October 31, 2014 17:50 UTC

USA

Holiday Stories of Giving; History Told Through Candy

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'Decorate a Vet' Helps Military Families on the Holidays
'Decorate a Vet' Helps Military Families on the Holidays

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From VOA Learning English, welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in Special English.  I’m Christopher Cruise.
 
And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.  This week on our program, we meet some people bringing Christmas spirit to sailors far from home. We also meet volunteers who are helping veterans celebrate the holiday. And, later, we visit an unusual candy store that sells not just candy, but pieces of history.
 
Millions of Christians will spend Tuesday with family and friends celebrating the birth of Jesus with songs known as carols, gift giving and meals together. In Texas, members of churches in the Houston area sail up and down the Houston Ship Channel singing carols to workers on ships. The channel is part of one of the busiest seaports in the country, the Port of Houston.
 
Very few crew members are outside at night, but they can often hear the singing even while working inside. Sometimes, they answer the carolers.
 
“Merry Christmas!”
 
Ben Stewart is a Presbyterian pastor.
 
“We offer our words and ourselves as a gift of peace to the world and a gift of love and a gift of acceptance.”
 
On this night, some of the seamen later came to a party at the Houston International Seafarers’ Center. Most of them were from the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine.
 
The center has a chapel where religious services sometimes attract non-Christians. Pastor David Wells remembers some Buddhists from Thailand.
 
“They came into the worship and they partook in communion, and they were Buddhists. But they did that because they felt connected with the people that were here and that is what they want. They want to feel a connection with other people.”
 
The pastors also bring donated gifts to ships. Hassan, the second officer of a Turkish ship with a Muslim crew, was grateful for the gifts.
 
“Maybe I will bring something from Istanbul to give to you.”
 
“Next time we want you to have a visa so you can get off and have some freedom.”
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, international seafarers need a visa to go on shore leave in the United States. David Wells and other pastors from cities with seaports want Congress to make it easier to go on shore for brief periods of time.
 
The holiday season is a traditional time for giving. Members of a small nonprofit group in northern Virginia are giving their time to military veterans and their families. The volunteers put up Christmas decorations and do other outdoor work to make the homes of veterans look their nicest for the holidays. On a recent day they were at the Spraul family’s home.
 
Angela Spraul says her young daughters love Christmas.
 
“It’s really nice to be able to do something fun for them and have the help. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”
 
She and her husband are both in the military. But her husband, Wes, is disabled with a painful genetic disorder in his spinal cord.
 
“I think it’s unbelievable that people are so passionate in helping other people out.”
Mary Thiebault came to help the Sprauls. Her own son is in the military.
 
“It’s exciting to see that a family will have such joy for the holiday season.”
 
Jeff Jones was never in the military. But his father and grandfather were, and he wanted to honor their memory. So he started the group called Decorate a Vet.
 
“I think it’s important to clean the outside of the homes and decorate for Christmas because, you know, this is the time of year when people are trying to give back, and it also happens to correspond with the time of the year when houses are starting to look a little sloppy with leaf debris.”
 
Wayne Parks and a group of people from his work went to the home of a woman with three small children and a husband serving overseas.
 
“They need all the help they can get, especially when, you know, our servicemen are far away and can’t help out their families back at home. This is just our way of giving back a little bit, best we can.”
One veteran of World War Two died three weeks before volunteers from Decorate a Vet visited his home. The volunteers helped his widow, Carol Keister, decorate for the holidays.
 
“I’ve always loved Christmas and Christmas decorations and all, so, you know, it’s cheered me up definitely.”

Nine-year-old Megan Clancy was one of the volunteers at the house. She was glad to help.
 
“I think it’s about just helping people and making them feel at home.”
 
Decorate a Vet founder Jeff Jones says he would like to see the idea spread across the country, and help veterans of other nations as well.
 
We’ve been talking about groups that sing Christmas songs to seafarers far from home and decorate the homes of military veterans. But what about people who have no homes to go to? At holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, some volunteers help community groups feed the homeless.

Erica Steen is director of community outreach for the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. The center has a partnership with the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for homeless shelters in Washington.  
 
“What we found is that even though there are people who are hungry out in our DC community, they are hungry year-round. But why can’t they enjoy the holiday just like the rest of us?”
 
Last month more than 500 people volunteered to help with Thanksgiving meals. Al Stenstrup was one of those volunteers.
 
“The whole idea of the food that we’re providing here today, through the work of the volunteers and the different civic groups that are giving back to the community as well, means a lot to those that have either fallen on hard times because of the economy or just simply need a break to get back into the work force and be able to provide for others.”
 
Volunteering during the holidays is a tradition for Jessica Adler.
 
“I find it really enjoyable to do this and to bond with other people. And I have been very fortunate and blessed in my life so I find it very important to give back.”
 
Ciara Simonson and some college friends also volunteered at the DC Central Kitchen.  
 
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘The greatest thing in life is to love and be loved in return,’ and so if that is something that we can remember in our service and our giving and caring for one another that is the significance of community.”
 
Beth Erickson brought her daughter Hollis with her to volunteer.
 
“Which I think is an important part is to help bring younger people along to understand the importance of service and giving back.”
 
“I think everybody else should give at least a couple hours, if not a couple days, to help those less fortunate or those in need.”
 
Charles was one of the homeless people who received a holiday meal that the volunteers were making.
 
“The people are blessed by giving, period. There is a blessing to give and to receive.”
 
The holiday season is filled with sweet treats. Cookies, cakes and candies are a traditional part of the celebration. Susan Benjamin owns a candy shop in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, called Cool Confectionaries.
 
The town played an important role in American history. A man named John Brown led a violent rebellion there against slavery in 1859. And soldiers fought a battle there in 1862 during the American Civil War. So it makes sense that Cool Confectionaries specializes in historical candy -- like horehound candy, made from a plant in the mint family.
 
Susan Benjamin also sells hard tack, a biscuit that Civil War soldiers ate, and treats from the early 20th century.
 
She explains that some early candy did more than just satisfy a desire for sweets. 
 
“Because it was hard and not tacky, they would chew it and it would scrape the plaque from their teeth, exercise the jaw and, some thought, also help them purify the blood.”
 
The development of sugar cane as a sweetener spread from Southeast Asia in the 16th century. Candy made from sugar was mostly a treat for wealthy Europeans. Pan candies were popular, but making them required skill.
 
“What they would do is take a tiny little seed, or take an almond, a seed or a nut, and they would add layers and layers of sugar to them.”
 
Another kind of candy, called rock candy, was easier to make. Rock candy was just crystalized sugar. People used it as a medicine or to help preserve food. Rock candy was also used in the rock and rye, a popular drink during the middle of the 1800s.
 
But rock candies of the time were made from cane sugar processed by slaves.

“Sugar was a big part of the economy of slavery. So, it was highly, highly volatile. The abolitionists boycotted sugar. And they would have beet sugar, and they would have maple sugar or nothing instead.”
 
The Civil War ended slavery, and after the war, sugar was readily available. What were known as inexpensive "penny candies," like Tootsie Rolls, became popular.
 
“Now all of a sudden you see these working class kids who are able to go into stores and take out a few cents and buy candy. They were in a sense entering the middle class.”
 
Getting historical candy today is not easy. Susan Benjamin has spent years researching recipes and hiring companies to make old-fashioned candy again. She sells a lot of her products to museums, because candy offers an unusual way to look at history.
 
“It is about slavery. It is about the industrial revolution. It is about commerce. It is about marketing. It is about who we are.”
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