Friday, September 16, 2016

A couple days ago, I stopped at Walmart on my way home from work to pick up a few things I needed. As I pulled into the parking lot, I passed a family standing and sitting in a grassy area on the corner. It was a young father and mother, their son of maybe seven or eight years, and a baby, no more than six months old. They looked exhausted, like the world had beaten them down one too many times and it was taking everything in them to just stand on that corner. The father held a sign that read, “Please help. Lost job. No money for food or diapers. Anything you can spare will help. God bless you.” The sight of them made me slow my car, but I still drove past, like every other car in front of and behind me. As I rounded the corner, I locked eyes with the father who managed a quick smile and wave as he briefly nodded his head in my direction, even though I didn’t stop. I smiled weakly back, but quickly looked away and drove on. I had things to do.

I pulled into the parking lot, found a spot close to the entrance, and shook my head a little, like I was trying to shake that family from my mind. But when I looked back toward the corner, I saw them, still standing there, still trying to smile at each car that drove past them pretending they weren’t there. I felt like I was glued to my seat watching that scene unfold, thinking to myself, “Why isn’t anyone stopping? Why isn’t anyone helping them? What’s wrong with these people?” In that minute, it was like someone slapped me upside the head. “I didn’t stop. I didn’t help them. What’s wrong with ME?” I took my list of frivolous crap I was going to buy, crumpled it up, and threw it in my purse. I took out my wallet and saw that I had only a couple dollars in cash. That wasn’t gonna cut it. But I did have my debit card, so I went inside the store and purchased a $40.00 gift card. It wasn’t much, but it was what I could spare at that moment.

I got in my car, drove back to the far end of the parking lot near the entrance close to where the family was still standing. I grabbed the gift card and started walking over to them. The mother spotted me first, with a half hopeful and half puzzled look on her face at this girl crossing four lanes of traffic and walking in her direction. I was a little nervous, though I’m not sure why. I was worried they’d be offended somehow. Or embarrassed. Or ashamed. And those were the last things I wanted them to feel. Mostly, I wanted them to know that someone saw them. Really saw them. And that someone thought they mattered.

I walked up to the father, outstretched my hand holding the gift card, and said, “Hi, I just wanted to give you this. It has $40.00 on it. I hope it can help you get some of the things you need.” He looked at me, a little shocked, I think, because he wasn’t sure what to say. He just stared at me like he didn't believe I was serious. When I said, “Please, take it, I want you to have it,” his eyes welled up with tears. He said quietly as his head drifted down, “I don’t know what to say. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome,” I replied. “I just wish it was more.”

“You don’t understand what this means to my family,” he said. “My baby and my son will have something to eat tonight.”

“Please get something for the two of you to eat tonight, too,” I said as I nodded in his wife’s direction.

“We will,” he said, “but after the kids.”

I stood there for a few minutes talking to him and his wife. They told me they had lost their only car, and because of that, he did not have a way to get himself to work every day at his construction job in St. Louis. Because of that, he lost his job, too. And finding new employment has been next to impossible, both he and his wife said. She explained that they have to choose between paying their rent or buying food, diapers, clothing, toiletries – basic necessities – every month. This month, they chose the rent and prayed that a few people might help them out with some spare change or a couple dollars as they drove past on their way to Walmart.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he said.

At that point, the tears welling in his eyes started rolling down his cheeks. His wife quickly wiped away her tears and I stood there choking back my own.

I didn’t know what to say. The only thing I could think of was, “Hang in there. It’ll get better. Just hang in there.” I had no idea if that was true or not, but I said it anyway, hoping it was.

“It was nice to meet you,” I said as I started to turn and walk back to my car. As I made my way across the street, their repeated thank yous and God bless yous followed me to the parking lot. I got in my car and sat there for a good 10 minutes, crying, soaking in the fact that something so small had meant so much to that family. I sat there humbled, feeling at the same time grateful for and ashamed of my own good fortune. I’m not rich. I don’t have a lot. But I have enough, more than enough. I sat there heartbroken that this family didn’t have enough. If I could have bought them a car right that second, I would have because to that family, having a working vehicle would change their entire world. I drove home with that family on my mind. They’ve been on my mind ever since. I plan on going back to Walmart at my next opportunity to see if they’re still there. And if they are, I’ll help them again.

I tell this story not to toot my own horn or pat myself on the back. I don’t deserve any of that for simply helping someone in need. I tell it with the hope that maybe one other person will read this and think, “I should help, too.” I tell it with even more hope that they actually will help someone, anyone, who needs it for whatever reason. It’s so easy to drive or walk past people on the street holding signs, asking for food or money, maybe singing or playing an instrument for other people’s pocket change. It’s so easy to pretend they aren’t there, that they aren’t your problem. It’s so easy to not even see them at all.

I know some people will read this and think, “Why the hell should I give my hard-earned money to someone begging on the street? Why don’t they just get a job? I have to work for what I have, why shouldn’t they?” To those people, I say first that it’s not that simple. People stand on a corner asking for help for a million different reasons, whether it’s because they lost their job, have mental health issues, medical issues, got evicted from their home, have nowhere else to turn. Whatever the reason, being in that position has to be one of the most degrading and disheartening experiences a human being could ever have. I personally know what it’s like to wonder where your next meal is coming from, or if it’s coming at all. There was a time in my childhood when my little family – my mom, my sister, and I – had nothing. When my mom had to choose between keeping a roof over our heads and putting food on the table. And it wasn’t because of anything she did or didn’t do. It was because we were in a shitty circumstance beyond our control. During that time, people helped us. Bags of groceries would show up on our front porch and when they did, I know my mom felt a wave of contradictory emotions – gratefulness, thankfulness, relief, guilt, and shame. Without those bags of groceries left anonymously for us, we would have gone hungry. I know what that feels like. It’s awful. But because of that, I also know how much it means when someone reaches out and offers help. And that is amazing.   

I also say, it’s none of our business why those people are there. Yes, I have no doubt that there are some jerks in the world who take advantage of other people’s kindness. It happens. But it’s none of my business. My part in the equation is to help, not to question. I didn’t ask that family the other day if they were being honest, what they were going to do with that gift card, or why they weren’t out looking for work instead of standing on the corner asking for help. None of that was my business. And none of those things mattered. They needed help. I could offer help. End of story. That’s just the way it should be. If we can help, we should, in any circumstance. If we have the means to lift at least a little bit of a burden off someone else’s shoulders, we should, whether it’s by giving money, our time, our attention, our ears to listen, our wisdom to share, or anything else. Just looking someone in the eye and smiling at them can change their whole day. Simply acknowledging someone who feels invisible and letting them know they matter can change that person’s life in that moment. And I whole-heartedly believe – no, I know for a fact – that helping someone else does just as much if not more for the helper than the helpee.
I haven’t been back to that Walmart yet, but I’ll be there again and I’ll look for that family. If they’re there, I’ll help them however I can in that moment. And not just them, anyone. If I can help someone else somehow, from now on I’m going to make a conscious effort to do so. At the very least, I’m going to acknowledge that they are there, they are real, they are human beings. Regardless of their circumstances, regardless of the balance in their bank account, regardless of their living situation, regardless of their job, and regardless of the lack of any of those things, they matter. And that's all that matters to me.