Thursday, April 14, 2011

Serving the community, harvesting compassion

Saturday morning I plucked two grouchy boys out of beds and away from the Wii to go work at a local food pantry. "Why do we have to go Moooooooom?" I started with the usual reasons,"Because you have never gone hungry and you have a responsibility to help others," and I ended with,"Because I said so."

In the last several months I have begun looking for a variety of opportunities for the boys to get out of their comfort zone and help others. It is a constant struggle as a parent to provide for your own children and want for them to never know hunger and yet raise them to not be spoiled and entitled creatures.

How do you teach them compassion for those without when they have always had the basic necessities of life. Never known the fear of having nowhere to lay their heads or no food to fill their bellies? I try to remind the boys frequently that they have led very blessed lives. That while we have lost people close to us to death, most importantly their father and paternal grandfather, we have never been without what we needed: food, shelter, love and support.

Both boys are at an age where they are keenly aware of who has what and what they don't have but "need." All too often they hear the phrase," Is that something you need or something you want?". Nick, at age 13, sees the world as fair vs unfair but is beginning to see more of the shades of grey that adults understand exist in all of life. Henry at 11 just wants people to be kind to one another.

We got to the church pantry and got our assigned tasks and began sorting and stacking, preparing the foodstuffs for patrons to choose from. There were a myriad of adult helpers-my sons the only youth volunteers, and we were the only white people in the building as well. We sang a gospel hymn led by a client in a rich deep baritone and started the grocery distribution. The boys worked hard and were rewarded with chili dogs by the pantry chief and chocolate donuts by the pantry cupboard.

Late in the morning as we cleaned up and discarded moldy bread another adult volunteer commented, "Your sons worked really hard today and they are so well mannered." I looked around trying to see if she was talking about two other stray imps that I had not had to warn repeatedly about appropriate conversation, swiping donuts, and tormenting one another, but no, she met my thing one and thing two.

She must have missed Nicholas' loud stage whisper about one patron, "Mom that guy is white and where are his teeth?" Horrified, Henry said, "he should see our dentist." That was the only time I had to remind them that white people can be poor too and that poverty often means bad teeth. My sons see a dentist every six months because I can pay for it and for clothes, and housing. Learning that the twice a year torture seesion at the dentist was a luxury startled my often petulant teenager.

But the adult volunteer complimenting the boys saw past their less than stellar behavior to the core of who they are: she saw Henry struggling to lift a box of potatoes twice his size and she heard him speak Spanish to an elderly Nicarauguan abuelita. She watched Nicholas tickle every toddler that came through our line and make sure the little ones got to pick an extra treat from the baked goods.

When we left the pantry with a promise to return in two weeks I asked the boys what they thought was the best part of the morning. 'Nothing," said the sullen teenager now in my backseat. Then, "I'm kidding Mom, it was pretty cool, there were a lot of nice people and I learned a lot." Henry was quiet and said,"everyone was so nice and cooperative here Momma, I wish the real world worked like that."

Exactly right, I thought to myself and that is why my husband and I will continue to seek out ways for our family to be of service to others: because we live in the real world and our children will have the opportunity to make their part of it more cooperative and nicer, one canned good at a time.

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