Lessons Learned From The Smelliest Job Ever

My parents informed me that the purchase of the car left them without funds to pay for my church’s youth camp. It was inevitable; I needed to find work.

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Living in a small farm town and job-hunting as a teenager is a far cry from a delightful experience. In a big city, teens have the option to apply for jobs in fast-food, retail, clerical offices, and much more. Although these positions may be a far cry from a desired career, they all offer a luxury that teens on the farm don’t have… air-conditioning.

My sophomore year of high school was ending, and I needed to find myself a job. My parents, out of the kindness of their heart, took $500 of their hard-earned money and purchased an old clunker for me. At that price, you can just imagine the condition of the vehicle. Nevertheless, I considered this to be a good thing. As I was handed the keys of the car, I was told that I would be responsible to cover the cost of vehicle maintenance and insurance.

The car, a white ’75 Oldsmobile Omega, was made of solid metal. Not only was it heavy, but it was also the size of a small yacht.  Instantly, I knew that the cost of fuel alone was going to be a huge obstacle. In addition, my parents informed me that the purchase of the car left them without funds to pay for my church’s youth camp. It was inevitable; I needed to find work.

The community that I lived in boasted of two small grocery stores and a Dairy Queen. Much to my disappointment, it was a well-known fact that they were fully staffed. The only option available for me was to seek out employment on a farm. Thankfully, before I had the opportunity to reach out to one of the farmers (cue in the sound of a fanfare), my friend David let me know that he had a job for me. His father, one of the most recognized farmers in the valley, had purchased an onion shed and was looking to staff it.

For those of you that don’t know what an onion shed is, it’s an onion processing plant. Once onions are harvested, they are taken by truck to a shed. There they are placed on a conveyor belt, sorted by size, and placed into 50-pound bags. Once I was hired, my role was to tie the bags and prepare them to be shipped off by stacking them on pallets. This wasn’t something that I had ever envisioned myself doing. However, there was a paycheck involved, several good friends worked there, and although the shed was void of air-conditioning, I wasn’t out working in the sun.

My first day on the job was eye-opening…. or you could call it eye-closing because both descriptions are appropriate. Once the conveyor belt was set into motion, my eyes began to sting and were flooded with tears. The friction of the conveyor belt, without warning, converted each onion (and there was a gazillion of them) into a chemical weapon that would cause the bravest man to cry.

I hadn’t anticipated this. However, from that point on, I knew that each work day required me to check my man card in at the door and shed uncontrollable tears for at least 20 minutes. I also hadn’t anticipated the amount of soreness that my scrawny little body would face. At that point in life, I had never stepped into a gym to lift weights. I had no idea what throwing around heavy sacks of onions would do to me.

Muscles that I never knew existed were brought to my attention for the very first time because of the pain that radiated through them. I also found out that it is almost impossible to wash the scent of the onion off your skin when you work with them daily. I was pretty much convinced this job was going to send me on a social nose-dive. Nevertheless, I toughed it out.

At first, I wasn’t certain whether having a car or buying a ticket to youth camp was worth all that I was putting myself through. However, what I first likened to be as the lake of fire ended up being one of the best summers of my life. Despite the tears, soreness, and standing on my feet for up to nine hours a day, I found myself having an absolute blast. Although I was working in a sheet-metal building that was only cooled off by an industrial-sized-fans, I got to hang out with my best friends all day.

To add to the experience, the job taught me the importance of teamwork. Even though there was a significant language barrier (I didn’t start speaking Spanish until later), I worked with a team of men to ensure that the work was being done rapidly and accurately. If one of us messed up (and it did happen several times), our stacked pallets would become tumbling pyramids with a domino effect. One mistake could set us back considerably. Most of all, having a weekly paycheck felt amazing. The feeling that accompanies the receipt of a paycheck for hard work is indescribable. That summer, I was able to save enough money to cover my car expenses, I purchased my youth camp ticket, and I splurged on clothes among other things.

I ended up driving my clunker to youth camp that year. The first night of camp, I was prepared for a good time. I had anticipated the joyful sounds of music and being surrounded by friends that I had met the year prior. As the music started, I joined the congregation and began clapping my hands in fervent worship. I was so happy, my summer in the onion shed was behind me, and everything that I worked hard for was with me at that moment.

Although I was grateful for the opportunity to work, I was beside myself that my onion days were behind me… that is until the guy standing next to me turned to me and asked, “Hey, John, is it just me, or do you smell onions, too?” Sheepishly, I looked at my hands and laughed. Apparently, I’d be carrying my summer experience with me for longer than I had hoped.

My summer in the shed was no joke. However, here are three life lessons that I gleaned from my experience:


Smelly Situations Have the Potential to Lead to Big Blessings

The smell of onions made me cry on a daily basis…. and worse yet… the smell penetrated my skin and wouldn’t leave no matter how hard I scrubbed. Nevertheless, my smelly experience not only provided what I needed… it provided much more than I had expected. I believe that, at times, God allows us to go through smelly situations. He allows this because it’s exactly what we need to get to where we need to be. Sometimes, the path to the promised land includes daily tears, pain, and it downright stinks. Yet the joy of celebrating our arrival is worth the struggle.


Heavy Situations Build Strength

The first 15 years of my life, I felt weak and powerless. However, lifting 50-pound bags of onions, 8 hours a day/6 days a week transformed my life… I often find myself in groups of men talking about sports, and I get asked what position I played in high school. I usually chuckle and sarcastically say, “Saxophone.”

I’m no Arnold, but I do have a build that leads people to believe that I played sports. However, this process didn’t begin in a locker room. It began in an onion shed. In this life, you will inevitably find yourself going through heavy times. Although they are the cause of undesirable soreness, they are also preparing you for strength that you’ll need down the road.


Others Will Inevitably Fail to Understand Your Process of Development

When my camp-friends realized that I was an onion-scented Glade plug-in, they laughed until they couldn’t anymore (I can’t blame them… it is pretty hilarious). They couldn’t understand why I would put myself through the torture of working at an onion shed. As an adult, I continue to get this response once people find out what my first job was… and yes… the response is usually accompanied by laughter. What they don’t realize is that this somewhat unpleasant experience is part of my life story. It is one of the tools that God used to develop me into the man that I am today.

In your life, you, too, will inevitably face the laughter of people who don’t understand your path toward growth. In those moments, I encourage you to do like Taylor and shake it off. God’s promise is that He works all things together for the good of those that love Him. Rest assured that no matter how big or insignificant your situation may seem, God is using it to make you more like Him.


Unapologetically yours,

John Eli Garay


This is an updated edition of a post originally published on john-eli.com

Featured Image by Tim Peterson

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About the Author

John Eli is a transformational life coach who has spent over 15 years mentoring individuals in life skills, career transitions, and through organizational change. His resume includes pastoral care, behavioral health, and higher-education. From an early age, John recognized that God created him to bring hope, healing and encouragement to others. He currently walks out his life’s purpose by helping others find the clarity, motivation, and steps needed to obtain healing, wholeness, personal growth, and self-acceptance. Aside from coaching, his ministry includes blogging, group facilitation, speaking, and prayer. He currently lives in Chandler, Arizona with his wife, two dogs, and an antique piano whom he calls, “Betty.”

  1. […] weights. The only type of weight lifting I had done was stacking 50-pound onion sacks in my first summer job. However, I was determined to grow my strength, so I humbly recruited one of my co-workers to help […]