I have received a last-minute request from the Bishop of our ward to do a service for a family in need.  The Bishop would like the Young Women’s organization to provide Christmas for a single mom and her two kids which are an 18-month-old baby and a 16-year-old daughter.  Items requested are clothes for the kids, a dress for the mom, a game for the 16-year-old, and a few toys for the baby.

As I presented the request to the young women of our ward in church yesterday, I was gratified to see that they were all willing to help this little family that doesn’t even live in our area.  I was even given some money by a couple of the girls immediately after presenting the request.

We only have one week to pull a Christmas together for this family in need, all donations need to be ready next Monday.  This Wednesday night we are having a mother/daughter night of making gingerbread houses.  We have asked the girls to bring any donations that they have to that activity so that we can start to organize the gifts and see what else we will need to purchase.

Though I am already short on time, I am grateful for this opportunity to serve people we have never met.  Last year our family provided Christmas for a different single mom and her children.  My kids and step-kids enjoyed providing that service, and now my daughters and step-daughter get the opportunity to serve again, along with their teen friends in the ward.  I love to see teenagers serve others instead of thinking of themselves!

It is going to be quite hectic for the next few days as I coordinate the service for this single mom as well as continue my “regular” daily activities, AND finish the Christmas shopping for my own family.

One week to provide a Christmas for a family.

We.

Will.

Do.

This.

We CAN pull it off!

The best time for me to get maintenance done on my vehicle is during school breaks such as this winter break.  That way I don’t have to work around my crossing schedule or any subbing calls.  So, I sit in the lobby area of Jiffy Lube waiting for the “signature service oil change” to be completed and I type on my laptop to kill time. 

 

It has been a whirlwind couple of days.  The thing I most want to report on is the service that we did for our “mystery” family.  My extended family went above and beyond in providing the Christmas dinner and stocking stuffers for the family.  Our kids partnered up in shopping for the other gifts for the family and we got them wrapped and packed up on December 23. 

 

I made arrangements with the mom of the family to meet away from her apartment so that she could keep the gifts secret from her kids.  The kids and I loaded the gifts into the back of my car and we all piled into our two vehicles and drove to the meeting spot (Hub was still recovering from his surgery, so he stayed home).  When we arrived, we quickly found the mom and her friend waiting for us in a beat-up car.  We were shown pictures of all of her kids and  a scrapbook of the little boy’s journey of being a heart patient.  I think my kids were touched to see such a tiny boy in a hospital bed surrounded by tubes.

 

The mom told us a little about each of her kids and then we started transferring gifts from our car to the other car.  When that task was finished the mom started to thank us and broke down crying.  She said that she was so grateful to us for helping her provide a Christmas for her kids.  We all gave her a hug and she cried again.  It was then that the personalities of our teens came out.  They were touched by the show of emotion from the mom, but I could tell that they preferred a more upbeat tone, so they immediately started talking about movies, and school, and everything else.  The mom joined in the conversation and we sat in the freezing parking lot visiting for an hour.  There was much laughter and joking, and it put everyone into a festive mood.

 

We wanted to keep our service as anonymous as possible, but the mom has my email address and has promised to send us updates on her kids.  When we got home I asked our kids how they felt.  The two words they used to describe how they felt were good and happy.  They all thought the mom of the family was “cool” and said how much they enjoyed visiting her and that they wouldn’t mind getting to see her again some day.

 

So, if we were trying to keep our service anonymous, why would I write about it on my blog?  My purpose in doing so is to show parents that getting kids, teens especially, involved in service is one way to help them look beyond themselves.  Teens are naturally self-centered and concerned about themselves and their world.  If left unchecked, it can develop into selfishness and a raging sense of entitlement.

 

The schools our kids attend have some financial diversity, but the majority of the kids are very privileged and have a lot of money at their disposal.  Many of the kids expect a fully-loaded new car for their 16th birthday–and get it.  They have the latest electronic devices and wear the latest fashions, and most don’t have to work for the money they receive from their parents.  It is just handed to them.  Not the best way to raise kids, in my opinion. 

 

Earlier this month Mack came home from school totally disgusted with something she had overheard in one of her classes.  Some of the kids were talking about what they expected to get for Christmas and most of the items being talked about were quite expensive.  The conversation turned to grandparents and a few of the kids compared their two sets of grandparents. 

 

“Yeah, one set of grandparents gets me pretty good stuff, but the other one only gives me five dollars.”

 

“I have some like that.  I have a grandpa that is totally loaded and his presents are nice.  But my grandparents who live in Wyoming, they’re dirt poor, and all they ever send is five dollars.  I open it and think, ‘Gee thanks, I guess I can go buy me a candy bar now.'”

 

It is just that sense of entitlement and selfishness that I want to prevent from developing in our seven kids.  My four kids have known what it is like to be “poor” and to have to receive help from others.  They are pretty grounded and have a sense of what is really important in life.  But, I recognize that that could change, especially with their school environment, so I constantly look for ways they can serve others.  Hub’s kids have led a rather pampered existence, especially at their other home, so I have desires to let them experience the joys of helping others as well.

 

The whole purpose of finding a family to help at Christmas to was help our kids to see that not everyone has been as fortunate as they have been.  I wanted them to see what others deal with on a daily basis, and that sometimes meeting basic needs is a real struggle.  I wanted them all to look beyond themselves.  We asked them all to make a certain sacrifice in providing for the “mystery” family and they all willingly did so.  Getting to visit with the mom of the family and seeing pictures of her kids helped to put a face to the family we were helping, they were no longer just “somebody out there.”  They were real people with likes and dislikes, talents, and some very real challenges.  It was a great experience for our kids, for our family as a whole.  Hub thanked me afterwards for providing the opportunity for his kids to serve someone else.

 

If there is one plea I could send out to all parents, it is to provide opportunities for your kids to serve others.  Doing a Sub for Santa is only one way.  Residents of care centers are lonely and crave visits from others.  There are children who need tutoring in math or reading.  There are parks that need cleaning up.  There is always a need for food and volunteers at local food banks.  Elderly people appreciate their walks and driveways being shoveled in the winter, or their lawns being mowed in the summer.  Inmates enjoy receiving mail.  There are so many ways to serve others.  Find a way to serve that suits the personalities of your kids and let them experience the joy.  They will develop compassion and empathy, may make some new friends, and will stop thinking only of themselves.

 

As I said in an earlier post, look for opportunities to serve, and they will come.  It is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids. 

I’d been praying to be led to someone our family could serve this Christmas season.  For whatever reason, nothing seemed to come up.  I knew of food bank needs, and our kids took canned goods to school to help with the food drive.  I knew of the loneliness of the residents of a local senior care center and had my PLC students make cards for them.  My kids finished the cards so that each resident could receive two.  I agreed to continue the tradition Hub and his kids have of randomly handing out cash to strangers.  But, none of these acts of service seemed like the “one.”  It still felt like there was something else we could do, or needed to do, but what was it?

Then, last Sunday, a plea for help caught my eye.  A single mom needs help providing a Christmas for her family.  Having been a single mom for a time, anything about single moms catches my eye.  She has four kids.  I was a single mom with four kids.  She has three girls and a boy.  I have three girls and a boy.  Her boy is the youngest.  My boy is the youngest.  Of course, all of this was going to catch my attention! 

But, it was there that our similarities ended.  She lives in an apartment.  Her son is a heart patient and has already had one open heart surgery in which he received a donor valve.  He will outgrow that valve and will need open heart surgery again in the future.  Because of all the time she spends with her son at the hospital she is unable to work.  She was able to buy herself a car in August, “Nothing pretty,” she says, “but it worked.”  Then, two days after Thanksgiving, she was hit by a drunk driver and the car was totaled.  She sent out a plea for someone to help her family have a Christmas.

This was the one.

I approached Hub about my desire to help this little family.  He agreed that it was something we could do.  I don’t want to go into much detail about what we have decided to do, but our kids have agreed to certain sacrifices.  I also spent time on the phone with each of my extended family members who have all agreed to give up a certain traditional activity at my Mom’s Christmas party and, instead, put the money towards providing this little family with a Christmas dinner and stocking stuffers.  It took most of the week to coordinate, hence no new postings from me.  But, it has all fallen into place in a week’s time.

Our kids did their shopping for the mystery family last night.  The only “need” that had been requested was socks and underwear for the two youngest kids.  It was fun to see the kids partner up and try to find things that the kids in the family might enjoy and it was gratifying to hear them say to each other that it was fun.  They have also expressed a desire to go with us when we deliver “Christmas” on Tuesday.  My mom’s party is tomorrow night and we will return home with the Christmas dinner and stocking stuffers to add to the growing pile in my bedroom.  

Every once in awhile someone will share an idea on something else we can do to add to the “Christmas.”  The entire experience sort of reminds me of the line from Field of Dreams–“If you build it, they will come.”  I was looking for an opportunity to serve.  I prayed for it.  And the opportunity presented itself.  A short time before Christmas, when I had decided that it was too late to help anyone, the opportunity came.

If you look for opportunities to serve, they will come.

Vacation Goals Update:

Family goal – Each person was asked to find at least one person to help or show kindness to while on our trip.  Helping a family member counted.  There were many little kindnesses performed, almost too many to write.  Here are the ones I personally noticed:

HUB – Gave Ryan our contact information and told him that if he ever desires to come to Utah he can stay in our condo in Moab or in my parents cabin in the Uinta mountains and that we will be his personal tour guides.  The offer is a standing offer.  Also, when we discovered too late that Yawlin wasn’t tall enough to go on Dueling Dragons, Hub stayed with Yawlin so that I could go on the ride with the rest of the kids.  Hub was very attentive to ALL of my needs on the trip.

ME – After getting caught in a downpour walking back to our hotel room one night and ending up soaking wet, we decided to order the old fashioned chicken noodle soup from room service to take the chill off.  The lady who brought our order was so kind and had decorated the table in such a pretty way that, even though there was already a 22 percent gratuity added to our order, I decided to tip her in addition to the gratuity.  We loved the flowers she had provided.  I also allowed Hub to use my travel pillow on our flights so that he could be more comfortable.

SQUID – Helped Yawlin lift his luggage up to high racks whenever we had to ride a shuttle at airports.  He also allowed Yawlin to bury his feet in wet sand at the beach.  Squid celebrated his 18th birthday on the day we left for the trip.  On a layover in Atlanta we rode a train to an underground mall and ate lunch at a 50’s style diner.  We informed our waitress that it was Squid’s 18th birthday and she brought him out a huge ice cream sundae and four helium filled balloons.  As we left the restaurant Squid spotted a group of mom’s with four kids.  He gave the balloons to the kids whose eyes lit up upon receiving the free gift.

HUH –  Was very attentive to her little brother.  She gave Yawlin a piggy back ride as we walked through one of the theme parks because he was getting a little tired.  She also took him to the hotel pool and played with him there while the rest of us rested in our hotel rooms.

JUJU- Held the pool gate open for a lady in a wheelchair.  She also stayed with Yawlin twice while the rest of us went on rides he was unable to go on.  She went with him on one ride that could be considered “boring” for a teenager.

MACK – At the car rental counter she saw a woman’s overloaded suitcase about to tip over.  Mack held it up for the lady until she was finished filling out her paperwork and was able to take control of her suitcase herself.  Also, we all witnessed a worker at Islands of Adventure get yelled at by a woman for something that wasn’t his fault.  Mack waited for the lady to leave and then she went and apologized to the worker in behalf of the lady. 

SHROOM – Held a door open for some people at one of the attractions and then got stuck there holding the door because people kept coming.  And coming.  We had a good time teasing him about getting stuck holding the door.

HOOB- Stayed with Yawlin closer to shore while the rest of the family tried body surfing in deeper water at the beach.  She also helped him build things in the sand according to his specifications.  Hoob also held a few doors open.  

YAWLIN – There was a boy at the beach who had been floating in a tube.  Somehow the tube got away from him and was floating out to where he couldn’t reach it.  Yawlin grabbed the tube and brought it back to him.  He did the same thing with a ball that another little boy had at the hotel pool.  Yawlin also held doors open a few times.

*One funny way our teenage daughters showed kindness came after they had caught a seagull.  At Cocoa Beach they concocted a wild plan.  Huh was buried in the sand except for her head which was covered by a towel.  The other girls then placed pieces of nectarine and bread on Huh and the towel.  Huh had to be patient and lie there for quite awhile.  There were a few near misses and then one seagull landed in the perfect spot and Huh rose from the sand and trapped him with the towel.  It was actually pretty hilarious.  The girls were ecstatic that their plan had worked.  Others on the beach, especially kids, wanted to pet the bird and get pictures.  The girls happily obliged before letting the angry bird go.

My personal goal:  I wanted to spend some one-on-one time with each member of my family or to at least make each individual the focus for a time.  We did most things together as a family (which is the point of a family vacation), but I did manage to squeeze in some “focus time” with each person:

HUB – There was one morning that we woke before the kids and were able to sit and quietly talk about trip happenings and make plans for the new day.  We also held hands whenever we could, which prompted the kids to make the “Awww, lookit” comments.  Hub listened to the comments for awhile and then planted a big fat kiss on my lips.  The kids reacted by running away and yelling, “PDA!  PDA!  Ewwwww!”  🙂

SQUID – At the 50’s style diner that we ate at on our layover in Atlanta our waitress gave us some nickels to use in the juke box.  I invited Squid to come with me to choose songs to play.  He didn’t know any of the old songs so he ended up choosing by how interesting the song title sounded.  

HUH – During our flight home the two of us were seated together but across the aisle from the rest of the family.  I used that time as our one-on-one time.  We looked at all the pictures from the trip on my digital camera and we did cross-word puzzles together.

JUJU – The two of us volunteered to be a part of the Fear Factor Live show at Universal Studios.  While the rest of the family left to go on the Simpson’s Ride the two of us had to fill out paperwork in order to be participants.  We were able to use the time to visit and to take pictures of the two of us together.

MACK – We were on the Jimmy Neutron ride together and laughed hysterically at the rest of our family’s reactions to the ride.  We were both wiping tears from our eyes.

SHROOM – Had to leave us a day and a half early because of football.  Right after going on his final attraction of the trip I made him the focus by having the family give him a big group hug for a picture.  I told everyone to have sad faces.  There were people walking by who were wondering what it was all about.   

HOOB – While at the beach she asked me to bury her in the sand and take her picture.  I happily obliged.  We also walked over to an empty lifeguard tower and I took pictures of her posing on it.

YAWLIN- After we’d experienced most of the attractions at both theme parks together as a family we split up so that the teenagers could continue doing thrill rides.  Yawlin and I got to spend a lot of time together trying attractions that were more appealing to him.  I watched him play in water in two different kiddie areas, we took pictures of each other in different spots in the parks, and we visited some gift shops.  At the beach I buried Yawlin in the sand and then took a picture of him and I helped him build a castle with a moat that kept getting washed away in the surf.

The two goals I’d set (one personal and one for the family) were fulfilled.  The main reasons for taking a family vacation were to create memories and do some bonding.  Mission accomplished!

I have to admit, I was skeptical at first.  When my daughter told me the plan that she and her friends had hatched, my natural inclination was to protect her.  After all, I’ve been “burned” plenty of times in my life.  I know what it’s like to be hurt and I like to think I can spot a scam and manipulation from a mile away.

The history:

My daughter, Mack, really struggled for the first few months at her new school.  Changing schools while a teenager can be devastating.  She felt alone and friendless, hated the teachers, and had no interest in excelling at anything.  She stuck it out (she had no choice) and began to make friends.  Once friends were in place, her attitude about school changed.  Her confidence returned.  She began to like the teachers and once again get good grades.  Seventy-four kids showed up to her birthday party.  (I had given permission for twenty).  On a social level things are going well for Mack.

Enter Hannah.  (To protect privacy, all names in this post have been changed).

I first became aware of Hannah when Mack mentioned a girl at school who always seemed sad.  She reported that the girl talked suicide and that she was worried about her.  The girl didn’t have many friends.  In fact, most of the kids at school considered her strange.  We didn’t know the girl’s family so I advised Mack to tell the school counselor about Hannah’s comments and encouraged her to be her friend.  I didn’t hear much more about Hannah except for the occasional report that she still seemed sad.

Then last week Mack announced that she and three of her friends, Nikki, Lisa, and Becca, had decided to take Hannah shopping at the mall.  They felt that a few new clothes might cheer Hannah up.  Hannah had mentioned that her mother couldn’t afford to buy her new clothes and so she always wore hand-me-downs.  Each of the girls planned to donate her own money to the shopping trip.

I was worried.  I didn’t know Hannah or her history.  What if it was all an act?  Fueling my skepticism were recent news reports about panhandling in our area by teenagers who claim to be homeless but really aren’t.  Many people have bought into their sob story and have given them money.  Mack has to earn the money she receives by babysitting and doing extra chores, she doesn’t have an endless supply of the green stuff.  Was she about to throw her hard earned cash away on a lie?  Manipulation?  A scam? 

I know my daughter’s heart.  She genuinely cares about other people.  In grade school she stood up repeatedly for an autistic boy who was the butt of many cruel jokes.  Because Mack knows what it feels like to be alone and without friends, she has empathy for anyone in the same situation.  She truly seemed concerned for Hannah.

Still, the mother instinct to protect was in place.  “How do you know she can’t afford new clothes?”

For Mack the issue wasn’t the clothes or the money.  “Mom, she is so excited that we are doing this.  She even put on her MySpace page that some friends are taking her shopping.  Some of the kids at school are teasing us for doing this.  They think Hannah is weird.  But we don’t care.  We are going to do it anyway.”  The issue for Mack was that someone desperately needed some friends.

On Saturday the girls all met at Lisa’s house then walked together to Hannah’s house.  Lisa’s mom provided the transportation to the mall.  While at the mall they decided to let Hannah have a mini makeover.  In order for the makeover to be “free” they had to make a purchase.  Mack bought Hannah some eye shadow.  Then they visited some of their favorite stores.  Nikki and Becca pooled money in one store for a new outfit for Hannah, and then Mack and Lisa did the same in another store.

Mack was excited when she returned home from the outing.  “Hannah was sooooo happy!  She kept thanking us over and over.”

Hannah wore the new clothes to school on Monday and Tuesday.  Mack says that whenever Hannah sees any of the girls in the hall she runs up and gives them a hug and claims they are her new best friends.  I asked Mack if the other kids at school were still teasing and making fun of Mack and the others for taking Hannah shopping.  Mack says she hasn’t heard any negative comments.  She also says that she feels happier inside after having served Hannah.

I am so proud of my daughter and her friends and I am glad I didn’t stand in their way.  A new friend has been made, compassion has been developed, and a girl has been cheered.  The girls exhibited courage by not backing down to peer pressure to forget serving Hannah.  Not only was a good example set for the kids at school, a good example was set for me. 

The lessons I learned:  Don’t judge.  Serve anyway.  And don’t stand in the way of your kids if they are showing courage and taking the initiative to show compassion and empathy to someone else.

Lessons learned.  Lessons lived.