After my kids were born, I stayed at home with them for six years straight. I freelanced, I wrote fiction, but I was home every day. Last Christmas I decided, hey, it might be nice to get out and talk to other adults for a while. Even better if I could give back to the world in some way. So to dip my toe back into the working world, I accepted a seasonal job “selling” World Vision sponsorships at the mall. I figured it would be pretty easy. Just stand at a booth and when people approach, tell them about all the needy children that were available to be sponsored. And when they were ready, help them pick their child, share in the good feeling we’d both get, and send them on their way. When I got there, things were different. First off, no one wanted to approach the spiffy table we had set up with all the little photos of the sweet kids living in disadvantaged communities around the world. No, most of them didn’t even want to look at us. As they approached, they would pull out their cell phones and pretend to talk, whip their heads to the side to check out the latest in leather boots or simply scowl at us—an unspoken dare to talk to them. As an introvert by nature, I realized pretty soon into my first shift that this was going to be … a challenge.
We were told that it was our job to invite everyone who passed to learn more about the work that World Vision was doing, and the children it was helping—and it is great work. It’s just that people who are shopping often put up an invisible barrier around themselves. They have a job to do—get toilet paper, find a birthday gift, have a smoothie—and they don’t want to be bothered about much else, let alone commit to making a monthly gift to support a child who might not have clean water to drink, a place to attend school, or books to read.
“Hi there, how are you today?” I tried saying for a while. “Fine,” some would answer and keep walking. “Ok,” others would mumble.
Then I tired a few new openers: “Have you heard about our special event? Have you seen our children? Can I have a minute of your time?”
“No. No thanks. Nah. I’m in a hurry. I’m meeting someone. I already support.” Most of the responses were the same.
“Man, these people aren’t very compassionate,” some of us would say to each other. “They won’t even stop to listen.”
And then on my second or third shift, something special happened. Someone stopped. She listened to what I had to say about World Vision’s work. She put her hand on her pregnant belly. Tears swelled in her eyes and she said: “Yes, you know, I would like to give back to a child. I will support.”
And I felt so proud. And happy. I had fought through all the rejections and now, a child would have a better life. That child’s community would become more sustainable just because I convinced someone.
When I took the job with World Vision, my husband had one request. “Please,” he said. “Don’t sign us up. We really can’t afford it right now.” I agreed, and then I put my own little barrier up like we often do when it comes to giving. Our own thoughts about ourselves override the good that we have the power to do.
I am giving back just by recruiting people to support, I told myself. Even though I am essentially doing this for some extra Christmas money, I am also helping out by putting myself out there… right?
As we got closer to the holidays, people started to stop more often. They ignored us a tiny bit less, and my list of children and communities I had gotten sponsored began to grow. A girl in India, a little boy in Kenya, an orphan in Zimbabwe. More and more, people were allowing themselves to get out of their heads, to put aside their shopping lists and take a minute to think about someone else. Regardless of what I was asking them to do, it was just nice to know that there were still people in the crowd who genuinely cared about the other people sharing the planet with them. It was inspiring to meet these people.
But still something felt wrong.
How could I, in good conscious convince people to make a commitment that I myself hadn’t made? Was I a hypocrite?
I just have to make it through these last shifts, I told myself. I just have to get some extra money to buy some fancy gifts for my kids, and then go on and enjoy my holiday. In my comfortable, warm home; in my cozy family room with fire place and plates of Christmas baking. I just have to send some good thoughts to these kids, most of whom are struggling with poverty, hunger and lack. And go on with my life.
And then, on my second last shift at the mall, I came in and discovered that some new pictures of children had arrived. One of them, a little six-year-old girl from El Salvador named Tatiana. The girl reminded me of my daughter. She was smiling in an innocent way, and I thought, wow, this little girl has no idea what kind of struggles her parents are facing. She has no idea about how her life differs from many kids in first world countries. She probably lives in a house with a dirt floor, and is excited just to go to school, to have regular meals to eat …
I picked Tabitha up, and I knew that second that we were somehow connected. I took a picture of her card with my cell phone and e-mailed it to my husband, along with my plea that I think this girl was calling to us. I waited. I looked at the picture. I bit my nails. Then my husband’s message came through:
“Okay, but just this one.”
When I read it, my heart swelled. I was going to do what so many other compassionate people had chosen to do during my shifts. I was going to be one of them.
After I had completed the paperwork, I took my picture of Tatiana with me to the food court. I sat there looking at her, wishing the best for her, and thinking how cool it was to be able to feel connected to one little person I had never met. And after that, I felt the tears in my eyes. My heart felt better than it ever had from anything I had ever received or bought, ever. And I realized then that it must be true what they say: that it really is better to give than receive. That this little girl had shown me that sometime it’s necessary to just forget about our “to do” list, about ourselves, and just put forth the intention of helping someone else. That as cheesy as it has become to say, that really is that the most important thing of all.
I put the picture back in my pocket and went back to finish my shift. Though the job with World Vision was not really suited to me, I ended my time there knowing that it had held an important purpose in my life. It had helped me to break down my own protective barrier that I had built around myself—a barrier which hopefully would stay down for a long time.