Before Christmas when I was eight or nine, my mother and my aunt took my sister and I to the home of someone that needed groceries for the holidays. They had gotten her name from our church. Before we went my mother talked to us about what to expect. She told us we were going to the home of a single mother with a little girl about our age. We were going to bring some food so they could have a nice Christmas dinner and some toys for the little girl so she would have some gifts for Christmas. She told us not everyone was as fortunate as we were and couldn’t afford toys or even food for the holidays. She told us it was important for us to help others if we could. We went to the grocery store and toy store to help her pick out the things to bring.
We lived in Minnesota, so there was snow on the ground and it was cold as we bundled into our brown station wagon filled with grocery bags. We pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex adjacent to our elementary school. I was nervous. I had never been in an apartment building before, nor had I been around poor, hungry people.
I imagined their cupboards mostly empty except a couple cans of green beans. There would be almost no furniture, maybe a table and chairs, and a couch. Maybe they shared one room and someone slept on a mattress on the floor. In my eight year old mind, they were gaunt with sunken eyes like the children I saw on those Save The Children commercials. As we walked through the dark, funny smelling apartment hallway with our grocery bags my sense of dread increased. I wasn’t sure I could handle what I was about to see. What was my mother thinking, exposing me to this at such a young age?
My imagination had not prepared me well. When we knocked we were greeted by a petite woman with a sassy bob and peeking out from behind her was her daughter, one of my classmates. She was popular. I was not. I didn’t know she was poor. She always seemed to have food and all the right clothes and jelly bracelets. For a moment, I was embarrassed for her. Embarrassed that I had discovered her terrible secret. I vowed I wouldn’t tell a soul. Not that there was anyone for me to tell at school, I was too shy to talk to most of my classmates, but still.
Then we walked into the apartment. It was a two bedroom. Smaller than our home, but not the tiny space I had imagined. And it was well appointed. There were two couches arranged to face the television that was larger than ours at home. It also had a remote control. We still had to walk to turn the knobs on ours. There was a cable box and a VCR. We had neither of those things.
There was a seemingly nice table and chair set in the kitchen. We set our grocery bags on it as the woman opened full cupboards looking for a place to cram the food we had brought. There was a microwave on the counter. We didn’t have one. They were a relatively new and were too expensive for us. She offered my mom and aunt a drink and they sat at the table. My sister and I were told to go to my classmate’s room with her and play for a while.
Her room was overflowing with toys I didn’t have and clothes we couldn’t afford. Jelly bracelets lay scattered on the floor like they were nothing. I didn’t have any. Her room was so full, we had to sit on the bed because there was no room on the floor. Some of the lack of space was due to all the stuff. But mostly it was due to the television (with remote control), VCR, and Atari set up across from the bed. I’m sure my mouth hung open when I saw that. I couldn’t believe she had her own television in her room. I couldn’t believe they had two televisions. In fact, I commented about it. She said they had three, there was a set up in her mother’s room, too.
We played in her room. I wanted to play Atari. I had never played before. I didn’t know anyone who had one. She said she didn’t want to. It was boring. Besides, she only had one controller, so only one person could play at a time. She was hoping for a second controller for Christmas. We played something else for about an hour before it was time to go home.
My mom and aunt must have been thinking the same thing I was because I remember them commenting that they had a different idea about what being needy meant and how, other than living in an apartment, they seemed to be better off than we were. They said that would be the last time they went through the church to find charities. They’d have rather given to the food bank.
I have to say, it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth, even at that young of an age. It took a long time and working with people where they were using their disposable income to pay for my services to realize people have different priorities. Sometimes they make decisions to buy fancy things they really can’t afford and then they can’t pay for important things, like rent, because of it. Sometimes, they think they’re needy just because they do and they don’t appreciate what they have. Sometimes life happens and they fall on hard times and even though they haven’t gotten rid of the nice things they already had, they need a little help.
More importantly, I came to the realization it doesn’t matter. I should still give to charity because I can. It’s not up to me to decide who’s needy. It’s up to me to try to help where I can and to teach my children to do the same.
So we do, all year long, and more at Christmas. We regularly clean out old things and drop them off at Goodwill. We take the kids with us to drop off so they see. Maybe someone who needs clothes will get them, that’s what we tell the kids. Maybe not. Maybe some snotty college kid will get them because they’re looking for a Halloween costume and think it’d be funny to dress up like a middle-aged mom. It doesn’t really matter. In their own way, the college kid is needy too.
Twice a year, to make room for new birthday presents or Christmas presents, I have the girls go through their toys with me to pick out things we don’t use anymore so we can give to someone who doesn’t have as much. I get final veto power over what goes. Sometimes they get into the spirit of giving a little too much and pick out toys they still play with regularly, or they start taking each other’s toys. (Sometimes, when they’re not looking, I put toys they still play with but drive me insane with all the noise in the bags, too. Charity begins at home, they say.)
This year, we found a local fire station collecting for Toys for Tots and dropped off some toys. I’ve been saving all those toys the girls get for birthdays that are duplicates or not quite right, all year long. My initial plan was to re-gift them. (Oh yeah, I re-gift. If you do it with some thought, it works out just fine.) But a lot of the gifts were for Penny who is one of the youngest children we know. That means the toys aren’t appropriate gifts for our friends. Or I know our friends already have them (see, thoughtful re-gifting). I was wondering what I was going to with them and thought they’d likely go to Goodwill. Since they’re new, still packaged toys, they’re perfect for Toys for Tots. I plan on saving those unwanted toys from now on and making the donation every year. At some point, we’ll have the girls buy a toy to give away, too.
We donate money as well. My favorite is Heifer International. You “buy” an animal so someone can learn how to raise it and use it to help themselves out of poverty. When the girls are older and can understand, one of their gifts will be a donation.
I also volunteer at a veterinary clinic for the pets of homeless people. One day, I hope the girls will be able to come help too. Or find their own place to give their time.
This time of year, as packages arrive at our door and bags of toys start piling up and we realize we have, yet again, gone overboard, I get a little worried. I think about all the material things we have and how my children have never known want. I worry that they don’t appreciate what they have, and more, I worry they won’t appreciate it when they’re older. That they’ll have a develop a sense of entitlement. Having my children be generous with their time and resources and think about how they can help other people is one of those big life lessons I aspire to teach. I hope by showing them and having them involved with what we do, they’ll grow up being generous and thoughtful, and recognize that at Christmas, it’s not all the presents and things that matter, it’s the joy and love that surrounds us. And I hope they learn to pass that feeling along.
I want to thank you all for reading this blog. I really appreciate it. I hope when you wake up on Christmas morning, above all, you feel joy and love. Merry Christmas.