Meet Family #1. Mom has been one of the few moms I've really had the opportunity to connect well with, which might be because she speaks English fluently and uses texting to communicate frequently...but anyway, she's also very involved in her kids' lives and seems super smart. I've never really had a conversation with Dad, but he has been around at some events, and seems to be supportive of his wife and his kids, even though he is very quiet. Their son is one of my favorites in our program - always willing to have a conversation, asking questions, behaving well, and interested in many things. I would say he is one of the middle schoolers I connect with the best, and I truly enjoy working with him. He's got two younger sisters, so he is the older brother, the other "man of the house," etc. He's a super bright kid with tons of potential, and his sisters are the sweetest.
Anyway, I've never suspected this family to have too many issues, at least when it comes to familial disputes, money, legal papers, etc. Given I don't know them all that well, yet Mom seemed to be working pretty consistently, and always willing and ready to commit money or time to her kids' involvement in our programs, and always offering us feedback and genuine understanding.
This afternoon the family walked in to our store, and once we got the kids into the "kids' room," the mom pulled me aside, and before I could even figure out that she wasn't interested in talking about the store, she was in tears. "They shut off our electricity this afternoon. My son got home before me and when I got back from work he said, 'the lights aren't working.'" She wasn't too interested in buying gifts this afternoon; she just wanted to be able to light her house and pay for rent for these days leading up to Christmas, and leading up to her next paycheck.
Meet Family #2.
Mom and Dad had approached one of our staff members a couple of months ago, saying that both parents were out of work and having a hard time paying bills. Both of their kids are involved in our programs and have been for awhile. On top of dealing with money and work issues, both parents were also trying to sort out issues with their visas, spending weeks in Mexico at a time, unsure of exactly what would come of the trip, or when they would return. We never knew exactly who would be picking up the kids from program each day.
But recently, things have smoothed out for this family. Both parents can be in El Paso all the time, and each day we usually end up seeing both parents at least once. Mom was able to find a job connected with our programs, so she gets to be even more involved in her kids' activities and the operation of our outreach. Dad also just recently got a stable job, and seems happy with it.
They were one of the last ones to come to our store today. I was doing front door duty, and my coworker was serving as cashier. She came over to me and asked if we were still enforcing limits on how many gifts one family could buy, since it was the end of the night, and we still had many items leftover. I told her it was fine, especially since this family is super involved and because the mom in her new position has been helping us out so much. A minute or two later, I walked over to the check-out counter, just to make sure it all worked out. As the parents approached me, and before I gave them a chance to say anything, I said, "It's fine, it's fine. I'm okay with you buying whichever gifts you want." But they weren't interested in talking about gifts; at least not gifts for their kids.
After waving off my comments and asking if I'd prefer to converse in English or Spanish, Mom explained, "We are very grateful for all that we have right now - to both be working and be able to provide for our family. And it means so much that our kids can come to your programs. We want to make a donation to Ciudad Nueva. It is a small gift, but con mucho corazon (with a lot of heart)."
I was astounded. I guess I have just never really seen a family want to give back so much to our outreach, or a parent recognize the importance of something like our youth programs for their kids, or appreciate so much a connection that led to a job.
And the donation was hefty. Expecting maybe $20, $40, we pulled out $100 from a crisp white envelope, labeled to our organization, from the family. $100 was probably three times what they had just spent on Christmas gifts, and probably a pretty big portion of their Christmas bonus. $100 that held much thought, conversation, and appreciation, I am sure.
I think it is always interesting to do things where people that we would normally think of as "poor" need to contribute something - especially money - in order to receive something, in this case, to purchase Christmas gifts. It is all part of of the community transformation strategy we are trying to implement, but I guess you always run risks of excluding some people, charging prices beyond families' abilities, etc. And it's definitely not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to talk to a mom about options of paying for her kids' Christmas gifts - work in the store an hour, putting some items back, prioritizing finances, etc. It's not easy to reconcile misunderstandings from donors about why we believe holding a "store" is a better idea than simple Christmas giving or just doing "charity" with hand-outs. It's not easy to decide what price to put on a normally-$40 crock pot or $20 Barbie in a "highly reduced cost" store. It's not easy to deal with such a variety of families, who each bring a different amount of money in their pockets, who all bring different attitudes from pride to humility...and whom we love so much.
I definitely think that as I leave this day, I am left with an "I'm so grateful for what I have" type of attitude, similar to what people obtain after mission trips, working in soup kitchens, etc; but I think, more importantly, I'm left with simply an "I'm so grateful" attitude. I'm so grateful for having had the time with families that I did today, to breach some vulnerabilities on both sides of the table, and learn many a skill in financial empowerment.