It came in a box — one that was worlds away from the famous blue Tiffany jewelry box. It’s contents cost a mere $25, and yet its impact far exceeded that of any diamond ring.
Stamped on a standard-sized brown box were the words: Box of Love. Inside were canned fruit and vegetables, dried stuffing and mashed potatoes, beans, fruit juice, and a money check to buy meat. The concept: Enough food to prepare one family dinner. But as my family and I stood with members of our Boy Scout troop in the front of the motel, staring into the eyes of the homeless families who lived there and who were about to receive the food, I realized that this Box of Love would be their Christmas “feast”…and it made me sad.
Gathered together in the motel parking lot were a dozen boy scouts, two of whom belonged to me. We were at this motel because each of the scout families had “adopted” a homeless family for that particular day. A representative from Illumination Foundation — an organization that caters to homeless families living in Orange County, California — had sent us a couple weeks earlier a description of our particular family.
Ours was a single mother who lived in the motel room with her sister, her 6-year-old son, and her 13-year-old niece. I was eager to see their wish list, a bit worried their desires would be similar to those of a lot of children: a bicycle, a Nintendo DS, video games, a phone, etc. But the wish list of this “boy” and “girl” was simply…”clothes that fit.” And I felt my heart break. It was then that I wished I could have adopted them for real.
We drive by motels everyday on our way to work or home, but for some of these families, the motel is both their work and their home. Shortly before we met with the family, the foundation rep explained that many transients approach motels with nowhere else to go.
Depending on the circumstances, the family either pays to temporarily live at the motel, or foundations like Illumination, care for them with stable housing, medical services, mental health counseling, and case management. Some families are able to pay the room rates because they help out at the motel, doing anything from laundry and cleaning, to repairs.
As I looked at these families — a few in tattered clothes, others wearing sandals in the cold weather — I couldn’t help but interrupt the woman. “I just have to say that you have the most amazing, most worthwhile job.” She nodded. “It is,” she said. “And yet at times it can be the most heartbreaking.” The moment was bittersweet.
The Christmas party for these motel families began with making gingerbread houses…and not with the pretty pre-packaged gingerbread house kits. The setup was simple, and it was perfect. There were boxes of graham crackers, cups of frosting, chocolate chips, and marshmallows.
The children eagerly looked for a place to sit. But there were no chairs. There were no tables. No picnic benches. Not even a lawn chair. We were in the parking lot behind the motel, sandwiched between rows of cars. That’s when the Boxes of Love took on a whole new purpose.
“Let’s use these boxes to make a table and some chairs for the kids,” I heard somebody say. The scouts assembled the boxes into a makeshift picnic table. Throw on a table cloth, and the creation was grand. The scouts helped the homeless children make their modest gingerbread houses. “I’m so excited to eat this,” a young boy said, lost in sugar heaven. “May I add chocolate chips?”
The foundation rep then informed us that our adopted family was here, and I was suddenly nervous. Would they feel uncomfortable receiving the gifts? Would my kids be polite? Would I start to cry in front of them? My husband, two boys, and I walked to our car to retrieve the gifts. These were items purchased by our friends who had learned about this event and had graciously contributed. Sometimes, there are no words that can describe perfectly the beauty of the human spirit.
We carried the gifts to the family. The two women wanted to know our first names; they complimented my sons. The exchange lasted only a few minutes, but in my heart (and hopefully in the heart of my boys), the experience will last forever. They stood there, holding the gifts, hesitating, and I asked, “Did you want to wait to open them until Christmas Day?” Immediately she said, “Oh yes, please! Is that okay?” And, I felt a lump in my throat. “Of course! Merry Christmas!” I said, all the while thinking that these gifts would most likely be the only gifts they opened on that day.
We said our good-byes, and then they thanked us. I wanted to blurt out, “NO. Thank YOU. Thank you for letting us and the scouts be a part of this. Thank you for reminding us how fortunate and how blessed we are. Thank you for showing us that it’s the littlest things that should matter the most…how empathy, compassion, and selfless love should define not just a holiday, but everyday living.” But I couldn’t talk.
In the car, we asked our boys what the experience meant to them. My 8-year-old son spoke. “I thought the family was going to look different…like dirty or scary or something because they were homeless. But, they looked just like us and were really nice. ”
His observation was profound, for they were indeed similar to us. The two ladies and I were all mothers who loved our children and wanted to provide for them. The boy was the same height as my son, and they both loved chocolate. It was just that our packaging was different: theirs was a motel and ours was not. But inside, our human spirit was one in the same.
Cori Linder is a Featured Blogger for Modern Mom. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.