In several years of working with nonprofits, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about the struggles and triumphs of disadvantaged people. One story in particular moved me to tears and I want to share it with you.
Several years ago, a group of high school students and their mothers began volunteering at a family homeless shelter in our county. One day, one of the mothers noticed a lot of trash around the shelter, and asked a young resident to help her pick it up in return for stickers he could use in a craft project. Immediately, more children came running over to find out if they could earn stickers. The place got cleaned up in a jiffy and motivation was born.
Trash collecting expanded to other service projects as well as learning activities. The stickers changed into tickets that could be used to purchase basic necessities that had been donated, as well as toys and games. The volunteers saw a big increase in participation and enthusiasm. Parents got involved so that families could learn, earn, and give back together. Eventually, the program expanded and moved to a local school, where it now brings together more than 250 adults, children, and volunteers on two Sundays each month. Over time, they have found that a family’s sense of self-worth, its stronger bonds, and the life skills learned in their workshops can help them break the cycle of poverty.
That’s the story of how Sunday Friends became a very successful “working alternative to charity.”
Here is one of the stories of Sunday Friends, the one that made me cry.
We first met Alberto four years ago when his family moved into the homeless shelter where we were running our Sunday Friends program at the time.
Alberto, age 12, took to our program right away. Each Sunday, as soon as we arrived, Alberto would run to greet us, anxious to help unload the van and set up the program. Throughout every program, he would participate fully in juicing, cooking, writing and art projects. He was often the first to volunteer for cleanup. He enthusiastically joined in the educational games, usually helping little ones to practice their counting or English.
We watched Alberto amass large numbers of tickets, yet week after week he would pass up the shopping excursion to the Treasure Chest. He was saving. We all wondered what he might be saving for. A stereo system? Sports equipment?
Ebony, a tired-looking, slow-moving, very pregnant single mom of three young children, was also a resident of the shelter in which we ran our program. Ebony was of no relation to Alberto, a different race, in fact. We learned what Alberto was saving his tickets for the day Ebony had her baby.
Alberto went shopping in the Treasure Chest that day. He spent his entire savings of tickets to “buy” a deluxe baby carriage for Ebony and her new baby girl. Ebony froze with amazement then sobbed with gratitude. In fact, you could hardly find a dry eye among any of us that day.
When we asked Alberto why he chose to spend all of his tickets to help Ebony, he said simply, “Because she needed it, she had no other way to get one and I could get her one.”
We all learned that day what humble empowerment looks like.