO Holly Buckendahl led them on a tour of one of the residential houses on Cherry Street, she told them how much the organization depends on donations of everything from toilet paper to toys. Their Legos will be used in a wall of Legos being built in one of the playrooms.

“I’m pretty proud of her,” Ben said of his mom. “It’s a pretty big deal to do all these things for people in need.”

The first stage of Greenberg’s mission was actually harder than it sounds: pick 40 people. The first ones were easy. Family, friends, bosses, work colleagues.

“But 40 is a big number, so I tried to think of different seasons of my life,” she said.

Taking stock took her back to her childhood pastor, her third-grade teacher, her high school voice teacher, even her German neighbors back in Dodge City, Kan., where she grew up.

She’d lost touch with some. But she found them and last November sent everyone a letter with a personalized postscript explaining what they meant to her and a pledge, her promise, to do something meaningful in their name over the next year.

She was on the hook.

Thinking about Greenberg’s deed still brings Kay Julian to tears, a year after she received one of those letters. The women worked together at the Mid America Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, where Julian is president.

Dear Kay, Where to begin? I started working for the National MS Society in 2002, over 10 years ago. So you have been a central figure for one-fourth of my life! Thank you for all your coaching and sage counsel over the years ... Thank you also for the example you’ve provided me of what it means to be a great mom. I know that our boys are the most important things in the world to both of us (our “epicenters”), and I have so appreciated your insights and perspectives about bringing up a good man. And so in that spirit, I pledge to take my two boys to a Rockhurst High School lacrosse game sometime over the coming year. I will do this to support the school and cheer on the team, but more importantly to honor you and your No. 1 boy.

Julian’s 21-year-old son, Nick, now a student at Texas Christian University, played lacrosse for Rockhurst.

“It rocked my world,” Julian said about the letter. “I opened it up, and she moved me to tears because she immediately hit the very thing that matters most to me, the thing that we connect on — being a mom.”

Choosing just the right projects took a bit of creative thinking on Greenberg’s part. In her brother’s name, for instance, she volunteered over the summer at a bowling fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters “because I’m his big sister.”

For her aunt and uncle, who have lived many years in Saudi Arabia, she visited the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City to learn more about the culture and faith.

She honored her high school music director by attending Shawnee Mission East’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” in January, then sent a thank-you note to the show’s director.

At a lot of places where she volunteered, she was there alone.

“I generally told people what I was doing so I wouldn’t look weird,” she laughed. “And I think it would give them pause and make them reflect. ...

“We can all think of people who drive us crazy in life, right? But there are a lot of people who have been good to us, and just nurturing that in our soul for a minute is good, just good.”

Julian calls what her friend did “the perfect project. I feel like such a slacker. Why didn’t I think of that?”

Amy Reinert, a friend since high school choir, had the same thought. Greenberg still loves to sing. One of her favorite activities over the last year was leading Christmas carols at a local nursing home.

“I really was not surprised that of all the people I know, that Tami would come up with something like this,” said Reinert, the director of education and outreach at Starlight Theatre.

“She’s just a very thoughtful person. She’s very grounded, and she’s always been an introspective person.”

Reinert explained her interest in an arts therapy program at the Kansas State School for the Blind in Kansas City, Kan. So they volunteered there together in September, helping in a music therapy session, banging away on drums right along with the students.

Blickhan estimates that her partner has spent more than 200 hours — writing letters, calling places to make appointments, traveling all over town — completing her birthday bucket list. “Words cannot describe how proud I am of her,” she said of her partner.

The breadth of what her friend has accomplished amazes Reinert, too, who sees an example here. “It’s all about intention. It’s all about making a decision, about something you’re going to devote your time to,” she said.

“Tami was successful at this because this was important to her, and she made it happen for herself. She didn’t let anything deter her. And it’s great, and it is a huge thing. But it is something everybody is capable of doing.”

Greenberg says she’ll miss the people she’s met along the way. But for her next big birthday?

“I keep saying I’m going to take a vacation for 50,” she laughed.

More information Pace for the Place:

Tami Greenberg volunteered at the April fundraising walk in honor of her partner of 18 years, Mary Chris Blickhan.

Big Brothers Big Sisters:

For her brother, she volunteered at Bowl for Kids’ Sake, a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Volunteer MS Whisper Walk:
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