Coming off of our visit to the homeless shelter right before February break, I felt like little could match that experience. That feeling lasted all of ten days because a week ago, Annie and I joined her Girl Scout troop to host a birthday party at another local homeless shelter – but, unlike last time, this shelter is specifically for families with children rather than just adults.
You read that correctly: children. Kids, like my own… Except without homes.
Homeless children and their families.
It doesn’t get much more gut-punchingly real than that, y’all.
We had known the following going in: there were four children at the shelter with February birthdays and we were in charge of the birthday party. Our job was to provide goodie bags and some kind of craft – not only for those four kiddos, but for the other 24 children residing at the shelter. In keeping with the celebratory spirit, we elected to bring cupcakes and juice boxes for everyone (including the 14 adults living with them). We also brought some paper goods and simple decorations. The shelter itself would provide gifts for the birthday children.
And so the girls decorated the goodie bags (“Happy Birthday!” “Smile, it’s your day!”) and got together on Monday afternoon to decorate dozens of boldly-colored cupcakes. Then, on Tuesday evening, we climbed into our minivans to carpool to the shelter (since it’s in a not-so-great neighborhood, we’d been told to bring as few vehicles as possible, to leave nothing of value in the cars, and to not use our cell phones where anyone could see us), all prepared to make a difference in these impoverished children’s lives! Go, us!
We laughed at ourselves as we hung the decorations; I kept draping the streamers way too low and the “Happy Birthday” sign had come undone, so until we taped it back together it read, “HAPPY BI”. It was embarrassing, really – here we were, trying to make the room a little more festive because this was the only celebration these children would have, and it looked like somebody’s parody Pinterest page. Craft supplies were scattered across tables and our girls posed for pre-good-deed photos.
The wonderful woman in charge – S. – gathered the troops (literally, ahem) to tell them a bit more about who would be attending the party. There were twelve rooms in the shelter; each family was allotted one room. The kids were all ages, from not-yet-one to teenagers. Some were with both parents; others were with only their mothers (some of whom were escaping domestic violence). Families stayed an average of five to six weeks and then moved on; there was a monthly celebration for each child whose birthday occurred during that month and everyone was invited to attend.
S. talked about why these families were here, about how difficult it can be to hold onto a home, to pay rent. Our little ones cocked their heads, confused. “What’s rent?” they wanted to know. It was simultaneously hilarious and mortifying, these second-graders with absolutely no concept of what it means to not be able to afford a place to live, or food, or clothes. “What are food stamps? Like the kind of stamp you get on your hand at the end of dance class?”
Then, the residents were called in to join us… and our daughters, who moments ago had been yukking it up as they counted cupcakes, suddenly went silent. It all became very real: here were other kids their own age, kids they’d never met, kids who looked just like them… except they lived here, in this building in this dangerous neighborhood, because they didn’t have a home. There were infants toting bottles filled with juice; toddlers and pre-school-aged kids; quite a few children roughly our own girls’ ages; and several middle and high-schoolers. They were black, Latino, and white. I heard English, Spanish, and a language I didn’t recognize but that sounded maybe like it was from Eastern Europe. One girl wore a shirt that said, “Jesus Is The Way” while three other girls wore full, brilliantly-colored and bejeweled hijabs.
Seeing our daughters’ trepidation, we adults stepped in and began cajoling everyone – kids and parents alike – to the tables. “Want to make a craft? Come on over! There are really cool bookmarks! You can do one of these cute animals!” In no time, each table was filled with children and adults using glue and stickers to create their own masterpieces. There were smiles all around and lots of talking. “What’s your favorite color? How old are you? Isn’t it so cold out?” Our parental pride swelled as, gradually, our Scouts joined in, helping the littlest ones glue on googly eyes and chatting it up with the older kids.
In no time at all, our daughters had crossed the imaginary barrier separating us and them, quickly and cheerfully making casual friends the way that many children do so naturally. For me, however, it wasn’t quite that simple.
Breaking the ice was easy. “What’s your name? I’m Emily! What color bookmark would you like?” But as the conversations continued and I went from table to table, I discovered my own ignorance and awkwardness; I had no idea what to talk about. Obviously, asking where anyone lived or what they did for a living – two of my preferred get-to-know-you inquiries – were out of the question. (I later learned that many of the adults did have jobs; homeless and jobless are not synonymous by any means.) “What grade are you in?” seemed rude, because I didn’t know if the kiddos were currently attending school. I even felt uncomfortable with my “standby” small-talk topics, like favorite movies or books or restaurants, because it seemed wildly presumptuous of me to assume that anyone could easily afford to go to the movies – but, likewise, presumptuous to assume that they couldn’t afford to go to the movies simply because they were living in the shelter. I didn’t even know if asking about favorite sports teams or television shows was appropriate because I had no idea how often they could watch TV or keep up with their favorite players.
It was very strange, this no-man’s conversation land… Every topic that came into my head made me feel like I would either wind up sounding like a spoiled, clueless asshole – or like I felt sorry for or disapproved of them. Yes, they were homeless (something to which I cannot relate), but they were still so very human (something we, um, share in common)… and yet my liberal, socially progressive self didn’t know what to talk about.
As the crafting session came to an end, S. suggested that we play a game; after a vote, Bingo emerged the winner. You guys, this was no rinky-dink operation but a full-scale GAME — cards for everyone, colored markers, a spinny wire basket with Bingo balls and a large board on which to store them after they’d been chosen and called. It was on.
Our own girls didn’t get Bingo cards, instead helping the other children with their boards or simply cheering people on. It started off slowly, with a few disappointed groans as unpopular numbers were called (“Aw man, I don’t have B-13. I have B-14!”), but then it began to pick up speed. As one of our Scout’s fathers – the only dad in attendance – called out the numbers in his rich, booming baritone voice and each five-in-a-row was achieved with the jubilant “BINGO!” being declared, whoops and hollers erupted throughout the room as the victors thrust their fists triumphantly into the air. Every winner received a prize from the relatively sizable prize box, which our Scouts insisted on carrying/lugging themselves from table to table, commenting supportively on each selection (“That car is so cool!” “Ooh, crayons – I love to color, too!”).
It soon became apparent that we were going to continue playing until every child got at least one Bingo; we would not stop until everyone had won. As the games went on and the atmosphere became more electric, S. came over to me and whispered, “I know this is taking a long time, but over the four years that I’ve been running these parties, we’ve found that they really do make a difference.”
I was about to comment that, of course, the parties made a difference when S. continued, “I mean the games themselves – they make a difference. Whenever our residents come back to visit us years later, we ask them how they’re doing, what they remember. And every single one of them says that they remember playing Bingo. Not just that it was so joyful while they played – it was, yes – but also that it was one of only a handful of truly happy memories from that time. When they looked back over their mental rolodex of good things – you know, like we all do, like how you and I recall a vacation or going to the beach as something positive when we’re going through a rough patch? Well, these folks don’t have vacations, but they do have Bingo. They tell us that the memory of Bingo games is what they call upon when they’re struggling… so we will keep playing this game until everybody has had a chance to win so that we can keep this magic alive for as long as we can.”
That was the first time I had to hold back tears.
When Bingo was over and the prize box had been thoroughly examined by every kiddo, it was time to eat. We made sure that each table was cleared and that each child kept his or her crafts. As I looked over the bookmarks clutched possessively in their little fists, it occurred to me that many of these children might not even have a book in which to place their bookmark… but I didn’t have much time to contemplate this sad reality because help was needed in handing out the cupcakes and juice.
The frosting we’d chosen was absolutely, fantastically neon-bright. The juice boxes were small, but still, they were juice – containing sugar and all of the other stuff that, you know, juice contains. We had more than enough for everyone to have at least two, which we happily doled out, but I couldn’t help but think, “Man, we’re giving these kids a lot of junk tonight. Artificial colors and sweeteners and HFCS and who knows what other crap. I wonder how their parents feel about…”
And then it dawned on me: these parents do not have a home right now. They can afford very, very little; many – most? – cannot afford to feed their children. So actually, I’d guess that they feel pretty damned excited and happy that their sons and daughters get to have not one but two cupcakes and juice boxes tonight, to be able to give their babies juice in their bottles… because it’s food. Food is important. Food is good.
Earlier in the day, a friend of mine had shared an article on Facebook about seemingly child-friendly foods that we should “never” feed our children. I’d read it and found myself shaking my head in disgust at the foods to which I’d been subjecting Ella and Annie, from Goldfish to GoGurt. I’d vowed to look even more closely at what I feed them; like many families I know, we’ve already all but eliminated HFCS and food dyes, we make sure they drink soda and juice very sparingly, and we buy products made with as few (easily pronounceable) ingredients as possible… but we can do better, damn it!
It had never before occurred to me what an incredible luxury it is to feed my children healthily. To be able to worry about how much juice they drink. To be concerned with how much sugar they consume rather than worry that they won’t get enough food to keep them from being hungry. To be able to afford something other than juice for my baby’s bottle. We are positively spoiled – and I hadn’t even realized it. (This doesn’t mean that we’re gonna go stock up on Cheetos and Fanta. Because I do have the luxury of worrying about what my girls eat, I’ll still continue feeding them as well as I can… but wow. Perspective really is something. And, hey, maybe the judgment I’ve passed over the years when I see people feeding their kids less-than-stellar meals could be adjusted. Just a smidge.)
While everyone was digging into the celebratory bounty, S. began handing out the actual birthday presents – gift bags filled to the brim with items for every birthday kid. One boy was turning seven. One girl had just turned fourteen. Another I mistook for an adult; I assumed that her child was the one celebrating a birthday. But no, I now realize that she, herself, was not yet eighteen… So, even though she was a mama already, she was being honored at the children’s party. She may not have felt much like a kid anymore, but she certainly deserved to be treated like she was important and cared for just like the rest, if only for a day. Or an hour.
And then there was the baby. She was turning one in three days. One.
I remembered my own girls’ first birthdays – just simple, family celebrations (no full-on parties like many of our friends had done; we didn’t know that many people locally!), but still… They were special. I giddily made chocolate cakes because, according to our pediatrician, they could eat chocolate starting at 12 months. We bought presents – loads of them. We sang. We took countless photos. I spent hours painstakingly making birthday videos – because one is important, you know? Your baby’s first birthday? A milestone.
But here was this little girl celebrating in the shelter. Because she didn’t have a home. Turning one in the shelter.
And I felt my heart just kind of crumple into pieces. This time, I couldn’t hold back the tears.
I did turn around to compose myself, however, because it somehow felt very inappropriate to cry in front of everyone, because of everyone, as though I were looking at a motivational poster. “You! The underprivileged! Your plight has moved me! I see things differently now because I have witnessed your struggle! I am saddened by what you are going through! You have given me the gift of perspective! Thank you for sharing your challenges with me!”
It also felt wrong to cry for them. “How difficult this must be! I don’t know how you’re able to do this! You must be so broken down! My heart aches for you!” Yes, the residents at that shelter needed help. They needed compassion. They needed someone to listen. But no one needed my tears at that birthday party. They needed smiles and Bingo and cupcakes and juice and more smiles. So I got myself together and turned back just in time to see S. hauling out a milk crate filled to the brim with books.
Books. For every single child.
AND OMG THE TEARS AGAIN STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT.
You guys, when these kids saw the books… They honestly didn’t quite know what to do. Some were thrilled, others seemed bewildered (“My own book? Seriously?”), but everyone had the opportunity to take a brand new tome – or several – with them. They had a place to put their bookmarks. Suddenly, the overflowing bookshelves in our own home – the ones whose disarray I’ve bemoaned, on whom dust has gathered – seemed practically indulgent.
While the parents and kiddos munched on their cupcakes and admired their new books and chatted with our daughters (there were more than enough cupcakes for our girls to have one, too; they were ecstatic – and I, for once, could not have cared less about the neon frosting), the other Girl Scout moms and I flitted from table to table, clearing trash, engaging in conversation, making sure everyone had had their fill. For much of the last hour, Annie and her friend, A, had been sitting on either side of one of the residents – a little girl who appeared to be roughly their age. They’d oohed and ahhhed over her crafts, cheered her on during Bingo, and had eaten their cupcakes together.
All of a sudden, Annie motioned for A to get up from their seats and have a whispered conversation behind the other little girl’s back. They conferenced vigorously, shaking their heads emphatically, and were just returning to their original places beside this girl as I began to make my way over to chide Annie for her lack of manners. (Telling secrets! Behind someone else! HAVE I TAUGHT YOU NOTHING!!) Before I could say anything, however, Annie and A looked at one another, shrugged as if to say, “If it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me,” and then asked in tandem, “So… do you want to be our friend?”
I’m pretty sure their new friend said yes but I can’t be certain BECAUSE OF THE TEARS THAT HAD AGAIN OVERTAKEN MY EYEBALLS.
I really felt like I could burst. Here were these kids, these strangers – some ridiculously privileged, others without a roof over their heads. They had just met an hour ago. And yet, there they were… friends. They were in second grade and they liked the color blue and they loved to laugh and do art and eat cupcakes and so, by God… friends. The rest – socioeconomic status, race, where they went to school, what clothing they wore, where they went on vacation or if they even could go on vacation or any of the other stuff that we (and by “we” I mean my own friends and myself) get so caught up in – meant absolutely nothing. Or at least not nearly enough to not be friends. It was really something.
When I turned around again, Annie and A and their new buddy were nowhere to be seen; they – and the other Girl Scouts – had absconded into the hallway and were showing off their cartwheels. And giggling. And running and hollering and having the grandest time of all. Part of me wanted to tell them to calm down, to lower their voices, not to disturb anyone… But I caught myself before I interceded because this was a celebration, damn it, and joy is not something you should contain; it’s something you should share.
While they played, I tidied – and tried (in vain) to take in all that I’d seen. It was more than I could consider, though, and I kept coming back to the people themselves. To the parents of the baby who was turning one and their outright astonishment when they opened her birthday gift bag and saw half a dozen brand new outfits for their little girl. To the other one year-old at their table, the little girl with the swollen eye who’d just returned from the ER where she’d spent the last three days, having bitten into a Tide pod (you know, the kind that you put in the washing machine) that, she decided, looked like a toy.
I thought of her parents, how exhausted and relieved they seemed after having been in and out of the hospital, blaming themselves for their daughter’s injury (despite the fact that, I was told, the ER sees 1-2 cases each week of children who have monkeyed with laundry and dishwasher detergent packets that then exploded in their faces. When you think about it, those little pods do look like toys. I know my own girls have touched them; how easily it could have been us…). The husband recounted how frantic he’d been when he received the call at work (yes, again, homeless people can have jobs); the wife told me she was so grateful to “make a memory” with her daughter doing these crafts and eating the cupcakes.
I thought of the three little girls in their gloriously-colored hijabs and how they were so genuinely thrilled for one another when one of them got a Bingo. I thought of the boy who was turning seven and how his mom told him to thank all of us for giving him a birthday celebration – and how he chose to thank us by doling out hugs. I thought of his sister, whose face I recognized the moment she sat down but who I couldn’t quite place. It stumped me; I wasn’t just familiar with her – I knew her. I’d spent time with her.
But… when? How could it even be possible that I knew this girl? Where on earth would I have come across her?
At last, I remembered: school. Teaching. My long-term sub job last year. This beautiful, cheerful girl with the mega-watt smile had been one of my 7th grade music students. She had come and gone with her classmates, completed all of her assignments on time (and well), participated openly in class, and had just been – you know – one of the gang. The idea that she had no home was more than I could wrap my head around.
The questions wouldn’t stop… how? When? What happened? I noticed nothing last year that would have told me her family was struggling. Were they, then, and I just never knew? Did something change? I mean, I teach in middle-class schools where students sport gleaming backpacks and new clothes and shiny lunch boxes. How is it even possible that some of those kids are homeless?
We talked; she said she knew me from somewhere but couldn’t recall where. When I reminded her that I’d been her music teacher, she gasped with recognition. “Oh yeah! I totally remember that now!”
It was her smile that gave her away; ear-to-ear, real, gorgeous. Whether they’d arrived at the shelter that week or last month or whether they’d been bouncing from place to place since last year, I don’t know. Whether they’ve struggled financially for a long time or whether an emergency situation took them from their home, I have no idea. I do know that, regardless of whatever else was going on, whatever led her family to the shelter, she kept on smiling – not on the surface, but way deep down. I obviously have a lot to learn from her.
All too soon, it was time for us to pack up and head out. As we gathered the leftover streamers and cupcakes, Annie and A’s new friend came over and gave me a full-body hug. “Thank you for the party!” While we all shouted our good-byes and nice-to-meet-yous, she came up again, saying, “I can’t remember – did I already give you a hug?” I told her that she had, but that if she wanted to, I’d love another. Her face lit up. “I love hugs!” Her arms only reached around my waist, but it was definitely my heart that felt the squeeze.
S. walked us to our cars, thanking us for coming out and providing all of the supplies. As we attempted to protest, she held up her hand. “I know – you want to thank me. I tell people this is always what happens; you think that you’re coming here to give back, but when all is said and done, you feel like you’re the ones who received the gifts. That’s why this place has birthday parties booked out for more than a year from now! Everyone wants to feel as incredible as you all do right now!”
Incredible is one word for it.
The others… Well, I don’t even know.
How do you find the words to describe an experience that made you reevaluate your life? How do you sum up what it meant to see everything you have, who you are, what you’re doing on this planet, from a completely different perspective? How do you attempt to gather your thoughts about something that has humbled you, made you cry, and prompted you to see your fellow human beings in a new light?
I guess you don’t.
Instead, you – I – vow that, from now on, I will appreciate more. I will let more roll off my back. I will be kind, be kind, be kind – because, seriously, you never know what someone is going through. I will view the other people with whom I share this planet – this town, this school – as humans, not statistics, not problems waiting to be fixed. Just humans, like us all, who sometimes – hell, a lot of times – need a little help.
(Also, I will write a ridiculously long blog post about it – but, really, how else was I to share this with you?)
And to think that this night never would have happened if our glorious group of Girl Scout slacker moms hadn’t decided that it might be good for our daughters to help out; to see what it’s like – just for an evening – to live a life that’s completely unlike their own, where rent and food stamps are a regular part of the vocabulary; to get outside of themselves for just a moment and maybe make a change…
I never imagined it would be I who would come away from that evening feeling so changed. Maybe we’re not such slackers* after all.
* we totally still are.
Even slackers can make things happen when we work together and have our hearts in the right place. That shelter is some place, y’all. Wow.
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