Every summer more than 1 million people visit the Great New York State Fair. Nestled among hundreds of vendors is a booth known as “the happiest booth at the fair.” There is nothing for sale here, no products pushed. But there are hope, joy, and smiles.
The New York Conference women’s ministries department, with its amazing volunteers, operates this booth with a serious objective: no explicit religion or overt references to God are allowed. This ministry aims to be a true hands-and-feet-of-Christ initiative, requiring creative resources, development, and intentionality.
Each year a new theme is developed, with corresponding materials to go with it. An assortment of handouts for adults and children offers helpful tools, encouragement, awareness, resources, resilience building, and hope. Past themes have included: “Grief and Gratitude,” “What’s Your Word for Hope?” “Your Ticket to Health,” and “Courageous Joy.”
At the booth hands-on activities provide a way to connect and listen to individual stories. We’ve created such experiences as a Remembrance tree, Stamp Out Bullying board, Gratitude graffiti, Words of Hope chalkboard, and a prize wheel. When visitors leave our booth, it is with open hearts, where prayers are spoken and grace is given for the journey.
How do we make our visitors smile? Every year approximately 10,000 smile cards with random acts of kindness ideas are handed out, with a friendly reminder to “pay it forward.”
While resources change yearly, two items are always on hand: The Dynamics of Domestic Violence, by Mabel Dunbar, and Ellen White’s Paths to Peace. When they aren’t available, our guests are disappointed.
This ministry is about offering hope. With that comes the opportunity to hold space for the stories of those who need to share them. We hear such remarks as “You have no idea how much I need this today” or “Can I take extra? My friend needs this!”
Others are more intense. The man who saw our abuse awareness materials asked if we would talk to his wife, as she was struggling to heal from abuse. She visited us on four different days, seeking support and encouragement. We were able to validate her journey and connect her with a licensed professional and support group.
There was a woman who was grateful for The Dynamics of Domestic Violence booklet, stating that it had not only saved her life but also given her and her daughters hope, as they had never encountered abuse materials that talked about God.
At the booth we’ve spent time with children who were bravely illustrating what they were thankful for or writing about what gives them hope as they shared stories of being bullied, and battling suicide, depression, or anxiety. The mother grieving her daughter’s suicide, grateful for a safe place to write her name, told her story. A therapist told us how he had used our materials to start a gratitude club in his high school and the impact it is having on students.
Always with the frequent encouragement: “You are touching lives in ways you do not know!”
There are so many amazing, heart-wrenching, encouraging stories to tell, but we are confident that heaven will reveal the full impact of a small booth, words of hope, and a smile.
Lynee Hamm and Tina Shorey volunteer for the New York Conference department of women’s ministries.