When you hear that there are homeless children in the US it’s hard to believe. Surely not. Enough organizations exist to catch and protect children from life on the streets. I even had a woman tell me a few weeks ago that, “Poor people aren’t really poor in the US and children are always taken care of.” But there they are, mythical figures, hiding under the shadow of their parents on one of the coldest and rainiest days of the year in LA. Little stocking caps pulled over dirty faces. The children smile expectantly, and I look down at the pitiful selection of gifts I have to give them.
Today I’m volunteering at a local soup kitchen’s annual Christmas party. I’m a tiny bit emotional. I lost someone this month. Since then I’ve felt numb – not wanting to leave my apartment, or write, or think too hard about anything. Hiding seemed to be a better plan, especially with all the Holiday cheer bouncing around. I did not feel cheery, but I had set a goal – 1 volunteer activity a month. So here I am, staring at homeless children and then staring back down at the toys so they don’t see my eyes welling up.
Okay, what do I give the cute six-year-old in the purple stocking cap with the big brown eyes? A stuffed animal can’t fix things. It can’t fix my life and it can’t fix hers. I need to just stop it and hand her the cuddly lucky charm bear. Donations are down this year so only one toy per child. Give her the bear! I can’t hand her the bear. I know I’ll tear up so I hand it to Brandon the college senior I was paired with today. He’s too busy to notice my hesitation. We are distributing gifts to the approximately 200 people that showed up for Christmas lunch. Some people served, some people sang carols, and we are passing out gift bags consisting of a sweatshirt, pair of socks, stocking cap, and toiletries. The children also get a toy.
I huddle behind Brandon organizing the gift bags and handing the correct sizes to another volunteer who is taking requests. I watch for the little girl’s response to the toy. Brandon makes the bear dance for her. She giggles and hides her face. He hands the bear out to her and she takes it, hesitating just a moment, before clutching it to her chest and giggling a thank you. She rubs the soft fur against her cheek. She loves it. Her mother takes their bags and the family leaves.
More children are coming down the line so I don’t have time to reflect on the moment. Coloring books, crayons, and play dough for an eight year old, a set of hair clips and a little purse for a ten-year-old girl. I begin to forget about any emptiness in my chest. I was right about the teddy bear; it didn’t fix our lives but her giggle helped. Every smile that followed made me a little lighter on my feet.
I truly believe that every time I volunteer I get more out of it than I give. It’s a cheesy and clichéd sentiment but it’s true. Happy Holidays!
To find a Soup Kitchen to volunteer for in your area go to: http://4homeless.hypermart.net/soup_kitchens.html