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We hear from 5 people in Baltimore who share their stories about gratitude and thankfulness, from coaches, poets, educators and more.

It wasn’t until the third autumn of the Civil War, in 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln set aside a holiday in the United States for counting blessings.

But philosophers and religious figures have extolled the value of gratitude for centuries. The Roman statesman Cicero called it “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” The Apostle Paul urged early Christians to “give thanks in all circumstances."

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And modern science has found links between a steady practice of gratitude and lower stress levels, better cardiac health, improved workplace productivity and positive rewiring of the brain.

Here are five Baltimoreans who have chosen to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” in their lives, whatever the time of year, and how doing so has changed their perspectives.

Zach Snitzer

Director of business development and co-founder of Maryland Addiction Recovery Center

Zach Snitzer, cofounder of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, poses for a portrait in his offices. "Hope Painting 1" is by Gaia, a local artist. 11-18-2019
Zach Snitzer, cofounder of the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, poses for a portrait in his offices. "Hope Painting 1" is by Gaia, a local artist. 11-18-2019 (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Looking back, Zach Snitzer realizes that as a boy in Owings Mills, he had plenty to be thankful for.

His family was supportive. He was bright, popular and athletic. But he harbored a belief he now knows is common among those who tend toward addiction ― that if others really knew him, they’d realize what a fraud he was.

He learned in middle school that beer and pot erased the feeling. Xanax, coke and, later, heroin did the same.

Even as his life fell apart ― as he lost friends, alienated family, even saw a friend killed during a drug deal ― Snitzer felt pathologically entitled to his highs.

“I deserve this,” he recalled thinking as he shot up. “Now I feel what everybody else gets to feel.”

He was in his 20s when he first gave rehab a chance. He found his painful road to recovery lined with gratitude.

At first the thoughts came in flashes: “I feel sick, but I’m grateful I got some sleep.” Then: “I’m thankful my friends and family are still here after all I’ve done.” As he noted such blessings in a journal, others came to mind, and a network of positive associations seemed to form.

Now 40 and 12 years clean, Snitzer, a Pikesville resident, knows his growth had scientific roots: Research shows that cultivating gratitude rewires the brain’s reward centers, weakening old cravings and building new neural connections.

He and his partners have made that knowledge part of their treatment program at the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, the thriving facility they co-founded in Towson in 2013.

He still takes time each day to note what he’s thankful for and teaches his kids to do the same.

“Every blessing you realize you have is a brick in the wall of your health,” he said.

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Antoine Jarrell (A.J.) Hayes

Author, poet and ’zine maker

Antoine J. Hayes poses for a portrait in front of an East Baltimore vacant home with a tree growing out of it. It's similar to the one that inspired him to write and publish his story, "A Tree Grows in Baltimore." 11-11-2019
Antoine J. Hayes poses for a portrait in front of an East Baltimore vacant home with a tree growing out of it. It's similar to the one that inspired him to write and publish his story, "A Tree Grows in Baltimore." 11-11-2019 (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun/Baltimore Sun)

Antoine Hayes started writing at 8, when he realized how much he loved rewriting fairy tales. In high school and college, he penned fantasy novels, including a 1,100-page trilogy, “The Crowning of the Good King."

In his 30s, he turned his eye toward the world around him and saw that it, too, can be suffused with magic.

It all began with a recurring dream. Hayes kept seeing a rundown rowhouse in an abandoned lot, its roof and windows gone. But a tree grew up inside it, branches uncontained.

The Baltimore City resident realized it was a scene he’d often observed ― a vacant house on North Avenue ― and that the image reflected something he felt: that the human spirit survives in Baltimore, whatever ails the city.

His poem, “A Tree Grows in Baltimore,” proved a hit on his website. Readers wanted more. And his 20th book, a collection of poems and essays called “Gratitude: Baltimore,” became a paean to things he loves about his hometown: the arabbers and their horses, the dirt-bike riders whose appearance evokes summer, even the view out his window.

He’d always disliked the grimy alley below his apartment, but once he left his blinds open and saw sunbeams gleaming off a church roof.

“My opinion changed once I started letting in the sunlight,” he wrote in “Gratitude.”

At readings, he ran “gratitude workshops” in which guests noted what they’re thankful for.

Gratitude, he said, can start small but get bigger, surmounting what we normally see.

“Sometimes you have to step back and look at things differently," he said. “You can see beauty in a gutter. Or a tree growing up through an old rowhouse.”

Linda Roszak Burton

Executive coach, author and “gratitude advocate”

Linda Roszak Burton helps teach businesses the power of positive thinking, with a major emphasis on gratitude, and the science behind it. Here, she poses for a portrait in her home office, in front of signs reading "gratitude," "thankful," "joy," and a number of books on these topics. 11-12-2019.
Linda Roszak Burton helps teach businesses the power of positive thinking, with a major emphasis on gratitude, and the science behind it. Here, she poses for a portrait in her home office, in front of signs reading "gratitude," "thankful," "joy," and a number of books on these topics. 11-12-2019. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Linda Roszak Burton was well along in her career as a consultant and coach when tragedy shook her world.

Her beloved sister, Debbie, developed breast cancer at 38 and died three years later.

“Coming face-to-face with mortality was a wake-up call for me,” she said.

The way she responded ― by starting an executive coaching company in Debbie’s honor ― defined her future.

First came research for the firm. Some of the most interesting new findings in behavioral psychology, she learned, centered on gratitude.

A steady practice of thankfulness over time, studies showed, correlated with lower blood pressure, deeper sleep, stronger immune systems and enhanced well-being. It also boosted morale and productivity and reduced burnout in the workplace.

Such information clearly had potential applications for DRW Inc., the firm she founded in 1999, that bears Debbie’s initials.

She would soon be applying it in her own life. Months after her sister’s passing, Burton was still so grief-stricken she decided to try what she’d been learning.

She journaled about the times she’d shared with Debbie, wrote thank-you notes to those who had helped, felt relief her sister was now without pain. In time, the question “Why Debbie?" gave way to a more lasting sense of appreciation.

And for 20 years now, Burton, an Ellicott City resident, has poured what she learned and felt into harnessing the power of gratitude for clients. She deploys “gratitude intervention” workshops on behalf of such companies as Johns Hopkins Hospital and Marriott International. Her book “Gratitude Heals” is a standard in the field.

And though she loves how Thanksgiving “elevates” the healing power of gratitude, she doesn’t think the effort should be limited to a single Thursday in November.

“Let’s find ways to keep it stoked,” she said.

Shvilla Rasheem

Artist and education director at Creative Alliance

S. Rasheem poses for a portrait during a "Kerplunk!" Class session at Creative Alliance. It's a drop-in art class she helps teach for children grades 1-3 on Saturdays, and this month's theme is "Gratitude and Growth."
S. Rasheem poses for a portrait during a "Kerplunk!" Class session at Creative Alliance. It's a drop-in art class she helps teach for children grades 1-3 on Saturdays, and this month's theme is "Gratitude and Growth." (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Every Saturday afternoon this month, one classroom at Creative Alliance in Highlandtown was filled with 6- to 10-year-olds working on a pair of projects: designing and making thank-you cards and planting seeds in pots of soil.

They were students in “Kerplunk,” a drop-in arts program whose theme for November was "Gratitude and Growth.”

The card-making was meant to cultivate thankfulness, the work with plants to mark the harvest theme many cultures celebrate this time of year.

The sessions are an outgrowth of something education director Shvilla Rasheem said she has learned over the years: Although gratitude does not come naturally, it’s a powerful force that fosters growth when we tap it.

The Baltimore resident makes a habit of doing just that ― thanking friends and strangers for blessings large and small, writing thank-you cards and notes, and at times simply seeing how many people she can compliment in a given month.

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“It’s just a way of forcing myself to see something good in everything,” she said. “Where your focus goes, your energy goes. Gratitude means appreciation, and appreciation literally means increasing value. Being thankful increases our character and value.”

Rasheem calls herself especially mindful of spreading the gratitude message in her teaching, in part because children tend to be bombarded with media images designed to suggest they’re “not good enough” (unless, of course, they buy particular clothes, gadgets or video games).

By designing, painting and drawing the thank-you cards on Saturdays, she said, they work the thankfulness muscle, in the process building their own well-being.

After they plant their seed in soil, they’re asked to think of the fledgling plant as a symbol of their own character and consider how they might go about “watering” it.

They paint words on their pot to reflect the qualities ― kindness, love, family ― they believe will help them grow.

“A lot of times, it’s something about saying thank you,” she said.

Christine Hagan

Co-founder of That’s Gratitude thank-you card service

Chris Hagan, co-founder of "That's Gratitude," poses for a portrait in her home. That's Gratitude, founded by Hagan and her business partner Laura Kozak-Canoles, specializes in creating hand-written thank-you notes for individual and corporate clients.
Chris Hagan, co-founder of "That's Gratitude," poses for a portrait in her home. That's Gratitude, founded by Hagan and her business partner Laura Kozak-Canoles, specializes in creating hand-written thank-you notes for individual and corporate clients. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Long before her own wedding, Christine Hagan’s mother told her of an uncle who’d sent a relative a wedding gift, never got a thank-you and stewed about it for years.

After she got married, Hagan and her husband wrote 265 thank-you cards by hand in two days, finishing before leaving on their honeymoon.

But the experience was so pressure-packed it occurred to the new bride that there might be a business niche for someone willing to write such cards. She pitched it to her friend and business partner, Laura Kozak.

Nearly 15 years later, Hagan and Laura Kozak-Canoles own and run That’s Gratitude.

Things were a bit bumpy at first. They got a lot of positive publicity, Hagan said, but reviews from the “etiquette police” were harsh.

“Some people questioned the sincerity of having someone else write your thank-yous, but we feel it’s more important to get the gratitude expressed,” she said. "How you did it is not what should be focused on.”

It wasn’t just harried newlyweds who came calling. Expectant moms, birthday celebrators, those grieving loved ones and corporate clients sought them out as well.

The co-owners and their small staff work hard to personalize matters. They send clients a long questionnaire, conduct follow-up interviews and hand-write as many thank-yous as the customer requests, each including insider details.

They advise clients to hand-write their own cards to those who know their writing, but the rest never learn they’re reading another’s hand.

Hagan, a Nottingham resident, said they’re happy to help those who simply lack time, but they take special pride in helping the bereaved who are still recovering, the physically disabled and those who feel deep gratitude but can’t find the words to express it.

They’ve never heard of a client like Hagan’s uncle, which means thousands of people have, in fact, felt sufficiently thanked.

“We’re happy to be a conduit," she said. “‘Thank you’ are still two darned important words.”

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