J.T. Olson knows what it's like to be an orphan, having lost both his parents in a tragic automobile accident. Olson explains what led him to create Both Hands--a faith-based nonprofit serving orphans, widows, and adoptive families.
About the Guest
J.T. Olson knows what it's like to be an orphan, having lost both his parents in a tragic automobile accident. Olson explains what led him to create Both Hands--a faith-based nonprofit serving orphans, widows, and adoptive families.
J.T. Olson knows what it’s like to be an orphan, having lost both his parents when he was a child. Olson explains what led him to create his organization.
Bob: JT Olson was a successful young salesman. His career was going well, but his boss decided to take a risk and confront him.
JT: We went for a drive. He pulled off and said: “JT, what are you doing with your life? You’re one of our best—you can do almost anything you want—but where are you headed?” I said, “I’m not sure.” He said, “Well…” and he began to share the gospel with me.
I remember it was that night where I made a decision to say, “Yes; this is what I want.” I mean, all my life I never stopped believing in God; but I just think it is one thing to have someone give you a gift—it’s all wrapped up beautiful and it’s sitting on the table—it’s another thing to open it / pull it out of the box and accept it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, August 8th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
It’s because of the gift that JT Olson received from God—the gift of His salvation—that God has used him to be a gift to so many others. We’ll hear his story today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’ve been hearing a story this week from a guy who—if you’d heard the early story of his life, you wouldn’t think, “This is a guy who someday is going to be a conduit to bless a lot of widows and a lot of orphans,” but that’s how God works; isn’t it?
Dennis: On the other hand, you might look at him and go, “Maybe God was setting him up, all the way back when.”
JT Olson joins us again on the broadcast. Welcome back, JT
JT: Thanks; great to be here.
Dennis: JT is the Founder and Executive Director of a ministry to orphans and widows—it’s called Both Hands. Why the name Both Hands? You have to explain that.
JT: I don’t know, but it hit me when I thought about this whole thing—how it all works—I thought, “Both hands.” The tagline I came up with was: “One for the widow. One for the orphan.”
Dennis: So you raise money for people who are adopting an orphan by helping widows instead of playing golf.
Dennis: I got it; didn’t I?
JT: You did. [Laughter]
Bob: Explain to folks what you’re talking about when you say that.
JT: Well, I help a family recruit their team / their friends; then they find a widow in their community. I coach them through the whole process, by the way. Their friends send out letters, asking people, “Would you sponsor me for the day while I work on this widow’s house?” They fix up the widow’s house—they try to get all the supplies donated. I encourage them to do things that are mostly de-cluttering—cleaning, landscaping, painting / simple stuff. The money they raise—100 percent of the money they raise goes towards the cost of the adoption. Actually, Both Hands doesn’t take any money out for our operations.
Bob: And you said 800 orphans and 750 widows, in rough numbers, that’s how many you’ve helped? In what span of time?—how long have you been doing this?
JT: We started in August of ’08; we’ve now done 665 projects in 42 states—
Dennis: —and helped almost 800 orphans and 700—and what was it?
Dennis: 39 widows.
JT: And have raised $7.6 million for families.
Dennis: Cool. That’s really cool. And you’ve written a book, called The Orphan, the Widow, and Me, which is a story—really, your story of how you grew up on a farm with five brothers and sisters and how your parents were killed in a car wreck when you were 12 years old. Your uncle pulled you into a suburb of Milwaukee and, along with his three other children, raised you guys.
Dennis: Wow! What a story of God’s redemption and grace. Do you know when you became a follower of Christ? Was there a point in time? How did you experience God’s redemption?
JT: I think, in the process of selling books, you see and meet so many people that you’re constantly exposed to it; because you’re exposed to His power and people will share that with you.
But it was really at the start of my fifth summer—and that had to be 1979—the Senior Vice President of Southwestern, Allan Clements, during sales school / a very busy time, just at the end of the day, he pulled me aside and we went for a drive. He pulled off and said, “JT, what are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean, what am I doing?” “What are you doing with your life?” He said, “You’re one of our best—you can do almost anything you want—but where are you headed?” I said, “I’m not sure.” He said, “Well…” and he began to share the gospel with me.
I remember it was that night where I made a decision to say, “Yes; this is what I want.” I mean, all my life I knew about it / I never stopped believing in God; but I just think it is one thing to have someone give you a gift—it’s all wrapped up beautiful and it’s sitting on the table / it’s one thing to be given that gift—it’s another thing to open it / pull it out of the box and accept it.
Dennis: And what change occurred in your life?
JT: Well, I think it was more of a slow curve.
It wasn’t like a hairpin turn, more like a railroad turn. [Laughter]
Dennis: Several-mile turn! [Laughter]
JT: And I think I was always very service-minded; because what always fired me up, I think, was trying to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what drove me to recruit my friends to sell books, because I wanted my friends to experience what I experienced. I know some of them did. I loved what we sold. I thought it would make a difference in people’s lives if they had our product in their home. I loved working with college students, and that grew / that probably got stronger; but also just realizing what was important.
I was still in my 20s. Still in your 20s, you’re pretty motivated to make a difference—you know, to do something—that’s in your years, you know.
Bob: You were also single at the time.
Bob: You’d had girlfriends; right?
Bob: But nobody serious?
JT: Until one day this young lady walked into one of my interviews. It was an interview of ten people, and she was really pretty cute.
Dennis: Pretty good salesperson, too, I guess; huh?
JT: At the time, I didn’t know that; but she turned out to be pretty good. [Laughter] I explained the process—
Dennis: Did she bushwhack you?! [Laughter]
JT: She—when she tells the story—she says, “I wanted to make it fiscally irresponsible for him to ignore me.” [Laughter]
Dennis: Oh, that’s really—that’s mixing the motivations; huh?
JT: Yes. Well, she went out and did a good job her first summer; but the second summer was when she really shined. She recruited 23 people to come with her, and I never had a recruiter who brought that many. In fact, that doesn’t happen very often.
Dennis: Twenty-three salespeople!
JT: Yes; she recruited 23 other people from University of Wisconsin to come with her and sell books.
Bob: You said you noticed her your first day, though.
JT: Oh, yes. I interviewed all the students in my organization; but yes, she stood out as just strikingly beautiful, as she is today.
Bob: So, at the end of that interview, did you say, “What are you doing tonight?”
JT: No. No, no, no, no, no! [Laughter] I would never do that. That was one of the rules—you didn’t mix that.
Bob: So how long did that gap go from that first day until you did mix that?
Dennis: Until you fired her. [Laughter]
JT: Well, actually, she had come back and was recruiting this big team. It was sometime right about April of probably ’83. She was bringing this team out—and remember—when you’re bringing a team of 23, I spent a lot with her / she spent a lot of time with me—because she was doing something that needed a lot of help, and I helped her.
Dennis: Of course! Of course!
Bob: How kind of you.
Dennis: You were just being a helpful guy!
JT: She would literally sit on the floor at my feet and ask me questions about management.
JT: No; she would say that / she says that story; okay? I’m not telling you anything she wouldn’t say. [Laughter]
But you know, the thing is / what was interesting—and I guess it was different—is that we had developed a very common, mutual respect for one another. That’s what was different. I really respected her / admired her, and I think she felt the same way about me.
Bob: Were you starting to grow spiritually in these years?
JT: Oh, yes.
Bob: And she came from a spiritual background?
JT: Yes. She had gone to church as a young person, I think she accepted Christ her senior year in high school; so yes, she was pretty well-grounded.
Bob: Was she looking for somebody who would be a spiritual leader in a relationship?
JT: I don’t think—when she first walked into the interview—that was on her mind; but I think, as we worked together, I think she began to see things in me that she might have liked a little.
Bob: Yes. [Laughter] So, when came the moment that you said, “You know…”
Dennis: Humbly speaking; right? [Laughter]
Bob: When was the moment that you said, “You know, it’s time for us to have dinner”?
Bob: Now remember, she’s an employee. She could still bring a lawsuit against you.
JT: I know. I know it, and I had kissed her before that second summer—
JT: —and I just didn’t know—like we just—yes, I did that; okay?—but she went out to sell, and then we were kind of—just weren’t real great friends that fall when I came back—but some days we were good friends and some days we weren’t. I just couldn’t figure it all out, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to be dating her.
But I remember getting a call from my boss, and he had spent some time with her. She had told him that she loved me. He said, “Would you marry him?” She said, “I would marry him tomorrow if he asked me.” Fred said, “Okay; but…” you know.
I just knew I wasn’t supposed to date her; but he called me up and said: “JT, I had a long talk with Sarah. Go ahead and date her.”
I still remember where I was—I was at the Cliff House in Decorah, Iowa, at Luther College when I got that call. I thought, “Okay!”
Bob: The Hallelujah Chorus started playing in the background. [Laughter]
Dennis: So, was the kiss that you gave her—was that a reward for great selling?
JT: Ahh—yes; that was a reward for great selling. [Laughter]
Dennis: So how long before you proposed to her?
JT: Permission came sometime in the first part of December—
Dennis: —to date her?
JT: To date her; yes. I asked her to marry me in February, and we eloped in April.
Dennis: You were how old?
JT: I was 27 / she was 20.
Bob: Okay. That’s a little fact you just kind of snuck in there at the end—the seven-year gap. [Laughter]
JT: Well, back then, if you remember, I was within the Prince Charles rule. He and Diana were 13 years apart.
Bob: That’s true. [Laughter]
Bob: Well, after you guys married, you started going to church together. There was some stuff happening in your lives / in your hearts, especially around the subject of abortion.
Bob: Tell us what happened.
JT: I don’t know. The more I went to church—and again, I went to church—I enjoyed it / I didn’t go to church because I had to. I enjoyed it, because I was hearing some great teaching from some great teachers in Nashville—Don Finto / Scotty Smith—I mean, these are guys who are giants.
JT: But it really opened my eyes. The more you read Scripture, the more you see how much God loves us and how He loves us all—and how He loves us / I mean, from when we’re formed in our mother’s womb—that’s pretty strong, right there / that’s pretty clear: “In the womb I loved you, I knew you, and I formed you. I changed my attitude about it.
Dennis: What had been your attitude about it?
JT: Pretty pro-choice. You know, I came from a liberal college. This is the ’70s, where I came in; but by the time I was in the ’80s —and 27/28 years old and growing more, Scripturally, it became clear to me that this was not something, as a nation, that we should be doing.
Bob: Yes; I remember that same time of life. I remember Mary Ann and me talking about abortion. We kind of adopted that: “Well, I wouldn’t want my daughter to have one; but I guess everybody has to make up their own mind,” until we saw Francis Schaeffer’s movie—Whatever Happened to the Human Race——and the first one was on abortion. That was a paradigm shift for us. I mean, we walked out of that movie sobered by what we’d just seen. All of a sudden, we thought: “This is bigger than just, ‘Everybody has to make up their own mind.’ We’re talking about human beings / we’re talking about lives here.”
Dennis: And one student that you worked with—her name was Rose?
Dennis: Tell them about her.
JT: Well, there was—Rose was one girl. We had about three or four of them, through the ’90s, who ended up staying with us while they were pregnant and found themselves in situations they hadn’t planned.
I remember one was Deb—she was determined to have an abortion. I remember it was in January of that year. A bunch of students were in Nashville for this annual meeting, and she had driven down from Wisconsin with a bunch of other students. One of my other students had come up and said: “Hey, Deb is pregnant. Don’t worry about it, though; she’s getting an abortion next Wednesday in Iowa.” I’m going, “What?!” You know, I just thought, “That’s not a good idea.”
I told my wife about it. She ended up spending some time with Deb and trying to counsel her and trying to get her see, maybe, a different way to look at this—and even talking to her about, “You can come live with us.” Deb said: “No; I can’t. My mom and dad would be so disappointed in me. I’m kind of their star child, and what am I going to do? What’s it going to look like? What’s the shame?”
She said: “Just live with us. We’ll adopt the baby and everything will be fine. You can go right back to living your life,” because we were kind of experiencing some infertility issues at that point. She said, “No”; and she drove back to Wisconsin.
I remember—somewhere / had to be in Indiana, on the way back—she heard that song from Eric Clapton and the phrase, “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” It switched—some switch flipped—and all of a sudden, she said, “I can’t do this.” She ended up telling her mom / telling her dad. She showed up at our house about a week later, on the doorstep, saying, “Is that deal still good?” [Laughter] We said, “Sure.” She stayed with us. It was interesting that the father [of the baby] was really, really mad at me.
He was one of my students, too; and Todd had worked with me for five summers. When you work with someone for five summers in this kind of a job at Southwestern, it becomes really close. When you come back for five years, you come back because you have a strong relationship with your manager. He and I were pretty tight; but when he found out that I was not onboard with what he wanted to do—and that was abort this child—he got mad. He was mad, and he was mad at everybody; and I heard about it.
I had to care more about life than I did about whether or not someone was going to be mad at me.
So Deb stayed with us. At one point, she ended up deciding to keep the child. It happened at the doctor’s office the same time my wife found out that she was pregnant. [Laughter] It’s a great chapter in the book. [Laughter] It’s a funny story. It’s just amazing how she was sitting there, trying to figure out, “How do I tell the Olsons that I’ve changed my mind?” because Sarah had noticed she wasn’t being happy.
It was at the doctor’s office—and she was going in for the needles and the blood pressure stuff, you know, and she was about to pass out—and Sarah recognized that. She got right in her face and said: “Look at me, Deb. Look at me! Look at my eyelashes; count my eyelashes.” Sarah had taken her pregnancy test and put it on the counter—it was negative—and so she reached for the pregnancy test: “Like this pregnancy test that I took that’s negative. Look at this. It’s just—” and then she looked at it, and it was positive. She said: “Whose is this? Whose is this?” And the nurse says: “That’s yours! That’s yours!”
“What! What! What! We’re pregnant?”
It was at that moment where Deb told her: “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you, but I don’t want to give this child up. I can’t let you adopt him.”
JT: That was the moment we found out we were pregnant. I think it happened a couple times—women stayed with us and we were going to adopt them [their baby] and then they decided to keep it, and we ended up being pregnant.
But you know what? The guy—the father [of Deb’s baby]—what I admired / ended up really liking was that he, at some point, decided to become involved in Ashton’s life. It was amazing. Now, I wasn’t aware of that. He had contacted the mom, Deb, and her husband and said, “Can I be involved in Ashton’s life?”; because he had gotten married; and his wife said, “You have a child and you’re not even supporting her?” His wife kind of got on him. So he became a very important part—well, I didn’t know this—so 18 years after Ashton was born.
I should tell you—the best card we got / one of the best things I’ve ever been given—
—a gift—was after Ashton was born. We got a card in the mail about a week later from Deb’s mother, Ashton’s grandmother. It just had two sentences—it says: “Thank you for being there when my Deb needed someone,” and “Thank you for saving my granddaughter’s life.”
JT: [Emotion in voice] That’s gold! That’s gold! That’s a reward.
Dennis: You had to hearken back to the drive out of Los Angeles when you turned to your boss with Southwestern, thanking him for believing in you, as a young man / changing your life.
JT: It did; that’s exactly right! Eighteen years later, I went to the high school graduation of Ashton.
JT: I walk into that room; and there’s Elaine, Ashton’s grandmother. She runs up the stairs and starts crying and hugging Sarah. I look across the room and there’s Todd, the father. I didn’t know what was going to happen; I just saw him walking towards me.
I hadn’t talked to him in 18 years; but he walked up to me and he stopped / he shook my hand: “Hi, JT,” “Hi, Todd.” And then he kind of stepped back like he had to deliver a speech or something, you know, just like he braced himself. He said, “I just want to say how sorry I am.” He said: “I was a jerk, and I was so bad. I was so selfish,” and he started confessing just how he felt. He said how wrong he was—he said, “Ashton’s turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t thank you.” He said, “I want to thank you and Sarah,” and started thanking—and he couldn’t finish / he just started sobbing.
I remember just hugging him and feeling those shoulders going up and down in sobs. Here was a man who almost made a mistake 18 years ago, and here his daughter’s graduating. Last year, she got married; and her bio father and her dad both walked her down the aisle.
Bob: Oh, wow.
JT: You talk about a wedding? I’m so glad I was there to see it—that’s a difference you can make.
Dennis: I just appreciate you being available. You start thinking about the choice to abort a child—people don’t go out to their graduation, 18 years later / they don’t go out to the wedding—to the handoff.
JT: No; they don’t.
Dennis: You just wrapped some flesh around that.
I’ve been thinking about this question. My listeners know that I’ve had a favorite question I like to ask guests. I want Bob to tell our listeners how to get a copy of your book; but in the meantime, I want you to be thinking about your answer to this question, because I’ve been so amazed by the tapestry of your life / the choices you’ve made. I’ve wanted to ask you the question: “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done in all your life?”
Courage is doing your duty in the face of fear.
So, Bob—tell them how they can get a copy of the book, and then we’ll find out JT’s response.
Bob: Well, the title of the book is The Orphan, the Widow, and Me: Paying it Forward with Both Hands. We have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; the title of the book, The Orphan, the Widow, and Me, by JT Olson. You can also call to order at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Dennis: Well, we’ve listened to a true hero on behalf of orphans and widows. It’s not often we meet someone who is caring for both the orphan and the widow.
Bob: Yes; yes.
Dennis: We’ve seen a lot of ministries to orphans / a few to widows; but JT—you’ve been a great model of how you’ve married those two, interestingly, and helped hundreds and taught other people how to help too.
So, I just kept thinking about this question—and I try not to flip it out every interview and every broadcast—but I had to ask you the question: “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?”
JT: There’s a few of them that come to mind; but the thing that comes to mind most is when my wife was pregnant with my first child, because I was in Oshkosh, traveling. She called me, long-distance, eleven o’ clock at night—this was before cell phones—and she said, “The doctor took a test today and said our baby has amniocentesis,”—a couple things / spina bifida—it was all this stuff that was not good. She was crying; and I said: “It is okay. It’s okay.” She says, “No.” Then she said, “The doctor said ‘You’re going to have to decide about this pregnancy.’” She said, “Would you come home please?” I said, “What?!”
“You know, ‘Decide.’” She said, “Would you come home?” I said, “Yes; I’ll come home.
I happened to be with Alan Clements—the man who led me to Christ—he was traveling with me that day. The next morning, I met him early for breakfast and I told him—I said, “Alan, I’m going home.” At Southwestern—we have this pretty strong work ethic. You know, you worked; and if you had a plan to work, you work. He looked at me, and I know he’d been going through some hard stuff. He says, “JT, I wish, when I was your age, I made those kinds of decisions.” He said: “Go on home. I’ll take care of things here.”
I drove—I got in the car. I kept—ringing through my ear was the doctor saying we have to decide about this pregnancy. I thought, “How do you say you’re pro-life and then, when something like that’s faced, you say, ‘Well, now, not for me’?” I remember somewhere down halfway to Nashville—that 13-hour drive—it hit me / I said, “There’s no way.” I said: “If you’re pro-life, you’re pro-life. If you believe life’s important…”
By the time I got to Illinois/Indiana—in that area—my son / my imaginary son was in the car seat next to me.
He was eight years old; he was ten years; he was twelve years old—there was a wheelchair in the back—and I was driving home. I had imaginary conversations with him about what he can do with his life. One time he said—if he was moping—and I said, “Well, what are you moping about?” He says: “I can’t do anything! Look at me!” I said: “Listen to that radio. You can be the best DJ in the world. Come on! There are a lot of things you can do.”
I was so fired up by the time I got home—my wife wasn’t there yet. You know, I got home—she was still very sad; but me—I was fired up. I said, “No matter what,” because it was basically—I thought, “Maybe this isn’t all about JT / maybe this is what JT needs. JT needs to be given something like this. Maybe he needs to have a little bit of grace and compassion, understand that not everyone has the driver personality. Maybe this is what JT needs. God’s given me this situation, because this is what JT needs.”
I walked into the house and I was fired up. I said, “Sarah, this is it”—she was all sad. I started kissing her belly, singing White Christmas to Jeff, you know, and everything—and that was Bing Crosby. [Laughter]
And she said, “What are you talking about?” I said: “Sarah, we are in this thing together. We’re going to be able to make it. This is going to be fine. We’re not going to make any decision. No decision has to be made about this.” Turned out—the test was a false positive.
Dennis: Oh wow.
JT: And Jeff’s amazing—he’s smart as a whip—wonderful young man. It just grieves me to think that: “How many decisions like that didn’t go that way when people were given that news?”
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