If there is one trait I want to instill firmly into my children by the time they are adults, it is to never look down on others unless you are helping them up. No matter how successful or talented my kids may become, I never want them to feel they are better than anyone else. I want them to always remember that everyone has a story and things aren’t always as they may seem. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at the Salvation Army feeding the less fortunate, I knew it was something we needed to do.
When I saw that our church was scheduled to participate in “Kingdom Meal” on October 31, Halloween evening, I assumed that we would have to pitch in at a later date. I want my children to help others, but at their young age, I didn’t expect them to give up trick-or-treating to do it. To my surprise, my kids were more than enthusiastic to volunteer their time. We took them to a Halloween parade at the mall earlier in the day, and let them collect candy from the stores. Then we dropped the three littlest kids off with my mother and took our 6- and 7-year-old, still in costume, to the grocery store to pick out some fun treats to pass out at the meal.
As we waited for the doors of the Salvation Army to open, I felt a twinge of nervousness and began to second guess my actions. What type of people might I be exposing my children to at such a young age? Could some of them be dangerous? Will they say or do something that my kids will be too young to understand? Will their torn clothes and frail frames be scary in their eyes? I tried to prepare them as best as I could for the things they might see and hear, and then stepped back to let them experience a little bit of reality that they never knew existed.
As people from all walks of life filed in to the building, I kept my eyes locked on my son and daughter, watching them take in the unfamiliar sights. One man walked in preaching loudly to no one in particular, carrying on an occasional conversation with unseen friends. Some hobbled and wheeled themselves straight to the boxes of donations and picked through the clothing for choice items. Most settled in at the many tables, eager for the warm meal that would soon be served. My family was put in charge of drinks, and I allowed my kids to carry the pitchers of punch around to each table with me, greeting the guests and filling their paper cups. Eyes lit up all around at the sight of the children in their Halloween costumes; my son was dressed as Iron Man and my daughter as some sort of pink sparkling Barbie creature a slight variation of every costume she has worn in the years before. Many complimented them and asked them questions about school and friends as they gulped down several cups of juice and water.
Soon dinners were served and the room fell silent as mouths were filled with what was, for some, the only meal of the day. My children could barely contain their excitement to pass out the treats they brought, so we walked around putting handfuls of suckers, M&Ms, and mini candy bars on every table. We were all touched by the enthusiasm and gratitude with which the people gathered the candy. Some filled their pockets, eager to take Halloween treats to their children; others devoured it hungrily, obviously relishing their first sweet indulgences in quite some time.
Each collection of people moved us in different ways: the elderly with no one to care for them; the middle-aged with families to support who fell short this month, for one reason or another; the physically and mentally disabled who manage on their own with all of their belongings on their back. But the presence of needy children hit us the hardest, and there were plenty of them in attendance: teens, babies, and youth, many of them around the same age as my own, all waiting eagerly for a meal on Halloween night instead of dressing up in fun costumes and gorging themselves on junk like their peers. That Halloween night, we found it far more rewarding to give these children special treats than it would have been to wander around our neighborhood filling our own pillowcases with candy.
As the evening came to an end, the room slowly emptied; some returned home, while many had no home to return to. The volunteers made our way around the room discarding garbage, wiping down tables, and stacking chairs as the people around us said their goodbyes. As I stooped down to clean up a spill, a friendly man approached me and began making small talk. You know, common chit-chat like you might have in any grocery store line, such as: “Do you like squirrels?”
Having never been specifically asked that question I didn’t exactly have an answer prepared but “Umm… yeah?” seemed to work. As his eyes shifted around the room and he reached under his coat, I began wishing I could take back my response. He pulled out a rolled up grocery bag and I recognized the contents before he even pulled back the plastic. The room spun around me and my pulse quickened as I tried to make sense of how I came to be staring, nose to snout, at a dead squirrel.
The man chuckled and glanced over at his friends huddled in the corner and I realized at once that this was some sort of initiation. Being the new volunteer in the group left me open to some playful hazing. I knew that if allowed my gut reaction to take over (screaming like a girl, bursting into tears, and/or running outside and locking myself in my car), I would never win their respect. I knew I needed to maintain a stiff constitution, or at least appear that way, to earn their trust. So I regained my composure and answered “Aww, he’s so cute!” as sweetly as if he was showing me a photo of his grandchild frolicking with a puppy in a field of wildflowers. The man’s disappointment at my lack of reaction was quickly replaced by pride as he showed off his treasure. One eye was missing, the other caked shut with dried blood; its tiny, furry body was stiff but not yet bloated. Its lower extremities, still mostly concealed in the bag, were quite obviously the portion of the body with the most damage.
“Yeah! He’s good looking”
“Where’d you find him?”
“Ahh, he’s roadkill.”
“Oh, okay. Cool.”
“Dinner for tomorrow, I think,” he said, as he stole one more glance my direction, hoping for at least glimmer of distaste.
As I was mentally priding myself on my good show, he upped the ante once more and trumped my best efforts: he called my daughter over to see tomorrow’s supper. Yes, this man called my very prissy, very squeamish, very melodramatic baby girl over to see his very bloody, very dead squirrel. The world went in slow motion as I watched each step she took in our direction. I weighed my options: shield and tackle her, a la a Schwarzenegger movie, or throw a chair to create a diversion. But before I had a chance to move, her eyes locked on the bag full of death and grew into saucers. Before she could react, I ran up to her excitedly and said “LOOK baby! Isn’t that so CUTE?” This was no longer a matter of earning anyone’s respect; it had become an issue of keeping my daughter from incurring life-long mental trauma. I knew she would follow whatever cues I initiated, so if I spoke up early enough, I could have her convinced it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen before she could realize that it really, really was not. Sure enough, she looked at me like I had lost my mind, managed a weary smile, and walked away from the incident unscathed. As my reward, the squirrel man shoved his furry buffet back into my line of sight one last time and then put it back inside his coat, the image burned into my mind for all of eternity.
Later that evening, as my family snuggled together in our warm home with our bellies full, we discussed the events of the day. We talked to our kids about how different people live and how some people have more than others—and some have nothing at all. They asked a few questions but for the most part remained quiet and reflective. We talked about the different ways that we can help others and why we need to spend our time doing so. Then we tucked our kids into bed, telling them how very proud of them we are. My daughter hugged me tightly with tears in her eyes and told me “Mommy, my heart beeps when I think of people sleeping outside with no food. I want to help them again” and I knew that our message had hit home.