Every now and again, something touches my cold, dark little heart and warms it. Or, sometimes it digs in my eyes and makes them leak a little. When this happens, I am often pulled into one of my “projects” as they have come to be known in our house. As cynical, grumpy, and sarcastic as I am, I am almost an eternal optimist. After all, I am a mom. When you’re a parent, if you worth the honor of being called that, since so many deserving people aren’t, you have to have an optimistic view to a certain extent. We have to raise strong, kind, independent children to live in a world that frankly, is pretty messed up. Part of that optimism is living in one’s own bubble probably more than we should. After all, everyone has their own problems, their own responsibilities, and it’s easy to wrap oneself up in that little bubble because let’s be honest, you can only focus on so much at a time. Most of my projects and stepping out of my bubble happen when I probably don’t need it to.
Some of my attempts to help others have backfired horribly. So horribly, in fact, that it became a source of amusement for my family, sort of a shaking one’s head and chuckling at how bad things went. There was the time I stopped to help a blind person navigate a busy parking lot. I almost got hit by a car and ended up in a loud argument with the driver. I tried to feed a homeless woman, and then went to give her my gloves and hat out of my car since she didn’t have any and it was brutally cold. Stupid me locked myself out of my car and had to use the last moment of my cell battery to call someone to come get me. In the meantime, I was stuck in the snow with a homeless woman who turned out to be mentally ill, telling me stories about people getting cut up with an ax. Not my most comforting moment, for sure. Of course, she had my hat and gloves at this point, and I was super cold. That being said, we had a nice chat, despite the ax murder conversation, and I still think of her to this day (I didn’t see her around much after that afternoon). There was the time I helped the woman hospitalized with what turned out to be cancer by feeding her cats and looking after them. She had neglected to tell me she hadn’t changed their litter box in months, and I had to navigate and clean an entire floor of a turd minefield. I came home and wanted to light myself on fire. After getting everything cleaned, I looked after her cats and home, making sure to turn lights on and off, shoveling the snow, and a team of people helped get her furnace fixed and oil put in. When I headed in for surgery last year, the woman who took over was positively mental, and started harassing me. She ended up moving away after the state was called in and she was accused of elder abuse.
Last month, I found out kids at our school didn’t have coats, right before a polar vortex that slammed the country. I dove right in, collected over 150 coats in 4 days, as well as hats, gloves, scarves etc. This spiraled into a bigger project, where our kids in need can get items they need for free from our “kindness closet” which is currently being set up in the school. I am overjoyed by this and am so proud I got to help.
The other day, I got a call from my neighbor, who said her coworker had dropped off some supplies for the kindness closet. I went over and there were bags all over her porch filled with brand new huge boxes of ziplock bags (great for toiletries, and singling out new underwear or pairs of socks for if little kids have an accident), feminine products (some of the kids don’t have these at home, sadly, and the nurse has been buying them out of her own pocket). There were also some coats. Lastly, there were bags and bags of books. It appears the doner has kids and cleared out all their bookshelves, and by the looks of it, the family loves books. I wasn’t sure what to do with those, as they were out of the realm of my project. That being said, I was grateful to have them, as I was sure I could find a home for them.
I loaded up the car with stuff for the closet, including my cart. I have a little collapsible wagon that has been a godsend to me in my endeavors with the coats and closet. I load it up to the brim and head in the school easily (although navigating the multitude of security doors is no joke dragging a heavily filled wagon sometimes). After I dropped the items off, I wandered down to the library and met with the librarian. I asked if she would be at all willing to take used books as a donation. Her face lit up and she said she ABSOLUTELY WOULD. She asked why I was donating them and I explained I was “the coat lady” as a lot of the staff knew about the coats but didn’t know who I was, and that someone had generously donated books that I wanted to find a good home for. She and I had a chat about how exciting the closet was going to be for the students, and I headed home to get the books.
The books were in multiple bags on my neighbor’s porch. I now had to be a porch pirate and go grab them. I got really nervous someone would call the police because there has been so much package theft recently. I half expected to have the cops show up and knew it would be awkward explaining what I was doing. I shuffled back and forth with bags and bags of books, loading up my car. I then went upstairs and emptied my daughter’s bookshelves of all the books she had outgrown. There were a ridiculous amount of books. I’m a huge fan of reading and have always told my kids, “you may not always get a toy, but you may get a book”. I really try to encourage reading. I ended up making two trips to the school to drop off books.
When I showed up, the librarian had me go into a room with a counter. There were kids in the library and they came to help unload the books. They were chatting excitedly. “I can’t WAIT to read this!” “Look how beautiful this one is! Look at the pictures!” “I want to read this one FIRST! One girl was mesmerized by a pop-up book, opening and closing, her lips moving slightly as she read the words. She looked up and told me she loved that book. I was overjoyed. Seriously. These kids were just so happy and grateful. These books made them excited about reading. It was awesome!
The excitement on their faces must have warmed my cold heart again, because now that I’m not the “coat lady” I’m turning into the “book lady” for a while. I was out last night picking up and messaging people about donating books.
Now here’s the thing. Where is the bad part of such a project you ask?
The bad part is getting my bubble burst. When I was in the school, unloading books, the librarian and I got to chatting. She is clearly, like me, a lover of books. She also loves the kids. She confided how super excited she was to get the books, and kept picking up various ones to admire them all. She commented “I can’t believe this! This is so awesome! This book alone is $16 new!”. The reason for her excitement? Her annual budget to buy books with is VERY low. over 500 kids in the school and her budget is about $3k. Now, three grand sounds like a lot of money, but when you think of it, it really doesn’t stretch when you need to buy supplies and books for over 500 kids. She also lost some funds this year despite the BOE moving tons more kids into our school (I’ve talked about our redistricting in prior posts). She has to be so selective, so careful, to get as much as she can for those kids, but while staying in a tight budget. This issue was made more complex by the district moving a whole lower grade into our school, so much of the budget had to go to buying age appropriate books for those kids. I also learned, sadly, that some of the kids in the school, don’t even know their letters. This hurt my heart. Most of the kids came in from other schools, and I can’t fathom how the kids were pushed ahead from Kindergarten and first onward not knowing these basic skills. It’s as if they are being set up to fail.
I am a firm believer in the power of books. I can often tell a frequent reader from a non-reader by looking at how they express themselves. Frequent readers often pick up really good vocabulary skills, spelling and grammar. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t foolproof, as you can see by my blog. I make mistakes all the time! That being said, reading opens up new worlds and opportunities. You can learn to do just about anything by reading and researching it. Reading is a game changer. Seeing kids being passed from grade to grade without those basic skills is heartbreaking. It only gets harder for them, and frankly, the system is failing them. School will become a hardship, and those kids are more likely to struggle and dislike school. This may cause more to drop out early, or not go on to next level.
This has been bothering me to no end. I hope the kids being in our school will get the help they need that they may not have gotten before. I am hoping that some of the books taken in will be helpful to those that need them.
My son and I discussed this later in the evening, when I explained my sadness over the situation, and my frustration that our schools are struggling to get the supplies and books they need. He mulled it over and said he’s going to talk to his guidance counselor about setting up a school to school tutoring program between the middle and elementary school. They do this with another school in town (my son has been a part of the tutors) but he wants to extend it to his sister’s elementary school as well. Both children sorted their bookshelves and packed up bags and bags of books to donate.
I couldn’t be prouder.
At the end of the day, they are learning a valuable lesson here. They are learning they can make a difference. Even kids can make a difference. Small steps make huge changes. I think they are also seeing that while we don’t always have money for everything they want, they have what they need, and they are growing more aware that needs are what is important. They are seeing that others don’t always have what they need, and they are trying to find ways to help those people and make a difference in what ways they can. Sometimes, we don’t have the money or items to help, but others do, and they are willing to donate those items if you are willing to do the work. If you’re willing to coordinate, collect, and drop off, people will HELP you. If you ask the right questions, you will get the answers you need.
As for me, I learned a harsh lesson myself in all of this. Folks often hide that they are struggling. Sometimes you have to ask the right questions to find that out. I didn’t know our school was struggling because frankly, they are doing what they can and didn’t advertise that fact. They are so focused on doing what they can and I don’t think they normally ask parents for help in that way.
Our schools need help. I don’t think it’s just my school. I think MANY schools have needs that most of us don’t even consider. Unless you personally are deeply struggling, it may not even occur to you how deep the need is. I admit, I was blissfully unaware that some of the things I am now learning about were issues. I assumed things were fine. I assumed wrong.