Everyone has their special cause, that thing that touches them deep in their heart. For my oldest son, Jackson, that cause is homelessness. In fact, whenever we go into Chicago, he wants to stop and give money to nearly every person he sees. The idea that someone doesn’t have a home is unfathomable to him, and it shakes him to his core.
A few months ago, we were talking about small ways to make a difference in the world, how to do something when you see a problem instead of just complaining or lamenting the lack of a solution. I can’t remember how the entire conversation unfolded, but by the end of it, Jackson had decided he wanted to assemble backpacks to give to people without a home.
As is usually the case, a few months went by and we hadn’t done anything about it. I figured he forgot about it, and I wasn’t really sure how to implement his suggestion anyway, so admittedly, I kind of let the whole thing go. But his concern never really went away. Whenever he sees someone in need on the street, a look of urgency washes over his face as if he’s called to do something to help. While we were in Chicago a few weeks ago he asked, “When are we going to make those backpacks?”
We talked some more about his idea, and what it might look like. His vision was to create backpacks filled with essentials like water, socks, toothpaste/toothbrush, and granola bars. I suggested maybe adding a note with information on shelters in the area. He made a handwritten card to go in each of the bags. I ordered backpacks online with the words “you are loved” printed on the outside and bought supplies in bulk (thanks, Amazon!).
Last week we assembled those backpacks — 50 of them in total — to give to people we see on the street. Any extras we’ll take to an area homeless shelter to hand out to the people who come through their doors so that they know: You are loved.
Our kids are big-hearted geniuses, I tell you. They are filled with energy and compassion, and sometimes they have the most amazing ideas. The issue of homelessness is one of deep concern to many children — as it is for adults, as well. Everyone deserves a roof over their head and something to eat, after all. But sometimes the problem seems so big, so unfixable, so complicated. We retreat into our little shells, put on our blinders, and carry on.
Oh, sure, we donate here and there, but sometimes it takes our children pushing us out of our comfort zone to really make a difference — even if we’re making a difference to just one person for just one minute. And let me tell you, the look of joy that washed over a woman’s face when my younger son Teddy gave her the bag is not something I will ever forget.
If homelessness tugs at your hearts strings too, here are a few ways to help — with your kids:
Donate birthdays, holidays, and other specials occasions.
When Teddy turned 7 a few months ago, he wanted a big birthday party with all the kids in his class. Now I am not a big party kind of mom, but given that he hadn’t had a big shindig before, I relented — with one condition: he had to forego birthday gifts. He could ask people to make donations to an organization he cared about, but he wasn’t going to be bringing home 30 gift bags filled with more toys. We have more than enough stuff already, and the party was gift enough. I threw out a few ideas, and Teddy ultimately chose the local homeless shelter for his birthday.
After calling to check on specific needs, I updated the parents on the plan, and everyone gladly complied. Instead of unwrapping dozens of gifts he didn’t need, Teddy dropped off dozens of backpacks filled with socks, umbrellas, and ponchos for people in need. Win-win.
Drop off food at Pads or a homeless shelter.
Many homeless shelters have rotating sites throughout the community where those without a home can spend the night and receive a hot meal. While children usually can’t volunteer at the shelters, they can help buy or prepare food for a Pads location. A quick Google search for Pads sites in your area should reveal locations, and you can inquire about their specific needs.
Educate yourself and others.
Learn more about the homeless situation in your area. Support mental health services and affordable housing initiatives. Advocate for increased minimum wage, adequate medical care for at-risk groups, and support services for veterans. When you learn more about the specific issues impacting homelessness in your community, you can write letters to your elected officials with your children.
Spend time with homeless youth.
Contact a local women’s shelter or homeless shelter to see about volunteer opportunities.
Practice empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Even if you don’t have any money to give a homeless person you pass on the street, you can always respond with kindness. Look a person who is homeless in the eye. Say “hello” or “take care” as you pass him or her. We’re all deserving of human decency, after all. We’re all in this together.