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Lessons From A Homeless Man

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The man’s eyes lit up with excitement as his hands rushed to open the bag and see what was inside: Ding Dongs. “Oh, I love these,” he said, as he looked me straight in the eyes with the most contagious smile you can imagine. My heart dropped and melted a little, too. “God bless,” I said.

“God Bless you,” he replied, “and thank you.”

Then I rolled up my window and remembered the kids were in the car, too. The car remained silent for a few seconds that felt long and drawn out. Nothing needed to be said at that moment; we were all filled with a sad compassion. Eventually, we tried to verbalize what we were feeling in our hearts, but we couldn’t find the right words.

This was hardly the first time we gave food or money to a homeless person. Sometimes my teenage daughter will ask, “Well, what if they just use the money for drugs or alcohol?” My answer: “Well, that is just very sad, isn’t it?”

That day in the car, we started discussing how or why one might become homeless in the first place. What happened to his family? The kids wanted to know everything there is to know about being homeless.They were fearful and curious and compassionate. They were shocked that a fellow human can go without being able to fulfill the most basic needs daily. It is a sad reality that we don’t come face to face with very often in suburbia. They felt for this person begging for money, food, leftovers — whatever we, blessed as we are, decided to share.

We drove off to our next destination for the day and continued to discuss the man who had touched our hearts with his love of Ding Dongs. I told the kids how I wanted to do more to help him. We brainstormed ideas and daydreamed about inviting him to our Thanksgiving dinner, or saying to him, “Hop in, we’re on our way to dinner, we would love to have you join us.” We wanted to give more, to make more of a difference, and we wanted to deliver love to this stranger.

There was something striking about this man. He was cheerful, happy even, despite the sub-zero temperatures and his lack of warm clothing. The way he excitedly opened the bag to see what was inside confirmed that he was indeed both hungry and grateful. My daughter wondered if maybe he was Santa disguised as a homeless man, just like in the movies.

We thought about going back and buying him enough groceries to fill a cart. We made a list of things we would do next time, like go to the local burger joint and order him some burgers, fries and a milkshake. My son wants to make him a holiday card, and I hope he does.

We all knew it and we all felt it: we are lucky, and he deserves better.

We sat in the car in grateful silence, overcome with compassion and sadness at struggles we have never known. In just a few short moments, this man changed our lives. We will never know the answers to our questions. How did he end up in the parking lot of Walmart, holding a sign that reads, “Will accept anything”?

We will never be able to make sure he eats every day or that he is warm enough. We will never be able to give him a home or solve homelessness more broadly. We can be aware and compassionate, though, and through that compassionate awareness, we can receive something in return. Our donation of Ding Dongs was a small treat for this man on that cold Sunday, but the connection — and our sense of gratitude — transcended that moment. It moves us still.

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