I think the best thing Mrs. Foley and I have done to inspire our children to live generous lives has been to fill their lives with lots of interesting aunts and uncles–homeless and formerly homeless individuals and recovering drug addicts who have either lived with us, come over to our house for dinner, or participated with our church fully as members in our church events, from Bible studies to movie nights to neighborhood outreach events. From these experiences our children learned that the phrase “those in need” is a revolving one, applying to each of us from time to time, rather than a designation of a different species who nice Christians (yet a different species) help.
“Every twelve hours the world turns,” I always tell our children, “and the people who were on the top end up on the bottom, and the people who were on the bottom end up on the top.” I think I got this from the great baseball manager Sparky Anderson, but I can’t find the original source anywhere. I’d be so happy if it turns out I made it up. But I digress.
Anyway, I was disappointed to note a lack of advocacy for the value of direct connection between children and homeless men and women in Carol Howard Merritt’s otherwise welcome post, Inspiring Children to Live Generous Lives.
As we were trying to nurture a bit of generosity in our congregation, we talked to Chef Steve Badt of Miriam’s Kitchen. Miriam’s is located in the basement of our church. They provide a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner as well as a full range of social services to our homeless guests in Washington, D.C. During this time of year, the children in our congregation actively support Miriam’s through Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Mini-Walk and by having a Thanksgiving fruit collection. In the spring they’ll continue their support as they plant an herb garden for Miriam’s.
Merritt adds several more ideas for involving kids, namely, Sponsor a food drive featuring foods kids like to eat; Host a trip for children to glean food at a farm; Highlight one item that the homeless need at this time of year.
Since I am the former president of one of the largest homeless shelters in the world, I get concerned anytime we talk about helping “the homeless,” as if we were speaking of a monolithic population, or, worse, a generally dangerous one from whom children need to be protected from direct contact. As such, given that the homeless charity Merritt writes about is located in the basement of her church, I was surprised that the ideas did not focus on enabling children to connect directly with specific homeless men and women. Dispelling stereotypes and fears related to homeless men and women may be one of the most important ways we inspire our children to live more generous lives.
Keeping with the basic ideas suggested by Merritt, why not:
- Have kids interview homeless men and women (and children) in order to discover what they like to eat, and then have the kids bring those foods and learn to prepare them together with the residents of the shelter?
- Arrange for a trip where children and shelter residents visit a local farm to glean produce together?
- Have kids and shelter residents exchange Christmas gift lists so that residents can be givers as well as recipients? (“How can homeless people give gifts?” is a helpful stereotype to upend, by the way.)
I write this out of a deep conviction that teaching our children to live generous lives is more about helping them build mutualistic relationships with the oft-excluded than it is about teaching them how to “help those in need.” Here’s a bit of personal background about what it looked like for me when that light bulb came on (check out the end of the post).
Oh–and here’s a link to a post I did exactly a year ago with a list of ideas on how to inspire children to live generous lives. Few subjects are more important in philanthropy, and I am grateful to Carol Howard Merritt for stimulating the discussion once again.