I Help Them Learn Kindness — by Giving to Those Who Need It Most

The author and her kids hit the streets of Birmingham. (Photo: Jaime Primak Sullivan)
The author and her kids hit the streets of Birmingham, Ala. (Photo: Jaime Primak Sullivan)

To kick off the week leading up to Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life — the highly anticipated revival of the quirky, poignant mother-daughter series that everyone, it seems, will be cozying up to the day after Thanksgiving (12:01 a.m. on Nov. 25, to be precise) — we’ll be celebrating some cool moms we know and the parenting styles that are uniquely their own, through a weeklong series, #MyMomStyle. 

Like many kids, my children — Olivia, 8; Max, 7; and Charlie, 6 — enjoy numerous privileges. They attend a Catholic school, play sports, take dance, have birthday parties, go out for ice cream (I’m sure you remember that), and enjoy movies with the family.

And while maintaining a kind heart is a value my husband and I work hard at reinforcing with our children, the message can sometimes become diluted in the midst of “but she has …” and “I want.”

I realized recently that my children had no real concept of “have-nots” — only “I have, yet I still want more.” And an even harder realization was that Michael and I were to blame. It felt good to buy them books and puzzles, games, and treats. After all, we told ourselves, isn’t that why we work so much?

But then one day, I watched one of my children take an apple from the fruit bowl. She took two bites, then tossed it in the trash. I was so angry. Didn’t she realize how wasteful that was? How many people in this country and in our city don’t have apples to eat? And then it occurred to me: She didn’t know — none of them did — because I had never shown them.

I decided that was not acceptable. So one Sunday after church, I pulled our car into the parking lot of our supermarket.

“What are we doing?” they all asked.

“We’re going to feed some homeless people,” I said.

“What’s homeless?” my youngest asked me.

Photo: Jaime Primak Sullivan
Photo: Jaime Primak Sullivan

I spent the next 20 minutes explaining, as best as I could, what it meant to be homeless in America. I wanted to humanize the phrase so they would not be afraid. Then we walked the store aisles putting healthy snacks into our cart — apples, bottles of water, wheat bread, peanut butter and jelly, and pretzels, and paper bags — and headed home.

After they changed out of their church clothes, the kids came into the kitchen and saw all the bags lined up. “That’s too many,” they all said. “Why do we have to do this?” The three of them whining at once can be overwhelming, but this was too important a teachable moment to cave. So to distract them, I asked them to share things they were thankful for. They rattled off things like “toys” and “friends.” I did my best to point out things we take for granted — a hot shower, air conditioning, toothbrushes, and warm socks, and they could not believe that there were people who didn’t have these things. I knew seeing the reality would be the only way for them to truly understand our blessings.

So we loaded 60 paper bags into a red wagon and hit the streets of downtown Birmingham. I watched them in amazement as they nervously offered lunch to those who truly needed it, making small talk with those who started conversations. Olivia, my oldest, had the hardest time with it. She let her more outgoing brother and sister do most of the work while she quietly absorbed this new reality.

As we handed out bags, I said to each and every person who took one, “God bless you.” And each time, I could feel the ache in Olivia’s heart. I so desperately wanted to protect her from the hardships so many face, but I couldn’t anymore.

When we had given out the last of the bags, I told a few people waiting we would be back the following Sunday. My children watched as they walked off, now truly understanding that they had no real place to go. All three of my children grew up a little faster that day.

As we were headed back to the car, Olivia stopped and her voice cracked. “We needed more,” she cried. “We should have made more.” I hugged her as she sobbed. She understood better than I could have imagined.

Now it’s my children who suggest when to go dole out meals, though we try to stick to a monthly Sunday schedule. They each want to take turns pulling the wagon and want to be the first to say, “God bless you.” Now they know many of the people we feed by name — Cody, Angel, Tony, Mitchell — and know where they like to sit when it’s raining. My hope is that feeding people in need is something my children and I will continue to do as long as we are blessed and able to, and I pray it is a tradition they can eventually share with their own families as well.

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