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Doing Good

12 Feb

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When the world seems to be falling apart, it is comforting to see the people you love trying to put it back together. One of those people is my son.

He’s a quiet kid. He’s shy and unassuming and once you are lucky enough to get to know him, he’s hilarious and kind and genuine. He still needs to work on the regular teenage stuff like being nicer to his brothers or answering me in a more patient tone. But all in all, he’s a truly fine human being and I am honored to have the privilege of being his mom.

In the fall, my son participated in a Midnight Run. Together with his friends and our synagogue he collected necessary every day items we might take for granted: soap, pillows, a warm jacket. On a cold November night, my son and husband drove into New York City and handed out jackets to the homeless. They helped people find the right size coat, the color they preferred, and ultimately the jacket that would keep them the warmest. They handed out jackets until there were no more jackets to hand out. But there were still people who were cold.

A few weeks later, I saw a segment on the news about a company in Michigan called The Empowerment Plan that was making jackets that converted to sleeping bags. The labor hired to sew these jackets is sourced exclusively from homeless shelters. These women are trained and given skills that will hopefully allow them to find full time employment. It was an incredible story to behold. I told my son about the jackets and he began an online fundraiser via Crowdrise to raise $5240 (the cost of 50 jackets plus shipping to NY), so he could continue to help keep our city’s homeless a little warmer.

With the help of many friends and family, more than $6000 was raised allowing for the purchase of nearly 60 coats. And on a cold January night, our family and my parents loaded the jackets into two trucks and drove to Hebrew Union College in The Village to distribute the coats to those patronizing their soup kitchen.

As we unloaded the coats onto a table and started demonstrating them for the people there, a small crowd began to gather. A very tall man was the first person to take a coat, explaining how happy he was because he has not been able to find a warm jacket that fits him in years.

We met a man named Matteo who sleeps in his van and was grateful to now have some semblance of a bed. He marveled at the utility of the jacket and how it was an item fashioned for those in need with respect for those in need in mind. He thanked my son and began to cry.

When a woman named Fatima saw the jacket, she broke into a wide smile and laughter, confiding that this was something she could really use. Her joy was palpable. She took a jacket and returned 15 minutes later just to talk to my son.

“You did this? How did you do this?”

My son explained his fundraiser. Fatima began to cry.

“I can’t believe you did this. You’re only 16. Do you know what you’ve done?”

And then she asked him for a hug. And they embraced.

When the shift was over only 5 jackets remained which we donated to the soup kitchen. Several hours later, after eating dinner at a local restaurant, we started walking back to our car. On the way, we passed Hebrew Union College. Outside was a man in a lawnchair, laughing with his friends, and wearing one of the jackets we gave him earlier that night.

Things have certainly come full circle. To have begun the Midnight Run program in our synagogue and to have ended this coat drive in the basement of a seminary was a beautiful living brush stroke of tikkun olam: repairing the world.

And the world is indeed in need of repair.While the country’s delicate seams have been mercilessly ripped apart, small acts of kindness, like this one, are the thread we all need to sew us back together. Because regardless of where we live or what we own, people are people are people. And yes, you do things for other people. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it because you can. You do it because you can make someone’s life better, even if it is just in the smallest way, like a giving a stranger a fresh bar of soap. But you also do it because it makes you feel better too. And it feels good to do good. It does.

My son may not always be the type who sits on my lap to hug me, or who holds my hand while I’m driving and rests his head on it, or who comes into my room to hug and kiss me as a study break. But I hope he is. I will never be too old to accept any of those expressions of love.

Soon my son will be going off to college. When he leaves the home in which he has grown up, I wonder if he is ready for what the world will throw at him. But mostly I want to know that he is a good person. That I am sending my best work, a really good human being, into the world. That he will love and be loved. That he will be kind. That he will help those who need it. And that he will be good. And he is.

My son is already repairing this world, doing great things, and giving back. He’s going to make his mark on this world. In fact, he already has.

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Born Good

4 Jun

Sometimes, people are just born good.

Last week, my 14 year old son came to me:

“Mom, I finally figured out what I want to do with my March Madness winnings. I want to give it to Relay for Life.”

“That’s the fundraiser at your school for The American Cancer Society, right?”

“Right.”

And then my heart caught. My mother is a three time survivor of  breast cancer. She is the most beautiful warrior I have ever seen. She is also the inspiration for this sudden largesse. That and the fact that donations are tied to chances to watch a certain teacher go down in the dunk tank at the school carnival. I told him I loved him. I told him I was proud of him. I told him to sleep on it before he does anything.

My son loves sneakers. LOVES them. He loves a lot of things he could buy himself with his money. He also understands the value of a dollar because he babysits his little brothers and earns every last cent we pay him. But there is a certain depth to him. He gets things. He is understanding. He is a thinker. He is connected.

A few days later, my son found me in the kitchen.

“Mom, I’ve thought about it and I’m going to give the money to charity.”

He showed me a Ziploc full of $125 cash. He was unaware of the grand gesture he was making. It was just an easy decision that made sense.

Later that morning I received a phone call from the school, the caller ID for which always elicits  panic. After the assistant principal told me there was nothing to be alarmed about, I realized why he was calling. He told me that he nearly cried when he discovered my son wanted to give all his money to charity and it was an emotional conversation to say the least. I hung up the phone and wept.

I have been really riding my son all year about his school work. My concern is that it doesn’t matter to him; that he’s not as motivated as he should be; that he’s not competitive enough with himself to do the best he possibly can; that it doesn’t matter. I have been remiss. There are more important things in life. And I was just reminded of that by my son.

When my son came home from school that day, he was excited, he was animated, he was maybe even a little bit proud. He didn’t seem to recognize the grandeur of his action until he told me that for 20 minutes, the teachers (who originally didn’t think they could even accept that high a donation) crowded around him and told him what a wonderful thing he was doing. The superintendent and the principal also spoke to my son about his generosity. And more important, he seemed poised to manipulate the dunk contest results so that one teacher in particular was a goner.

“Did you do this for Nanny?”

“Yes. And Aunt Sandy.”

My beloved aunt who died from lung cancer when my son was only 6. There’s that depth again.

I am so proud of this boy. And I am so disappointed in myself for all those times I pushed him while not focusing on what is really important: he is. And he is not just a grade point average or an extra-curricular activity or some dumb random honor. He is not a high school transcript or a standardized test or an assigned generic task. He is so much more. He is everything.

I can teach him all I want. I can help him with his homework (not math!) and how to organize an essay and how to make a good omelet and how to make his bed and how to do the laundry and how to moonwalk. I cannot teach him to be a good — a really good — person.

Thankfully, he already is.