Like a lot of suburban parents, much of my life happens in the car. The front seat of our minivan is my office. I do a lot of thinking in between soccer practices and pharmacy drive-thrus.
That means a good bit of parenting happens behind those silver sliding doors.
When my kids were old enough to be curious about the people who stand on curbs next to stoplights, often holding hand-scrawled signs, I'll be honest: I felt stuck.
"Vietnam Vet: Can't find work. Hungry. Please help."
"Disabled mother of two kids. God bless."
In my experience, the "haves" generally pick one of two camps when it comes to addressing a "have not" face to face, without warning:
1. They give money, or,
2. They give nothing, for a variety of reasons, including fear, disdain for the practice of begging or a concern that their money would be used for something unsavory like drugs.
I have pretty much been in camp "2." It's not that I don't feel compassion for the homeless; on the contrary, I feel tremendous sadness when I encounter someone holding one of those signs. How bad must life be for one to stand on a street corner and ask strangers for help? Still, I usually haven't reached for my purse.
My reasoning has been that I donate time and money to my church and other organizations that presumably use those resources in wise and careful ways to address social justice issues that matter to me. I vote for people who say they care about inequities. I write letters to people who could perhaps impact mental health services and funding and other arenas that disproportionately affect homeless people.
But all of this is kind of hard to explain to 5- and 7-year-olds at a red light.
And then there's this: I started to notice that by not giving, not rolling down the window, I wasn't really seeing. My kids, on the other hand, were wide-eyed and watching intently.
Sure, I used the encounters to talk about why some people don't have homes or jobs, and how sometimes life takes hard turns, and not everyone has mommies, daddies or teachers to help them.
But the lights always turned green, and we'd be off. And I'd think: All my kids see is that I'm not helping. Not seeing.
I have a love/hate relationship with Pinterest, but that's where I first spotted the idea for "blessing bags." The concept is pretty simple: You collect a variety of non-perishable items that might be useful to a person living on the street, and load them into gallon-sized Ziploc bags.
I filed the idea away.
More lights, more signs.
"I was laid off last month. My wife has cancer. Help please."
I got the supplies for our first blessing bags on a whim. I saw a few things at Costco that made me think of them, and that evening I was on the floor of our living room with the kids, packing bags full of thick tube socks, Band-Aids, granola bars, hand-warmers and water bottles. We crammed the bags into a tote and set them between the kids' car seats.
The next time we saw a person with a sign, one of my kids silently dug into the tote and handed me a Ziploc. I rolled down my window. And I saw. I smiled. I had a little conversation.
I have heard criticisms of blessing bags: They are patronizing -- dehumanizing, even -- because they imply that the recipients can't be trusted with money. Given that some of those asking for help may be scam artists, some argue that these bags are wastes of time and money. Besides, they don't actually address the macro-level problems that contribute to homelessness.
But my wide-eyed watchers in the back seat quieted those critical voices for me. I still believe that our family needs to be part of the systemic solution to poverty. But in the meantime -- while we wait for votes to be cast or programs to kick in -- people are suffering. People we see every day, on the way to soccer and the pharmacy. And if we want our children -- our future voters and philanthropists -- to learn about the power of giving, I suspect the more hands-on they are in terms of the gifts, the better.
That's the beauty of something like blessing bags: They are not just $5 bills pulled from adults' wallets. They take some time to put together, time that kids can devote. They are made of things that kids get, like granola bars for grumbling tummies and Band-Aids for scraped knees. And in a busy suburban area like ours, there is an abundance of recipients. We have refilled our tote twice in two months.
The gifts themselves hopefully add a bit of light to the days of sad, sick or hungry people. But from my point of view, of equal value is the message they can send the givers, especially the littlest givers among us: Seeing matters. Giving feels good.
Last week, my son's second-grade teacher told me that as part of a holiday assignment, "What is your wish for the world in the new year?" he wrote about blessing bags.
"I think that if you see a homeless person, you should at least give them something," his essay began. "For example, my family gives out blessing bags ... [If we all give out blessing bags], this school can change the world."
I think so, too.