“Everytime we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.” -Alan De Botton
Truer words have never been written. As my son’s 12th birthday approached I asked him if he wanted to have a party. The question seemed to bring him great sadness. He answered, “I want a party, but I don’t want to ask for gifts. I know it makes people happy to bring something, but I have everything I need. Maybe we can have a sleepover another time when it’s not my birthday.” I replied, “Why don’t you ask your friends to bring items for the food pantry? Remember, your brother did that a few years ago. Then you can celebrate your birthday and people can bring something.” His eyes lit up as he proclaimed, “That is an awesome idea!”
I’m not writing this post to brag about what a wonderful kid I have, I’m writing this post to share how we were able to get to this point. The point of having “enough” and being rich even though we live a modest life.
Community service has been a part of my children’s lives since they were small. We have caroled at nursing homes, collected food for both people and pets, made meals, and served meals to the homeless. The list goes on and on. It was never to have a paper signed to confirm that they were serving the community. It has been from a place of actively participating in our community. Raising a child that gives back comes from you. You are their first teacher and children learn best by example and hands on experience.
My son needed some community service hours last year as did his friends. I was surprised at the response by a few of the parents. Some shared ideas on, “how to get this over with quickly” and others eye rolled as this was to be added to the list of things to do around school and sports. How does this teach children the responsibility of service? How does this thought process grow empathy and compassion? It doesn’t.
While collecting food and putting it in a box to be shipped off somewhere in your community is noble, there is a disconnect. Who hasn’t been guilty of clearing their cabinets of unwanted items in the name of charity? Now take those items to the food pantry while it is open, your feelings might change. My son collected 3 boxes filled with food and $131 dollars for the local food pantry. While he was proud of himself for his accomplishment, nothing prepared him for what he would feel when he delivered those items.
When I called the pantry about his donation they insisted that he bring it himself when the pantry is open. He received hugs, handshakes, and much praise. When we left he said, “Wow, I feel so good. I didn’t know I could feel that good. Can we help out there when school is over?” I was almost in tears. He has a good heart.
A friend of mine that volunteers on a regular basis with her daughter shared some thoughts with me about community service.
“I think most of us assume that everyone thinks like we do, and live like we do. Until we are exposed to other aspects of life we can’t really understand or empathize. Taking my daughter (and myself) into the city of Poughkeepsie helps us both stay grateful for all that we have. It reminds us how easy our life is compared to people living in the same city. Seeing how much they appreciate cast off items, makes us realize how very rich we are. Going to the nursing home is a different experience, but just as valuable. The people there love us for spending time with them. All they want is someone to care, someone to listen, or play music, just someone to fill a few minutes of the very long days. It’s powerful for a child to see what a big difference they can make in a person’s life, how they can make the world a better place with just a little investment of time.”
We can’t expect children to automatically feel grateful if they haven’t seen the alternative. Life can change in an instant with the loss of a job or a loved one. Once after working at the soup kitchen my boys saw a person they fed out on the street pushing a shopping cart with all their belongings in it. I think that was a huge moment for them. A lesson that can’t be learned, but lived.
Seeing. Doing. That is how we learn to give freely. Hopefully along the way we inspire someone else to give, someone else to help out.
I always tell my boys, “When you feel bad about yourself, about the world, or just about anything, the one thing that will always make you feel better is helping someone that cannot help themselves. It might sound selfish at first, but if we all work together the world can be a better place.”
May you have enough.