As a volunteer in the shelter's preschool, I deal almost exclusively with the kids. While the teachers seem to have good insight into their individual situations, their family lives are usually opaque to me. That's as it should be. I'm not really in a position to interact with the parents within the larger scope of their lives.
But I do see their kids up close and build close but fleeting relationships with some of them. I see the parents through how the kids behave, how they are dressed, how they perform in school, their confidence and their hunger.
During handwashing today I had two children in row tell me they are "smart in school." This message doesn't just come from the teachers. It comes from what they are hearing from their families. These two, as well as several others I could name, are smart in school. They have confidence, pay attention, rarely if ever act out and demonstrate high degrees of emotional and intellectual intelligence.
There's another energetic subgroup who slip in and out of attentiveness but are clearly smart and have some potential, and yet another cluster of kids who are so hungry for love and attention that they have difficulty staying with the program. If their needs aren't met, they easily can become disruptive.
Today one boy who's in the latter group was doing a good job sitting still, paying attention and waiting for his turn to speak. But when the teacher called on some other children without recognizing his raised hand, I could see he was hurt. Before long, he drifted off the carpet where the class is supposed to sit and began acting out his displeasure.
It's difficult for a teacher conducting the class to see all these dynamics playing out, so the volunteers and assistant teachers have to round up the escapees and bring them back into focus without creating a bigger disruption or rewarding the child for acting out.
But back to the families.
Today when we were outside, an older man came up to the fence and talked to several of the kids. He kissed a boy and a girl through the bars. We have to keep an eye out, but here it was clear the man was their grandfather.
I asked the girl where her grandfather lived. Was he in the shelter? No, he lived way far away.
Later, her mother showed up in a car with some other adults. Again, it was clear the girl had an affectionate relationship with her mom. I love her, the girl told me. And, unlike some children who get upset and anxious when their parents pass by without taking them, she was fine with saying hello and goodbye.
Another couple came past, young and handsome. They would not look out of place in a Target ad or a college recruiting brochure. Their daughter is one of the smart, high-spirited kids in class. The love between parents and child was unmistakable.
Right now in Minnesota, we are considering an amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage between and a man and a woman, with the intent of "preserving marriage." NFL football player Matt Birk jumped in recently with the opinion that "Marriage redefinition will affect the broader well-being of children and the welfare of society."
I don't spend a lot of time worrying about who's married and who isn't among the parents I deal with here. I don't disagree that having two parents is usually helpful for kids, but of all the characteristics supporting those kids unmistakably doing well, the greatest of these is love.
When I head out to Colorado, in another couple months, I'll be back volunteering with adults, some of whom are chronically homeless.
What separates the homeless pre-schoolers from those adults is not marriage or even housing opportunities. It's some have people who love them and some have run out of love.