“Muy buenos días,” I greeted the single father who had arrived at the Christmas Bureau to pick up food and clothing, and maybe a present, for his four children.
I walked him through the Christmas Bureau, explaining how many of each type of item he was allowed to take, translating any of the unfamiliar canned goods, and making some small talk.
I think we talked about the weather.
And then we arrived at the toy section, where he set to work picking out something for his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. He found a Matchbox car set and something Hannah Montana, pronounced them “perfecto”, and proceeded to pick out a winter coat as his own present.
Slightly ahead of us, I saw a young mom, who, with a baby strapped to her chest and a three-year-old son on her hip, exuded weariness.
She seemed nervous as her volunteer escort, who didn’t speak Spanish, showed her various present options for her son. She hesitated, looked around, and caught my eye.
Stepping away from my “client”, I whispered in her ear, “would you like me to distract your son so that the present can be a surprise, from Santa Claus?”
Grateful, she grinned and nodded, and he and I skipped off to find a lollipop while she hid his Handy Manny toy inside the towels she chose for herself.
When we got back, she whispered, “gracias”, and, Mommy to Mami, we smiled.
And those encounters, and the rest of the 15 hours that I spent at the Christmas Bureau this holiday season, giving directions in Spanish and filling out forms and searching through racks of clothing for the right sizes, did absolutely nothing to reorder the fundamentally unjust social structures in our society. No laws were changed. No wrongs were really righted.
It sure felt good.
I came home after every shift brimming with a sense that the world is full of love and hope, even though what I saw was so much poverty and sadness. It wasn’t the high that I felt when the Kansas Legislature passed our instate tuition policy, or when we got the appropriations for college savings funds for low-income students, or when 10,000 people showed up to protest unfair immigration policies.
But connecting with people in a very human, and intimate, way, restored my soul and lifted my spirits as crafting letters to the editor and planning rally agendas and commenting on proposed regulations does not.
And, so, as this new year begins, and as I think back on those experiences at the end of the last, I guess my thoughts are these:
I get it.
I get it about why so many social workers would rather walk people through the trials of their lives, rather than pull themselves away to challenge the social structures that set up those same trials. I get it why, when people think about volunteering, they think about tutoring and reading to people in nursing homes, not collecting petition signatures or registering voters or calling Congress.
For me, spending this time working directly with those in need is a powerful reminder of the work that remains to be done. A working father shouldn’t be without a winter coat all the way until December 10th. A young mother shouldn’t have to choose sanitary napkins as her Christmas present.
Not in a country where so many have so very much. And not when our nation depends on the work of these very families to sustain our economy.
Not as we welcome the year 2011.
So, I’m still an unapologetic, unconverted macro social worker, albeit one who relishes the chance to put Band-Aids on sometimes, because it means sharing a smile with a fellow traveler in this unfair world. But I won’t speak derisively of “just putting on Band-Aids“, because I’ve been reminded about just how needed those Band-Aids can be.
Will we really change the world by helping those left out, one at a time? Maybe not. I still don’t like the starfish story.
But there’s a little boy whose mom got to see him open a brand-new bicycle on Christmas morning, a little boy whose hope for a brighter tomorrow, and an essentially “good” world, might just stay alive for awhile longer.
And that’s not nothing.