A man stood by the side of the road, thin and ragged, holding a battered cardboard sign. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, willing the light to turn green. He was close enough that if my car window had been rolled down, I could have reached out and touched him. But the windows were shut, a solid barrier between us.
"Mommy, what is that guy doing? What does his sign say?" my daughter asked from the backseat. She was in kindergarten, just beginning to read.
I cast a side-eyed glance at him. "His sign says 'Homeless and Hungry'," I told her. "He's asking for money."
"Well, aren't you going to help him?" she asked. "He's hungry!"
I rarely carry cash, so it wasn't a lie when I mumbled, "I don't actually have any dollar bills with me right now." I felt a pang of guilt, though. To my daughter, it was obvious that we should come to the aid of a hungry man who needed help. Had I lost sight of my own humanity, zooming past this man without a second glance?
Next time, I resolved, I would stop and give something.
The following day I stashed a few one dollar bills in the console of my car and designated it "the homeless fund."
About a week later, on the way home from school, we came upon another man panhandling. Homeless Vet, his sign said. I gave him a couple of dollars through my car window. He was gracious, and the interaction only lasted a moment.
As I drove on, I realized I was feeling something I hadn't expected: happiness. I remembered then what I had learned in my early twenties as an Americorps volunteer, that giving makes you feel good.
This continued for a few months. My daughter would announce "There's someone with a sign!" and I would scrounge for loose change or bills. But I wondered if we could do more. The people we gave to were often stationed near the interstate exit closest to our house, close to a McDonald's. What about gift cards instead of cash?
My daughter and I talked about other small things someone who lives on the street might like. "A bottle of water," she suggested. "A snack."
I went online for ideas and found several ideas for care kits. We went shopping and packed a few large Ziploc bags with chapstick, tissues, bottled water, granola bars, $5 McDonald's gift cards, and pairs of socks. I stashed them in my glove compartment to have on hand, and my daughter and I began putting together a handful of bags each month.
Since then we have given away many of these care packages. The recipients have been men and women, young and old. Some are disheveled and some are well-groomed. The messages on their signs vary: "Far From Home," "Hungry," "Anything Helps," "Vietnam Vet," "God Bless." Every time we give a bag away, though, we are met with thanks.
Then recently, it was my turn to do the thanking. My daughter and I were at the local nature center and I had forgotten to pack sandwiches for lunch. A small hot dog stand was our only option, so I started to order. Then I noticed the "cash only" sign.
"Oh...wait. You don't take credit or debit cards?" I asked.
"We only take cash," the man running the stand replied.
"Never mind," I said, embarrassed and flustered. "I don't actually have any cash with me."
Immediately my daughter began whining. "Mooommmmy, what are we going to eat? I'm starving!"
The vendor looked at her and then at me. "Wait here," he said and began preparing two hot dogs.
"But I don't have any way to pay you," I protested.
"It's okay," he replied, "I'm giving them to you. I want to do this. Let me do one nice thing today."
My voice caught as I thanked him, humbled to experience this level of kindness from a stranger. I felt a combination of discomfort with my situation combined with gratitude. For a moment, I realized what it must feel like to be on the other end of our care package project.
I'll never know the impact of our project. But so what? I'm not a Catholic, but I am a fan of Pope Francis. "Give without worry," he said in an interview last year about giving to the homeless. Because giving to someone in need is always right."
It's been three years since my daughter and I began giving away our care packages. If she hadn't shamed me into trying to help a hungry man, I would still be avoiding eye contact with people on the street who ask for assistance. Instead, I remember how I felt that day at the hot dog stand. I also think about the vendor's words: Let me do one nice thing today.
The care packages are a simple project. But in a way, they're anything but simple. The project has given me the chance to model kindness and compassion to my child. It's created an opportunity for us to work together. And it's allowed us to experience the joy that comes from doing something good.