FamilyLife Today®

Having a Heart for the Orphan

with J.T. Olson | August 7, 2017
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Along with his four siblings, J.T. Olson was orphaned as a child. Olson shares his family's legacy and explains how a summer job propelled him into a successful career as a salesman and rejuvenated the love he had for God as a child.

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  • About the Guest

  • Lord Buckley's beat cat version of the Gettysburg Address - A different kind of Adoption Fundraiser

J.T. Olson was orphaned as a child. Olson shares his family’s legacy and explains how a summer job propelled him into a successful career as a salesman and rejuvenated the love he had for God as a child.

Having a Heart for the Orphan

With J.T. Olson
August 07, 2017
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Bob: JT Olson remembers being invited to play golf as a fundraiser for a worthy cause, but he had no idea of where that golfing day would lead him.

JT: I did what I was supposed to do—mail letters out. A good friend of mine (who I was in a Bible study with)—he sends my letter back to me, but he doesn’t send a check. He just scribbles on my letter—he says, “JT, if you told me you were working on a widow’s house, I might sponsor you; but you’re just golfing. Nice cause, but not my money.”

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, August 7th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. That response from a friend rocked JT Olson’s world, and we’ll hear today about where that response has led him. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.



If our listeners don’t know what James 1:27 says, they just haven’t been paying attention; right?

Dennis: Well, the Bible talks about pure and undefiled religion. It’s talking about something that is close to God’s heart that reflects who He is. It’s someone who goes near the orphan—cares for their needs—and also the widows.

We have a real champion with us today who cares for the widows and the orphans. Before I tell you who he is, he just recited, Bob—I have never seen you as mesmerized in all—in 25 years.

Bob: It was pretty spellbinding.

Dennis: —in 25 years.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: I want our listeners to turn their radios up just a little bit, or their iPod, or their computer, and listen to a rendition of the Gettysburg Address like you’ve never heard before. Take it away, JT.



JT: Four [big] hits and seven licks ago, our before daddies swung forth upon this sweet, groovy land a swingin’, stompin’, [jumpin’,] blowin’, wailin’ new nation. Hip to the cool groove of liberty, and solid sent with the ace lick that all [the studs, chicks], cats and kitties, red, white, or blue is created level in front. [Laughter]

Dennis: And you heard that—when did you hear that?—in high school?

JT: High school.

Dennis: And you committed it to memory?  You have a problem that Bob has. [Laughter]


Bob: It is, apparently, because I looked it up online. There was a comedian named Lord Buckley—did you know this?—and this is his rendition of the Gettysburg Address. I found it in a book on Google. You put it to memory, and you really—you are really a frustrated radio guy—you sat down in front of a microphone and thought [speaking in a blue’s accent], “Hey, you cats and kittens out there in radio-land.” [Laughter]

Dennis: The problem is—Bob will have it committed to memory before sunset today. [Laughter]

Bob: [Speaking in a blue’s voice] “Four hits and seven licks ago…” [Laughter]


Dennis: Well, that was the voice of JT Olson, the Founder and Executive Director of Both Hands, which is a ministry to both orphans and widows.



Explain what Both Hands does.

JT: We help families raise money for adoptions. We do it by helping them organize a work party among their friends, and they spend the day serving a widow. The way they raise money is —they send letters out to people, saying, “Would you sponsor me for the day?”

Dennis: So you’ve helped over 700 widows and 775 orphans.

JT: Yes; the numbers change every weekend. I think the numbers for orphans are: 799 kids are no longer orphans and 739 widows have been blessed.

Bob: The impetus for this comes out of the verse we were talking about; right?

JT: Yes; yes.

Bob: James 1:27—which says pure and undefiled religion is to help the widow and the orphan in their distress. How did this get weighty on your heart?

JT: Well, that’s a great story. I was on the board on Bethany Christian Services in Nashville—their local board—and my job one year was to do a fundraiser, you know. I chose to do a golf fundraiser, where you mail letters out and say, “Would you sponsor me?”



I did what I was supposed to do—mail letters out. A good friend of mine (who I was in a Bible study with)—he sends my letter back to me, but he doesn’t send a check. He just scribbles on my letter—he says, “JT, if you told me you were working on a widow’s house, I might sponsor you; but you’re just golfing. Nice cause, but not my money.” [Laughter]


Bob: Wow; wow!

Dennis: Well, they say the wounds of a friend bring healing; huh?

JT: Every time I read that Proverb, I think of him; and I think of Bill Iverson and his courage to say what was on his mind, you know. It really hurt my feelings; but at the same time, I thought, “That’s a really good idea.” You know, when I called him a couple days later, and we talked about it and laughed about it—he still didn’t give me any money. [Laughter]

Dennis: Well, you ended up starting a ministry, then, because of that?

JT: You know, it hit me as, “What a great idea.” Whenever I saw a fundraiser after that, whether it be a 5K or a golf tournament, I kept asking myself, if they were working on a widow’s house would that be more compelling?



Would it mean more? I just couldn’t figure out the other piece to it.

So I’m in church one day, a couple years later. I run into a good friend of mine, Don Meyer. I say, “Don, what’s up?” He said, “I’m adopting four kids from Moldova.” I’ve adopted; so I knew it was going to be expensive. I said, “How much is that going to cost?” He said, “Well, it’s about $65,000.” I said, “Do you have any idea how you’re going to raise that?” He said, “No”; and I said, “I think I have an idea.”

He and I got together—put a plan together—we recruited about 13/14 guys. We all mailed letters out to everyone we knew, saying: “Would you sponsor me while I work on this widow’s house? All the money we raise is going to go towards the cost of this adoption to get these four kids home from Moldova.” We sent letters out. I found a widow in Nashville who needed help—got all the supplies donated / we didn’t spend any money.

Dennis: Cool; cool.

JT: And we spent the day working on  Mrs. Seal’s house. When it was over, we’d raised over $70,000.

Dennis: So the cost of fundraising was zero, and you raised money to be able to help this guy get four kids.



JT: Yes; and a widow was blessed beyond her wildest imagination.

Dennis: What did you do for her house?


JT: We put some siding on / we took down a chimney that was about to fall off her roof—we got that out of there safely. We took down a dead tree, we painted some of her house, we replaced gas burners, and we had somebody donate a furnace—the kind that you see in a hotel—we put that in her house, in the wall, so it made it a lot safer. We de-cluttered her room. We fixed up the back of her house—I mean, it was great.

Bob: Is this your background? Do you do remodeling and home care?

JT: No! [Laughter]


Dennis: He’s a golfer!

Bob: That’s a good point.

JT: My wife was laughing right now. [Laughter]


Bob: How did you even know how to do any of these things?

JT: I didn’t. I didn’t know how to do them, but I figured I knew people who did that. I was in a job where I was actually working in the construction industry—I was more in the recruiting industry—but you know, I knew people who did stuff.

Bob: Yes. And you could call a friend who had a friend; right?

JT: Yes. Now, when it comes to pressure-washing, I’m a gifted pressure-washer.

Bob: Yes; that’s right.



JT: “Okay; I can do that.” [Laughter]

Dennis: “That sounds a little within my skill set.” That’s pretty good!

Well, JT has written a book that’s subtitled: Paying It Forward with Both Hands. The name of the book is The Orphan, the Widow, and Me. I want to go to the Me, which is you. I want to ask you what your story is.

JT: Well, you know, it’s interesting; because when Don looked at me and he said, “I’m adopting these four kids from Moldova,” and I said, “What happened, Don?” He said: “I went over there on a mission with this group called ‘Sweet Sleep.’ We deliver beds to orphanages in Moldova. He said, “I fell in love with this boy—this 11-year-old boy, George—we just became inseparable. We started the adoption process. In the process, we found out he has three siblings.” Don looked at me and he said, “We’re not going to break the siblings up.”

That resonated with me, because it took me back to when I was 12 years old. We were living on a farm in northeastern Iowa—there were five of us kids.



I remember—in the spring of ’69, my mom and dad left to go celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary. Us kids were kind of farmed out to different places, you know. I remember Saturday night we were being brought home because Mom and Dad were coming home. I’d played all that day in my friend’s barn—I was pretty dirty, and I had to go down in the basement. My older brother went upstairs. I remember sitting in this chair, bending over, unlacing my boots. My brother comes down the stairs. I look up at him and—I was excited—I said, “Are Mom and Dad home?!”

He looked at me and he said, “Mom and Dad are dead.” I said, “What?!” He said: “Mom and Dad are dead. They were killed in a car accident an hour ago”; and he walked upstairs. I remember hitting the floor—I remember that moment. It stays in your head the rest of your life—that’s what I would call an earth-shattering moment.

I remember hitting the floor, and I remember thinking about—the first thought that went through my head was memories of my dad.



You know, the thought that goes through you is: “What’s going to happen to us? I’m never going to see Mom and Dad again.” I know what it’s like! I know what it’s like to wake up the next morning—and for the first 30 seconds, you think it’s a dream; and then the next 15 seconds you fight with everything you’ve got to make sure it’s a dream; and then it hits you: “This is not a dream. This is my reality, and I’m never going to see Mom and Dad again this side of heaven.”

When Don looked at me and he said, “We’re not going to break the siblings up,” I’m the just-right guy to say that to; because you know what? I know what it’s like to be an orphan; but I know what it’s like to be rescued because, three months before this accident, my mom and dad changed their will— that if anything would happen to them, us five kids would go live with my aunt and uncle—Brianna and Ralph Pfeifer in Milwaukee—they live in a very nice suburb in Milwaukee. They had three kids of their own, and they changed their will too; it was vice versa.



Well, like I said—they had three kids / they took all five of us in. They didn’t break up the siblings either. The stepped up—they’re heroes.

Bob: What was it like for the five of you?—from out in the farmlands to move into the suburbs in Milwaukee with what couldn’t have been a very big house?

JT: My two little sisters—they were five and three at the time of the accident—they moved in right away with my aunt and uncle. Us three boys—we stayed on the farm to finish the school year out; because my dad had a brother, Uncle Clifford—he was a bachelor / he lived with us. [We] three boys stayed on the farm to help Uncle Cliff with chores, and to manage the farm, and to finish the school year out. I think they probably thought that much culture shock would be hard.

Dennis: So you did end up moving, finally, to the suburbs.

JT: Oh, yes.

Dennis: But then it was realized that you had a farm that either needed to produce or was going to be in jeopardy. So the family you were living with took you back to the farm that summer to work the land.

JT: Yes.

Dennis: You, as a young man, helped do that.



JT: Yes; the three boys—us three boys did it. Yes; we helped run the farm with Uncle Clifford.

Dennis: Were you worried? I mean, were you worried about how all that was going to—the planting, the cultivation, the harvesting? I mean, let’s face it—you were young men.

JT: Yes; and that was during the school year—I remember, because the crops were planted before the summertime. I was concerned about it; because you’re wondering: “Uncle Clifford can’t do all this,”—Uncle Clifford was 63 years old at the time of the accident. You know, we drove tractors; but we weren’t skilled enough to plant—you know, you have to be a little bit better to do that.

I remember one day getting off the bus, and it was just amazing—our bus stop was about half a mile from the house, and it’s uphill. You can see a lot of the farm. I remember—it was a beautiful April day—getting off the bus one day—and there were all our neighbors in our fields with their tractors, and their plows, and their planters, and their discs and their drags—and that’s how they did it back then. They were planting our crops. When you’re a farm kid, you know whose tractor belongs to whom.



I remember there were probably seven or eight men out there planting our crops, taking care of their buddy’s kids.

Dennis: That had to have an incredible impact on you, as a young man.


JT: Yes; it made me realize, “This is what people do.” I mean, it’s kind of what you grow up with in a agricultural farm society—you know, when someone’s cows get out, you go help them get them in; and stuff like that—but that was just amazing. I mean, they took their day and planted our crops.

Dennis: I’m just thinking of three young men who’ve lost their daddy. [Emotion in voice] I mean, it wasn’t like you just had some friends show up—they showed up in the midst of your loss.

JT: Right. They showed up and showed us love. They just—it was just one of those—the way the community just kind of came together—it was like: “We got your back! We care about the Olson boys / the Olson girls.”



Bob: The loss of your parents—how did that shape your thinking about who God is, and about life, and about whether things are fair; and did it shake any of what you’d learned, or did you just figure, like Job did: “The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”?

JT: You know, I was in seventh grade. I don’t remember exactly, from a theological perspective, what I was thinking. I remember some things—I remember something that a lady said the night of the visitation. It’s not theologically-sound at all, but she said something that just for some reason ministered to me—she said, “I guess God needed your parents more than we did.” You know, that’s not really sound; but for some reason, that made—it hit me / it didn’t strike me bad—it was like, “Okay.” You know, “I understand that, because I loved them too”; and I loved them.

You know, I don’t know—you just keep moving on. I remember there was a Sunday school teacher.



I remember asking her, about four or five weeks after the accident, you know: “Can people in heaven look down?” I can’t remember an answer; but I remember how it made me feel, and it made me feel like, “It’s going to be okay.”

Dennis: You started growing up in a larger city / larger community, and you got busted in the ninth grade with a dirty novel that you had hidden inside your science book. What happened?

JT: Well, I was in ninth grade, you know, and—[Laughter]


Dennis: Is there any other explanation?

JT: Enough said; right? No; I had a buddy who’d gotten back from a trip to New York for spring break. He found these things—he brought them back, and he gave me one. I was acting up in class and Mr. Fairgroot [spelling uncertain]—he said: “That’s enough, Olson. Back there in the back room.” So he sent me out of class. I was sitting back there in the back—I was supposed to be studying my thing—but Bob had given me this book, and so I was reading.



He walked in and looked at me and he saw it—and he saw what happened—he said, “Okay, that’s it—down to the principal’s office.”

So I got into a little trouble when I got home that night. I’ll never forget that, though; because I walked by my uncle, whose—his business was in the basement, and our bedroom was in the basement that they had. I walked by his office, kind of tiptoeing; but he saw me. I was sitting there about five or six seconds—he says, “Jeff, you want to come in here a minute?” I’m thinking: “Oh, no! The principal—they did call.” So I remember he sat me down and said, “The principal called today—said you got in some trouble.” I said, “Yes; so what?”—I gave him a flip answer.

Bob: Wow!

JT: And I remember he grabbed my shoulder—pulled me—and said: “Listen, buddy; I know it’s been tough. I know that you have a situation that probably most people don’t have. But you know, we have nine people in this family pulling one way and you pulling the other, and all you’re doing is feeling sorry for yourself.



“You bet it’s time to shape up or ship out, because you can feel sorry for yourself as long as you want; but sooner or later, you’re going to find you’re the only person feeling sorry for you. So it’s time to change your attitude.” I just—I mean, that’s what I needed to hear.

Dennis: I know that’s a story from a long time ago.

JT: Yes.

Dennis: But I have to believe there are some dads, grandmas, uncles, moms, who may need to square up with a young man or a young lady who’s being sassy, you know.

JT: Yes.

Dennis: They’re creating a cross-current, or maybe a current in the wrong direction, as your uncle said. Call them up. Don’t just let them destroy their lives. It could be a key defining moment. Was it one for you?

JT: Yes, because I noticed it. He was right—I was feeling sorry. I was moping / I was walking around, feeling sorry for myself: “Poor, poor me.” It wasn’t getting me anywhere. I did notice a change—I started being a little more happy. I think he probably noticed it too.



So that was one of those fence-post pivotal big moments in life that you kind of remember.

Bob: So, when it got time to go to college, what did you decide?

JT: I decided that University of Wisconsin, Madison, was a pretty good place to party. That’s where I ended up going, and that’s why I ended up going there; because my last couple years of high school—I refer to them as “the lost years”—you know, just got in some stuff that probably wasn’t really healthy and got into partying a lot. I still had a lot of friends, and it was great; but I wasn’t headed in the right direction. I went to college, and I remember that I was aimless / I didn’t have a lot of purpose.

Dennis: So, how’d you go to college?—I mean, your uncle had eight kids?

JT: Well, I worked. I had a summer job—I mean, you know, in high school, I had a job—I worked during the school year / I probably worked about 20/24 hours a week. In the summertime, I worked 40 hours a week—I had lawn jobs—and I saved money. Back then, tuition, I think, at Madison was $250 a semester. So, I mean, I saved good money.



There was also just a little bit of money from some lawsuit from the accident / plus, I was an orphan; and there was Social Security. So, between all that, I was able to afford to go to school.

Bob: And during college, you had people, who saw you were headed in the wrong direction, who tried to get you pointed back in the right direction. You had an uncle who tried to get you turned around—that didn’t work—but there were others who came along and tried to get you rerouted too; right?

JT: Yes. Uncle Ralph always encouraged me whenever I’d come home a little too often to party in Milwaukee—he said: “You have to get back to school. You have to study. You have to do something with your life.” It just didn’t make any sense; but at one point, there in the spring of 1975, is when I heard about this company selling books, door to door—the Southwestern Company. My roommate came back and said, “I signed up to sell books.” I said, “You’re crazy,”—I made fun of him.



Then he told me a little bit more about it and found out it was just more about working nights, selling. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll go hear about it.” And I ended up saying, “Yes; I think I can do this.” Literally, that summer job changed my life.

Dennis: Because?


JT: I went out—and instead of going back home and being with all my friends who were partying—I went to be around people who were working 75 to 80 hours a week, and knocking on doors and learning how to handle myself. I mean, that summer I think met with 3,000 different families. I learned how to handle myself—learned how to make a good first impression / learned how to make a presentation. You know, I learned a lot—more than I would have working at the factory in Milwaukee.

Bob: You grew up.

JT: [Laughter] Yes!

Dennis: And he also made a lot of cash too; didn’t you?

JT: I made some money; yes, I was able to afford school; yes.

Dennis: So okay; you’re in the process of growing up that summer. What was the takeaway?

JT: There were several; but the biggest one was—I remember having, at the end of the summertime, my manager, who’d gotten me into it—we were driving away from a Sunday meeting, and I was in Los Angeles.



I’d never been to the west coast—never seen the ocean / never did any of that stuff. I’d had a great summer, and I learned a lot. Dick was driving / I was in the passenger’s side. I’m watching Los Angeles go by—all this stuff I had seen for the summertime—it was great. I looked at Dick and I said: “Dick, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done. You’ve put up with me, you’ve helped me, you’ve helped motivate me, you’ve taught me, and I could not have done this without your help.” He looked at me and he says, “Oh, you could have done it without my help.” I said, “No”; and he said, “Well, you’re welcome.”

I remember turning back and watching the city go by me. The thought hit me, “He must really feel great, because I just thanked him for something that changed my life. If he doesn’t feel great, it’s because I haven’t effectively communicated to him the importance of what he did.” Then it hit me, “Wouldn’t it be great if somebody could feel that way about JT Olson someday?”



Dennis: Yes.

JT: It was powerful.

Dennis: I have a feeling there are a few. You know, this has been sweet.

One more time—I want to hear the Gettysburg Address. [Laughter] We just have to before Bob tells folks how to get your book—those who tuned in late missed it / they have to hear this! Go!

JT: Four [big] hits and seven licks ago, our before daddies swung forth upon this sweet, groovy land a swingin’, stompin’, [jumpin’,] blowin’, wailin’ new nation. Hip to the cool groove of liberty, and solid sent with the ace lick that all [the studs, chicks], cats and kitties, red, white, or blue is created level in front. [Laughter]

Bob: And folks who would like to have it translated—

Dennis: —Bob will tutor you. Call 1-800-FL-TODAY and Bob will tutor you. [Laughter]

Bob: On our website, at, we have what you just recited here. So if folks want to see it, they can see it.



We also have information about the book you’ve written called The Orphan, the Widow, and Me. It tells your story, and it tells about the great work that God has led you to do. Again, the title of the book: The Orphan, the Widow, and Me. You can order from, or call if you’d like to order—1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website——or call 1-800-358-6329 / that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

You know, if you are a regular listener to FamilyLife Today, there’s probably someone you need to say, “Thank you,” to. The problem is—we can’t connect our listeners directly with the folks who help cover the cost of producing and syndicating this radio program—



—those of you who are Legacy Partners / those of you who contribute to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today—you’re the ones who make it possible for tens of thousands of people / really, hundreds of thousands every day to hear practical, biblical help and hope for marriage and family. That’s our mission, here, at FamilyLife.

Every time you make a donation, you’re helping extend the reach of this program so more people can hear God’s design for marriage and family. During the month of August, we’ve had some friends of the ministry who’ve come along and said that they’d like to encourage regular FamilyLife Today listeners to help us extend our reach. They are offering to match every donation we receive this month, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $800,000. That’s a great gift that they’re giving to us, but we can’t take possession of that gift unless we hear from listeners like you.

So would you consider calling or going online today to make a donation so that you can be part of the team that helps extend the reach of FamilyLife Today? Go online at to make an online donation, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—you can donate over the phone.



Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.

Tomorrow, JT Olson’s going to be back with us. We’re going to hear more of your story, JT. We’re going to hear about God’s work in your own heart and life and about how God’s used you, up close and personal, to touch the lives of others. So I hope our listeners can be back with us again tomorrow.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, with help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Episodes in this Series

The Orphan The Widow And Me 2
Both Hands
with J.T. Olson August 8, 2017
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.
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