Fertile Soil

by Elliott Harris


hen Miriam and Ray Callahan began seriously considering retirement, they knew their definition of a retired life would not be a life without work. As their careers slowed, they began spending more time on personal projects, dusting off old to-do lists and dreaming bigger about what was next; about how they wanted to work in the freedom that retirement would soon offer.

Of their old projects, the most significant was finding revenue from the land they owned. In 1994, the Callahans moved to San Antonio, Texas, and purchased 31 acres of land. They made the purchase thinking that, one day, they would pay off the land by repurposing it. But finding that purpose was a decision they had not yet made.

“Everybody from work was giving me ideas on how we could build a wedding venue,” said Miriam, adding that the wedding venue idea was one of the more serious ideas she and Ray had considered before looking into the costs of construction and maintenance. “At the very end of the conversation someone said, ‘Have you thought about building a Christmas-light drive through?’” The couple was not familiar with the relatively new holiday tradition, but that night, Miriam came home with the suggestion still in her head and told Ray.

“Before we knew it, Elf Acres was born,” said Miriam.

Elf Acres would be the name of the Callahans’ eventual winter wonderland, but completing it would take longer than expected. Ray was up for the challenge, and his experience made him handy for the project. Ray spent his childhood bouncing between small towns in North Texas before joining the Navy at 18. The military took him all around the country and the world – Hong Kong, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Kyrgyzstan – including to the state of California, where he met and married Miriam. The couple has been together for 48 years.

From the beginning, the Callahans have treated the world with exceptional benevolence. In how they work, what they sacrifice and where they give, the Callahans show compassion. So though Elf Acres began as merely a personal project, by the end it would be one of many ways that the Callahans use their blessings to bless those around them. But getting there took time.

 “I’m surprised after the first year that anybody came back,” said Ray.

“But people loved it!” responded Miriam.

“They did. They loved it,” Ray agreed.

Ten months of work had not been enough to make Elf Acres sustainable (they lost money the first year), but they kept investing in the project. By the third year, Ray realized that Elf Acres would be profitable for the first time.

Just before Ray realized this, Miriam was out of the country with Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), a nonprofit that helps children thrive in loving families. Miriam toured through India and Sri Lanka with the executive director of CERI, Connie Belciug, where the two witnessed serious problems but clear solutions. CERI had big plans in India and Sri Lanka, working to change laws to benefit children without a family more effectively, more lovingly.

Miriam saw the problems abroad as a window into her own past, feeling as if the countries were roughly 40 years behind legal protections introduced in her own country. Miriam began her career as a social worker in the Florida Panhandle. The position was special not only because it was her first professional milestone after college, but also because she was part of a new generation that came shortly after 1974, when the U.S. government passed legislation against child abuse and neglect. “It was the first time that we had teeth; that you could do something about these kids that we would find in horrible conditions,” Miriam said.

CERI’s primary focus in Southeast Asia was to encourage and enact legislative change. Such an approach – combining direct care and structural change – meant that present generations could heal while future generations would be less likely to experience the issues of children before them. CERI estimated the money needed for this plan was $30,000. Once they had funding, it would take two to three years to be realized, and would require collaboration with governments and partners in the region.

“We had the chance, as little as we are, to make an impact that could literally have huge potential. That just fired me up, but I knew we didn’t have any money,” said Miriam. What Miriam didn’t know was that Ray had done the math back home and figured that, if trends from the last two years continued, Elf Acres would be profitable that year.

When Miriam returned from her trip, the couple traded stories: Ray shared the good news about Elf Acres, and Miriam talked about what she had witnessed. Ray and Miriam agreed the need abroad was great and the solution at home was obvious.

As a faith-led family, the Callahans practice tithing (a voluntary contribution of 10 percent of all income). The importance of this principle, along with their past work with and trust in CERI, made the donation of proceeds from Elf Acres a clear move for the family. The only question left was how much to contribute. Ray prayed about the donation, asking God what He wanted his family to give to CERI. When God replied that they should give $10,000, Ray didn’t believe it or, frankly, see how it would be possible.

“We hadn’t even made $1 at that point,” Miriam said.

As crazy as it seemed, they obeyed God’s request and gave the $10,000 at the end of that year. Even further, the Callahans committed to a personal plan to contribute either $10,000 or 10 percent of their annual profits, whichever was greater, for at least five years.

“I’m telling you, that $10,000 check was the largest check I had ever written… and it felt good; it felt really good,” said Ray of their first contribution.

Elf Acres is now in its fifth year, and the Callahans do not plan for the project to slow down anytime soon. While donating proceeds from Elf Acres is the most recent act of generosity to those in need, it is far from their first. Miriam spent five years as a social worker 18 years as a Christian Counselor. Ray aided international populations both in the Navy and as a volunteer, either through direct work or financial donations. Miriam and Ray served as house parents for teenage boys when they were only a newlywed couple in their 20s, and sponsored two girls from Moldova through CERI for a decade, whom they remain in contact with to this day.

In addition to the mission trip in Southeast Asia, Miriam spent 10 years as an ambassador for CERI at City Church in San Antonio, where she also served as a counselor, a missionary and a pastor. To Moldova alone, Miriam made eight trips.

It is clear the Callahans have a legacy of helping children at home and across the world. In their careers, spare time, financial decisions, church involvement and much else, Miriam and Ray seem to be pulled back again and again to help children facing some of the most difficult circumstances around the world. But why have they felt, so strongly and so often, that children deserve help?

“I’ve seen the way people live around the world and, surprisingly enough, even people who are in very, very poor areas are happy people, but they need an opportunity to make their lives better,” said Ray. “Supporting CERI is my way of projecting my love and my care for other people who are disadvantaged, so that they have an opportunity.”

“Kids hearts are like fertile soil, and they desperately need love,” said Miriam. “It’s in those formative years that we have the potential to make the biggest impact; but then there’s that unexplainable element, which is that God just puts it in your heart. I have felt God’s love come through me, and it’s not logical but it’s intense, and it’s consistent, and that’s how I know it’s His.”

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

2 Corinthians 9:6-8 (NIV)