The wind was harsh, cutting right through our clothes and chilling our skin. My son protested wearing a coat, insisting he’d be warm enough in his sweatshirt and brand new Ninja Turtle hat and gloves. We compromised; he had to take the coat but he didn’t have to wear it. It was 36 degrees outside.
As we got out of the car at our neighborhood Wal-Mart Marketplace, we saw a friend and her mom ringing the Salvation Army bell, the red kettle nestled between their two bundled up figures. They looked at us with relief, exclaiming, “There they are!” It was 10:59 a.m. My son and I had one minute until our shift began.
I’ve found it hard to find meaningful ways to engage my children in community service. They are only 10 and 7, so while opportunities continue to expand the older they get, for the elementary-aged child it’s not easy to find these experiences.
We are lucky to attend a primary school that has a different service project every month, so we’ve shopped for the Firefighter’s Toy Program and collected cat food for the animal shelter. They’ve lugged in diapers and baby wipes and winter coats and gloves. Last year they bombarded me daily with requests to give them canned goods to take to school so their classroom could fill up their food pantry barrel first and win extra recess time.
These are fabulous ways to prompt children to think about folks who aren’t as fortunate as they are, but I want them to get their hands dirty, to discover the pleasure that comes from giving of their time and effort, not just a canned good. I want them to feel their privilege and come out the other side with an intrinsic desire to help those who aren’t as privileged as they are.
My son put his insulated faux-fur lined royal blue Columbia coat, a gift from his Aunt Emily, on the ground in the middle of the kettle stand. I shot him the “you-know-you-need-to-wear-that-to-stay-warm” look and he just grinned at me. He’s a stubborn little thing.
We listened to the instructions on how to greet people, how to wear the red apron, and to never touch the money. We each had our own bell to ring and we got right to it. It was so cold.
We greeted everyone with a smile, graciously thanked people who donated, and wished them a Merry Christmas. It feels so good to connect with other people in the spirit of giving. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face if I’d tried. I frequently glanced over at my boy and watched him shyly say thank you and wish strangers a Merry Christmas. Besides being cold, which of course he’d never admit to, I think interacting with strangers was the hardest part of our shift for him. He got into ringing the bell and dancing around, but chatting with people he didn’t know made him uncomfortable.
The past couple of years I’d hoped to take the kids for a shift of bell-ringing, but the time slots always conflicted with basketball games or other commitments. It’s hard to teach my children to help their neighbors when I couldn’t make it a priority to do it myself.
“Well, if you can stand out here in the cold and ring that bell, little buddy, the least I can do is put something in that kettle,” a chipper balding older man dressed in shorts and sneakers said to my son as he walked quickly into the store and of the wind. He stopped to high-five my son first, though. After looking at me for reassurance, my little guy raised his hand and smacked the man’s open palm.
Then he turned to me and smiled.
People gave us the change from their pockets, the dollars from their wallets, and almost always did so with a smile. Even the ones who didn’t drop anything into the kettle smiled and greeted us. I knew that smile. It’s the one that says “Oh, look at that mom with her child teaching him to do things for others aren’t they cute and I wish I had some cash to give them but I gave it all to the bell ringers at the last store but it warms my heart to see them out here like this in the cold.”
I knew that smile because I’d given it to other people many times before. It’s real. It’s genuine. There’s hope for us yet.
Volunteering makes me feel good about myself. If I’m honest, that’s part of the reason I do it. It’s not the only reason, not the main reason, and not the motivating reason, but a reason nonetheless. I struggle with guilt about these feelings sometimes, but in the end, who cares about the reason people volunteer? As long as it’s making a positive difference in the world, that’s all that matters. A friend once declared he wasn’t going to read any book just because Oprah told him to. I said if it takes Oprah telling someone to read a book and that person reads, then who cares why, but that person is reading and that’s a good thing.
“Mama, I’m cold.” Ha.
“Then put your coat on.”
“When is our time done?”
“We’re about halfway through.”
“But I want to be done so we can go to the library,” he said with a tad of whine.
“If you are cold you can put your coat on. If you choose not to, I don’t want to hear any more whining about being cold or asking me when our shift is over. We are out here because some people don’t have big coats to keep them warm like we do and this money people are donating will help buy coats for people to keep them warm.”
And just like that I’m my mother. I really hate to admit all the parenting she did right.
My son thought about his admonishment for a second and then went back to ringing the bell, running in place as he did so to keep warm, not even glancing at his disregarded coat.
One man gave us a $20.00 bill while singing a Christmas carol. My son’s eyes got big. “See how nice people are and how good it makes us feel to do nice things for others?”
Shameless. Whatever works, right?
I spend a good chunk of my time complaining about political leaders and the condition of my state and country. I try to put just as much energy into advocating for issues I believe in, but let’s face it, the scale usually tips to the negative side. Having strangers smile and thank my son and me for simply standing in the cold and ringing a bell felt very peaceful and positive and hopeful. Watching so many people give their hard-earned money to the Salvation Army was a dose of benevolence that, like the chill, really stuck with me. I needed it.
Toward the end of our shift, an extremely tall man walked up and started digging into his pockets to find money to give us. As he dropped his donation into the kettle, I told my son, “You see this man right here? When Mama was your age she would have done anything to meet him in person.”
My boy looked up,way up,and the man smiled, shook his said and said, “nah.” I said, “This man is Sam Bowie and he was a great basketball player for UK. A legend!” My son, who is only beginning to be schooled in the legendary history and crazy fandom that is UK basketball, didn’t know quite what to make of that and gave us a confused grin. Sam Bowie thanked us and gave the hair on the top of my son’s head a little ruffle as he entered the store.
A friend of mine who used to work at a movie theater here in town said Sam Bowie used to bring throngs of kids, probably economically disadvantaged kids, to see movies all the time. He’d laugh and cut up with them, giving them all the popcorn and candy they wanted.
What a role model. I later told my son about Sam Bowie and the movies. He said that was nice.
When the next shift arrived, we were nearly frozen. I took on the kind of chill that stays with you all day no matter how many pairs of socks you wear or how many blankets your wrap around yourself. The day had stuck with me. I hoped it would find a way to stick with my son too.
The week after our time with the Salvation Army, I was going through my son’s school take-home folder. His class has an activity called “Weekend News,” in which the students write a news article about their weekend. His read, in part, and I’m correcting for spelling here, “On Saturday we had to ring a bell to help people. It was cold and boring. I had to stand the whole time.”
Sam Bowie he is not. The path toward social consciousness is a meandering one, advancing one bell-ringing shift at a time.