The holiday season is hard for me. So much time devoted to material things, gift lists, online shopping, it gets me down. Don’t get me wrong: I love seeing the joy on the kids’ faces on Christmas morning, but I just wish I didn’t have to devote as much time to making it happen. Next Monday is our last night of the year feeding the homeless, and I’m really looking forward to spending some time feeding and helping others, instead of just frantically buying stuff.
We had an event at school last night that moved me deeply. It was a beautiful pause in a hectic month, and I think it will have some lasting impact on young, malleable minds.
Fourth graders at our local elementary school can participate in a charity organization called Heartworks. They do monthly service projects throughout the year, their last year before middle school. Earlier in the month, the kids made blankets for a local homeless assistance organization calling Housing Forward. Yesterday, one of the organization’s clients, a young formerly homeless mom came to speak to them, accompanied by a representative from Housing Forward.
When the two women came to the front of the room, the kids were a mass of bodies on the library floor. The boys were wrestling and try to one up each other in bravado and silliness. The girls, calmer, watched them with naked disapproval from the other side of the room.
The room quieted down as the two women were introduced. After a brief introduction, the Housing Forward representative asked, “What does it mean to be homeless?”
The kids volunteered information about not being as lucky as them, not having shelter, not having a home. Then, just as the noise died down, one boy raised his hand, and without showing a shred of embarrassment, said, “My dad says that homeless people are people who don’t work hard enough to afford a house.”
The representative took a slight beat before answering, “Everyone’s story is different. There are many different ways that people can become homeless. And it’s important to not judge without knowing. What do you think homeless people look like?”
One girl raised her hand, and answered quietly, “Homeless people look human.”
Then the client shared her story, how she and her two sons, aged 17 and 20, were homeless for four months. How they were fortunate to be given a room to share in a shelter. How a friend drove her to her job at Target during that time. And how Target helped connect her to Housing Forward who then helped her and her kids get an apartment. How she still works at Target, and never stopped working, even while struggling with homelessness.
The kids were listening closely as she spoke, eyes opened wide. As soon as she stopped speaking, they exploded into questions.
“How old are your kids?”
“How did you lose your house?”
“How did you get to work?”
“Did your kids go to school while you were homeless?”
She answered each question with a broad smile. Then, as the questions began slowing, one boy, quieter than the others, raised his hand, his face filled with concern.
“I just want to ask you, when you were homeless, were you scared?” Thanks to this brave woman’s testimony, the kids were empathizing with her experience, imagining the difficulties she must have faced.
The woman answered, her smile wavering for a bit, telling the kids that she was scared, every day, and that she was very lucky to have found people to help her and her children get back on her feet.
At the end of the talk, we spoke of different ways to help.
- Physical Donations: Gathering blankets, mittens, coats and warm clothes.
- Financial Donations: Fundraising through bake sales, lemonade stands, or hot chocolate stands to donate to organizations like Housing Forward.
- Time Donations: Volunteering at soup kitchens or food banks. We have found this to be an incredibly rewarding family activity, something that we struggled to incorporate in our busy schedules, but now look forward to every month.
- Interactive Donations: Making homeless gift bags filled with a little non-perishable food, travel sized toiletries, or hand warmers to hand out to homeless people begging in the cold. We have a few bags in the car at all times, and it really makes someone’s day to receive an unexpected ziplock of kindness.
Here are a few organizations around Chicago to donate to or volunteer through:
- Greater Chicago Food Depository
- Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry
- Housing Forward
- Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
- Cornerstone Community Outreach