by Marta Oti Sears
Families in metro Atlanta and around the world need our help. In Fulton and DeKalb counties alone, almost 7,000 people are homeless, according to 2011 homeless census. Multiply those statistics over the 13-county metro area and you’ll get an idea of the problems that charitable organizations deal with every day. Many thousands more families may have shelter, but need help with food and clothing or school supplies for their children.
One charitable organization, Must Ministries of Marietta, has provided 82,071 hot meals for needy people over the past year, and 189,678 summer lunches for children whose only real meal each day might have been the one they received as a free lunch at school. Another nonprofit, Atlanta Community Food Bank, through its partnership with 600 other nonprofits, distributed more than 35 million pounds of food to needy families in 29 counties in metro Atlanta and North Georgia this year.
These organizations and other nonprofits always need donations and volunteers. “Life on the margins is a very difficult place to live,” says Ike Reighard, president and CEO of Must Ministries of Marietta, noting that “any of us could find ourselves in a dire situation. We have even been helping people who never dreamed that they would be in a position of having to have someone else intervene so that they could make ends meet.”
In the month of January, Reighard says, “you can find no better example of serving to change your world than Martin Luther King Jr.” In talks he gives, Reighard often uses a quote from Atlanta’s world-famous civil rights leader: “Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
King’s words, Reighard believes, are golden advice “for any parent to teach their child. I have a 4-year-old granddaughter and I’m already teaching her that not everyone has all of their needs provided. I want to help her understand what we want everyone to understand: That serving is a way to give back because you have been blessed.
“If we raise a generation of children with a heart of service,” Reighard adds, “we could change the world.”
If you’d like to develop compassion in your children and a desire to help those less fortunate, here are four ways to get started.
“One-in-seven people in the world live in extreme poverty and have to spend 50-80 percent of their household budget just on food,” says Todd Post, senior editor of Bread for the World’s Hunger Report. Many can only afford the cheapest, most basic foods. One way to encourage an awareness of hunger and a concern for economic well-being is to incorporate a “rice and beans night” into your dinner plan. You can make this a weekly or monthly meal, every Monday, for example, or the first Monday of the month.
“I often work a ‘rice and beans night’ into the menu,” says Ginean McIntosh, mother of two. “It tastes good, saves on the budget, and reminds us of those less fortunate. It also helps my little ones appreciate the other more favorable meals, and appreciate having a meal.”
You may want to read an inspiring quote or blessing before your meal.
One-in-six people worldwide don’t have access to safe water, and more people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence (including war), according to the World Health Organization. Women and children usually bear the burden of water collection, often walking miles to the nearest water source.
A hands-on way to build awareness and empathy starts with finding two empty gallon-size milk jugs and filling them with water. As a family, agree that for one week, whenever it’s time to shower, wash hands, get a drink or do anything involving water, you’ll pick up the water jugs, carry them to your destination and then carry them back.
Interactive learning experiences stick with children and adults. Enhance your “water week” by watching some short videos around the dinner table that educate and inspire. Find one at charitywater.org.
Parents often don’t know what to do when they see a homeless person. Sometimes they pull their child close and walk by the person quickly without making eye contact.
One of the worst things about being homeless is feeling invisible. The simplest way to affirm the value of our homeless neighbors it to look them in the eyes and smile.
You can also offer something more tangible. Heidi Pender, mother of three, makes homeless kits with her children and keeps them in her van so that they’re on hand when they see someone at a freeway exit or outside a grocery store. To make a kit, fill a gallon-size storage bag with hygiene items such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, and hand sanitizer; clean socks; and food items such as granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit or anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
“My kids often notice homeless people before I do,” Pender says, “and they’re usually the first ones to say, ‘Let’s give that person a kit.’”
Putting these kits together with your children will give you the opportunity to talk and ask questions such as, “How do you think you would feel if you were homeless?” As you look for opportunities to give your kits away, you’ll teach your children to notice people that society often ignores.
A beautiful way to embrace compassion as a family is to sponsor a child. Start by choosing a religious or secular organization that’s a good fit for your family. Most organizations have online photos and information about children who are available to sponsor. You may want to sponsor a child who is the same age or gender as your child.
Sponsorship typically involves sending a monthly check or allowing an automatic monthly debit to your bank account. Most organizations use the money to pay for school supplies and fees, food, and medical expenses for the sponsored child. You and your children can write letters and send drawings and photos to your sponsored child, who in turn writes back. Your family can develop an ongoing relationship with a child.
Poverty can often feel like a distant issue, but child sponsorship makes it personal. Your family can’t do everything needed to end poverty, but you can disrupt the cycle of poverty for one child by providing her with food, medical care, education and hope.
As you empower your children to love their local and global neighbors during these formative years, don’t be surprised when you see growth in yourself, too. Children have much to teach us about compassion, if we’re humble enough to let them.
– Julie Bookman contributed to this story