Tuesday, March 25, 2008

3, 38, 194, fewer than 2

My brother Jeff is freaky smart. He is the numbers guy in our family -- college professor, math department chair, etc. I remember listening to him and a girlfriend from many years ago talking about some random math theory one time (I think I was probably 20-ish). They were having what they thought was the most fascinating conversation of all time. I didn't know how to tell them, "You lost me at pi..."

OK, so today was a day of numbers for me. Here they are: 3, 38, 194 and fewer than 2.

THREE: I spent 3 hours with kids ranging in age from 9 to 11. They are kids at my youngest son's elementary school who are all members of a community service club I'm in charge of. We meet twice a month: once for a business meeting (yeah, business meeting with 10 year olds); once for a service project. TODAY was service project day.

THIRTY-EIGHT: I took 38 kids on our service project today. We went to a nearby homeless shelter to make sack lunches: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a clementine orange. Trying to figure out how to sit these kids down and organize them into work groups was pretty hilarious. I was trying to be frugal when I was buying my supplies, so I bought 4 large tubs of peanut butter and 6 large bottles of jelly. I made everyone wear plastic gloves, instructing them: "OK, scratch your head, nose, mouth, ears, whatever one last time before you put these gloves on..." Then me and the other moms tried to keep 38 kids on task making sandwiches, doing laps around the room to bring them more bread, more peanut butter, replacement knives, sandwich baggies, etc. One kid didn't touch his nose or anything, but oops, he sort of licked the knife (and then vehemently denied it!) Clearly, some of these kids had never made a sandwich in their lives! QC was working overtime.

ONE HUNDRED NINETY FOUR: The kids made 194 sack lunches in the span of about 35 minutes. I had one group of kids whose job was to walk around the room, collect finished sandwiches and bag them with an orange. It was the epitome of controlled chaos, which I actually really enjoy (although it is a tad bit exhausting). Even for kids who were totally clueless about how to economically spread peanut butter on a piece of wheat bread, their performance was impressive. Sure, the tables were covered in PBJ, and so were the kids, but by golly we got the job done. Desperate for a little comic relief at one point, I turned to a mom, held up a slightly smashed and gooey PB&J and asked, "Want a sandwich?" "No, really, I'm good..." she replied, trying not to laugh.

FEWER THAN TWO: I had made arrangements for our service project with a Mr. B****, the volunteer director at the facility. When we arrived, Mr. B was not immediately available. We were ushered into the cafeteria, which was divided in two. One half had tables and chairs set up for meal service. The other was a make-shift HR resource center where clients were honing their interviewing and job skills. The clients looked exactly how you might expect homeless people to look, so use your imaginations. We were instructed to be as quiet as possible (ha ha ha!) so as not to disturb the "job applicants" while Mr. B was found. About five minutes later, one of the clients rolled into the room in his slightly-beat up wheelchair. He was an older black man with dreadlocks down the middle of his back, a white t-shirt, and wrinkled pants. I'd describe his shoes, but he didn't have any. He didn't need them ... he had fewer than two legs. He wheeled himself to the middle of the room and began addressing us. I suddenly realized that this "poor old homeless man" was in fact, Mr. B. I practically tripped and fell over every kid in my path to make my way over to him and shake his hand

I learned some interesting things today. No one chooses to be homeless. It is often the result of either bad choices, unfortunate medical conditions or sudden economic hardship. I learned that the average age of homeless people in our country is ... 10. In our city, it's 9. This particular facility can assist 125 people a day when operating at full speed. In the last year, they helped 10,000 -- and believe you me, that's a drop in the bucket.

Mr. B shared with us his greatest hope: That at the end of these THREE hours, the THIRTY EIGHT kids who knocked themselves out to make ONE HUNDRED NINETY FOUR sandwiches for the man with FEWER THAN TWO legs would grow up to be volunteers and philanthropists who would change the world. He possessed a clear understanding of himself as an instrument of this change. Undoubtedly, God had placed him exactly where he needed to be; and obediently, he had remained. In my collection of numbers, the man with fewer than 2 legs found purpose and was content.

As we were leaving, I turned one last time to see him smile. It absolutely filled the room.

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