A few weeks ago, the four of us were out doing errands. We’d gone to dinner and were hitting up Old Navy before heading back home. As we sat in the car going from the strip mall where the restaurant was over to the one where Old Navy lives, we sat at a red light two lanes from the sidewalk where a woman was begging for money. Our downtown homeless population is significant, although not large like major metropolitan areas. Living and working outside of the downtown area means the kids don’t see as much of this as they would if we lived closer to the Capitol. We’ve had brief conversations before about what people were doing when we saw them with signs asking for help, but the kids are at an age where more than just the facts sink in. They start to understand things on a more emotional level, now, too.
From the backseat J asked what the woman was doing. We said she was out there asking for money. She remarked that we should do that, too. I told her we don’t do that because H and I have jobs and we can afford to buy the things that we need like clothes, and food, and a roof over our heads. She cocked her head to the side as I continued. I told her that the woman on the sidewalk was asking for money because she didn’t have enough to pay for the things she and her family needed, and maybe she didn’t have a job like H and I, so the only thing she could think to do was to ask people for money to help her buy things like food and clothing.
She reached into her pink purse sitting on her lap and pulled out a dollar. She said she wanted to give it to the lady. We had two lanes of cars between us and her, and the light was about to change. We tried desperately to get the woman’s attention, and she finally saw us as the light changed from red to green (I had just gotten ready to jump out of the car at the very moment that H had to step on the gas as we were the front car in the line). The woman caught my eye and yelled, “God bless you, thank you.”
By now we had reached the parking lot at Old Navy, and I turned around to find J crying. “Baby, what’s wrong?” I asked her. “That’s not right, it makes me sad,” she managed to get out, which made me start crying.
She got out of the car and I scooped her up into my arms and she wrapped herself around me as only my teeny girl can. She buried her head into my neck. I told her how there are really good organizations out there that help people who need it with food, clothing, and shelter. We talked about going to volunteer with one of them so she could see what it was all about.
Quickly, she became distracted as we looked for a new swimsuit for her and browsed the sale racks for dresses and shorts. I realized that we probably often underestimate small children’s capacity for empathy. At the same time we try and shelter them from the scary things out in the world (I can imagine my daughter becoming fearful we might have to take to the streets or worrying we won’t be able to afford food if I tell her we can’t buy something she wants because it’s too expensive) they are also at an age where we can instill in them a deep level of compassion for those in need.
I love that my daughter cries because the thought of someone having to beg for money makes her heart so sad that she genuinely feels how awful that is. And I hate that we live in a world where she has to know this pain even exists. And I want to bottle her compassion and protect it from the hardness of living that jades us all. I want to empower her to know she can make a difference. Even if it’s a dollar at a time.