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Friday, September 24, 2010

Charity begins at my home - but ends sooner than I thought

Friday, September 24, 2010 By

I don't give money to homeless people. I think they should get jobs.

I think this, despite the knowledge that 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. suffers from severe mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That's almost quadruple the national average. That doesn't count those who suffer from alcoholism and other forms of addiction, which a portion of the scientific community (although not all) categorizes as a disease.

I used to make it a point to give to the homeless. And, yeah, I'm the person who once wrote a homeless man a check - back when I used checks. But, these days, if you hold out your hand, you will draw back a (verbal) nub.

I do make it a point to give to charity - right out of my paycheck - every month. I just like there to be administrative oversight. I want to make sure the money isn't going into the black market economy - whatever segment of it that may be. Instead, I give to education and health science non-profits, because I think education and health care are the great equalizers in society.

In addition, if there's a raffle going on to raise money, you can bet I'll buy a ticket. Barbecue or pancake meal for a local organization? I'll be there.

But, more importantly, we've been helping a couple of kids who live nearby. Nothing earth-shattering or the kind of thing that would cause an epiphany. Just including them. Making sure they're eating three meals a day. Making sure they get to school every morning. Trying to be a good example.

The younger of them, our neighbor's son, spent almost every day here during the summer, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On the rare occasion that he and Emmie would have trouble getting along, Scott would send him home to give them a break from one another.

He wouldn't go. He would hang around at the edge of the yard, playing in the grass and dirt, watching the house. On one day, Scott stuck his head out the kitchen window: "You okay?" The 5-year-old shook his head. He was locked out. His uncle, who stayed to "watch" him when his mother was at work, wouldn't let him back in the house.

It happened a lot. His uncle would tell him to get out and play, and not come back inside until later. And then he would refuse to let him back in. Sometimes, the child would come over, and he'd run home for something later - only to find that his mother had gone off somewhere without telling anyone. She never asked us to watch him. She never thanked us for doing so. We never addressed it with her, figuring better that she depend on us than leave him unattended.

See, his mother is pregnant, again, and doesn't seem to be endowed with the most amazing parenting skills to begin with. She yells a lot. Doesn't do laundry very often. I'm pretty sure she's a fan of the wake-and-bake. And this evening, I found out that she's been failing to cook dinner for her son and her nephew (the 12-year-old) because she's tired and has some discomfort from the pregnancy.

I wondered why they were always so hungry. "Growing boys," I said to myself. Not so.

As it turns out, she doesn't cook breakfast. They eat free every morning at school. She doesn't pack lunches. They eat free lunch at school. And now she's not cooking dinners. She's obviously eating. I'm not missing any meals, either, but I would if the choice was between feeding me and feeding my family.

I'm happy to feed them. It's a small thing to ask. Does it mess with our grocery costs? Sure. Is it a lot? Meh... depends. And are these children getting some things they need that they aren't getting at home? Yes. Discipline, for one. Food, for another. Outside educational influences. And, sometimes, baths.

I take the three of them - Emmie and the two boys - to the public library every week or so. We like totake a picnic with us to the Columbia County Library and spend hours playing, reading books and eating nutritious foods. Not the gas station bullcrap she feeds them.

They need it. They ask for very little, and give Emmie so much.

The oldest is 12. He could pass for 15. He's a straight-A student, and will start middle school next year. He wants to be a chef. He lets the chickens out for me every morning. He "herds" the two younger kids down the sidewalk into school in the mornings, makes sure they go into the cafeteria and behave themselves. He's offered to wash my car. When Em or the younger boy break a toy, they run to him to get it fixed.

The youngest just turned 6. He gets green smiley faces every day at school. Although he doesn't have the luxury of ballet lessons like Emerson, he can kick her dancing ass. He does an arabesque like someone who's been taking dance lessons for years. He can walk on his hands. He has the most amazing smile.

His mother didn't have a birthday party for him - ANY kind of party, not even a family party. We bought him a gift, took him to Adventure Crossing and to dinner. He missed his mother the whole time.

I hope that we're having a lasting, positive impact just by feeding them, talking to them and providing an example that is somewhat better than the one they get at home.

But today, we were informed that they're moving... to Apple Valley. This is not a neighborhood in which I would willingly choose to live if I were single - much less with a child. And if she can hardly take care of herself and her oldest son with us to offset the costs of groceries and bus fare and babysitting, what will she do that much further away from the city's center - and with a newborn?

I want to cry. I've grown to care about these boys very much, and Emmie will be devastated to lose her best friend.

"It's not our problem," Scott told me. "And we can't change it."

Can we?


  1. I guess you could call DFACS...

  2. Will you notify social services? Does the school know? These kids need more adults to be their advocates. The boys and that baby are helpless victims. You are a wonderful person to do what you have done and I know that they will miss you dearly.

  3. I am afraid to notify social DFACS. The foster system is terrifying, and I know that there are no suitable relatives for these children to go to. The older one has two other siblings who already live elsewhere. One lives with a relative who is not his mother, and the other lives with her godmother in Atlanta.

    There's also another concern: The younger boy adores his mother. And I want him to feel that way. I don't want to interfere their relationship. They obviously have love between them - and I don't think she's a "bad" person. I'm just not sure she ever got the benefit of good parenting upon which to model herself, either.

    But she's 30 years old. At what point does one not look around and say, "Hmm. Maybe there's a better way?"

    I just don't know what to do.

  4. Your story touched me, as Heather said it would, because my Mom was very much like you when it came to caring about (and for) other people's kids. I could write a book about the things she did, her sacrifices, heartbreaks, and Mama-bear attitude!
    You can't save them all. You just do what you can, when and where you can, and pray for the rest.
    That's where the heartbreak comes in.

  5. When I was in college, I tutored several 2nd grade boys who should have been in 4th grade. These precious children often came to school in dirty clothesf and hungry; all but one were being raised by grandmothers, not parents. I became close to them, too close in fact, because every night I took them home with me, in my heart. By the end of the school year, I decided to change my major because I knew I could not teach children like them every day without losing my heart to them. Eventually, I still ended up in a classroom, teaching high school English at an inner city school. While there, I did everything I could to help the students, not only with their education, but also how to grow into responsible adults. I believe that ultimately it is a parents' job to teach our children how to be adults and these children had no one at home to do that for them. I bought lunch for them if they needed it, allowed them to take a nap when I knew they were unable to sleep properly at home, mentored them in all aspects of their lives, and cried with and for them often. This was all I could do and this is all we are asked to do: our personal best. You have done that and I feel your heartbreak, both for these children and your child. Unfortunately, when you are a giving soul, you get hurt. It is better for Emerson to learn this and still be willing to give than to have a hard heart. Let her see your pain and help her through hers and know that you have done your best to teach her how responsbile adults behave. As for the boys, there is little you can do, because, as you said, the foster care system is terrifying and the children could actually end up in a worse environment.