My kids are always watching me. Really. Sometimes I wake up with a start in the middle of the night, and my daughter is standing next to my bed in the dark, willing me awake. They watch me react – or not react – to all kinds of situations. I aspire to be a good role model. I also want to invite them to think about how we can live according to our values and engage in tikkun olam, being God’s partners in repairing our broken world.
A few years ago, we noticed an increase in the number of people standing on street corners and highway exit ramps asking for handouts. I have handed out granola bars for years, but it was time to do more. I want to engage them in thinking about how they can help people experiencing homelessness, in age appropriate ways. We began by talking about various categories of items that might help people feel cared for and that would actually be of use to someone who spends their days on a street corner. We can’t fix everything, but we can help with some things. We decided to create small bags of items to hand out the car window throughout the year.
My contributions are $100, a little research and some printer paper.* The number one recommendation is to donate socks. Wool socks would break our budget, and cotton would be of little use in the winter, so we’ve chosen other items, instead.
We go to the dollar store with our list, and my kids work together to select items for the bags and stay within their budget. It stretches their thinking and cooperation while also practicing their math skills. The contents vary slightly year to year, but usually include most of the following:
- Plastic zip top bag: 24-count
- Personal care products: small tissue packs, a couple of cough drops, a toothbrush and toothpaste kit, lip balm, a packet of analgesics, a couple of small bandages, and we prepare small packs of feminine hygiene products to add when appropriate
- Shelf-stable food items: a protein, a fruit or vegetable, a carbohydrate, something crunchy and salty, and a sugar-free peppermint
- Printed items: a coupon for a free hot meal at a local shelter, a list of local shelters and food pantries, and the address and phone number of a local agency that works to help connect people with social service organizations
- *Seasonal items: I also contribute one flat of small bottled waters to add in the summer, and a box of hand warmer packets to add in the winter.)
I no longer need to prompt my kids to notice people in need. They announce when we need to stop and roll down the window to hand out a Blessing Bag, and when we run out, they want to make more. It has become part of our Thanksgiving Day tradition each year to make them with our guests, but any time of year is the right time to share our blessings with others.
Visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Economic Justice page to learn more about how to address the systemic issues that underly homelessness, food insecurity, and other crucial issues of economic injustice.
Stephanie Fink is the associate director, family engagement, of Engaging Families with Young Children, part of the Union for Reform Judaism's Strengthening Congregations initiative.