Today we practiced for Halloween. It's the one day of the year the preschoolers get their way without saying "please," and, to their credit, it was hard at first for some of them to ask for candy without saying the magic word.
Most of the kids put on costumes from our dress-up collection. Earlier, they'd decorated goodie bags and now it was time for them to go around to the teachers in the classroom, say "trick or treat!" and then "thank you" after they got their candy deposit.
My station was the first one. I had to remind the kids to say trick or treat instead of please and to hang on tight to their bags when I dropped in the Snickers bar. (Almost all the kids lost their grip when the full-sized bar hit the bottom, but they learned fast.).
After the circuit of the room, we led them through People Serving People to some of the offices, where staff were armed with more candy. You may not think of a homeless shelter as a fun place, but there could not have been a happier location downtown this morning—the kids, the teachers and volunteers in costume, the staff meeting all the children at their doors and the other guests who saw our parade of lady bugs, fairies, Spidermen, Ninja Turtles, cats and Little Red Riding Hood.
This afternoon, after nap, the children will be joined by the parents who can attend and they'll decorate Halloween cookies together.
A good friend showed up for his first volunteer day just as I was leaving. That was a treat, too.
The People Serving People newsletter this month included an interview with me about being a volunteer. I answered more questions than fit on the page, plus gave a few answers that might have been a bit too pointed. PSP has been great about me doing this blog, but they also need to maintain a degree of neutrality in their own publications.
Here's the full interview.
When did you begin volunteering (in your lifetime)?
I remember in high school delivering Christmas food baskets to houses on the “wrong side of the tracks.” At one place, the door was open but everyone hid from us. We put the turkey in the refrigerator, and there was nothing in it except what looked like a plate of lard.
The first big commitment I took on was with the Neighborhood Involvement Program in the late ‘70s, tutoring at-risk middle school kids in North Minneapolis. I still remember trying to help my 7th grader understand fractions by showing him a ruler, but he’d never learned to use one. He could read at a second grade level. That’s when I really began to appreciate what some children who didn’t have my advantages are up against.
When did you begin volunteering for People Serving People?
What made you choose People Serving People (to volunteer)?
I read a friend’s blog post about coming across a homeless person’s camp and realizing he didn’t understand much about homelessness, so he signed up to volunteer at PSP to learn more. He ran a small business and had two small children. I thought, if he can do it, I can, too.
About the same time, I was doing a lot of political blogging, but not doing much social action. I read an essay about the “cognitive surplus” created by America’s great prosperity—how many of us have been given the opportunity to manage excess free time. But we spend it watching TV or arguing with each other online, essentially squandering this great asset. President Obama had just been elected, and it was a time to ask if I was really contributing to constructive social change or just talking about it.
Finally, PSP seemed like the right outlet for the guy at the picnic who’s always off goofing around with the 5-year-olds.
What have you done as a volunteer for PSP?
I started half a day a week as an assistant with toddlers in the Daytime Children’s Center and loved that. When one of the boys moved up to the preschool, I was asked if I’d go along with him to help with his transition. The 3-5 year olds presented a different kind of challenge, but I loved that, too.
I support the teaching staff in making kids feel welcome, helping with learning activities, reading, watching for behavior problems, supervising things like hand washing and playtime. I think of myself sort of like a 6th man in basketball, coming off the bench to rest the starters and bringing as much energy as possible for the relatively short time I’m in the game.
I also specialize in singing, opening milk cartons, giving shoulder rides and playing a broccoli-eating zombie.
What was a surprise to you when you began volunteering at People Serving People?
The biggest surprise for me was the number of children in our community affected by homelessness and disrupted home life. At Growth & Justice, our work is research-based and policy-focused, so it tends to focus on data and broader solutions, and not at the level of individual people’s experiences. I knew the poverty numbers intellectually and felt empathy in general, but nothing has the impact of getting to know kids in their situation and wonder what is going to happen to them when they leave here.
What were you expecting at PSP that DIDN’T happen (at PSP)?
Maybe not an expectation, but a hope: That I could somehow help every child who passed through that classroom. The fact is, each of us has only a small window of time to make a difference and we will never really know the ultimate outcomes.
What is your favorite memory of volunteering at PSP?
I get a new favorite memory almost every week and I write about it in my blog, Across the Great Divide. Here’s one I haven’t mentioned.
We were on the playground one day when the garbage truck came and this big tattooed and pierced man gets out and loads up the dumpster. He’s very careful up picking up all the stray trash and when the armature set the dumpster back down, all the kids cheered. He said, “I wish everyone was this glad to see the garbage man.”
If I had to single out one thing to highlight, though, it would be the staff that is there every day doing an amazing job with these kids. Seriously, if we made it a condition of running for office that a candidate had to spend a week volunteering in our classroom, all of Minnesota’s education and social services programs would receive a lot less criticism and a lot more support.
What has been the biggest challenge or the hardest thing to witness?
It’s hard seeing kids face so many obstacles in these early years that are so vital in shaping their ultimate success in life. But it’s even harder to witness this while listening to the political discourse about the poor, which is so unhinged from the realities I see.
These kids aren’t responsible for the situation they find themselves in, so lectures about “personal responsibility” and a “culture of dependence” ring hollow to me. If you’re an unemployed single mom overwhelmed with small kids who already have behavioral and developmental issues, you don’t want your family’s life to continue in that state. But you need help. It’s not realistic to think if the government gets tougher with her she can just go out and get a job and everything will be fine.
Being punitive with parents does nothing to help the kids who’ll grow up to be the next parents.
If you could share anything with volunteers of PSP – what would you share?
I’d say, you are part of an amazing institution that brings together the best of public services, corporate and philanthropic support and individual volunteerism to help our guests achieve their aspirations for their families. These kids are worth every hour you give.