While studying the literary genre called fairy tales, I learned a dirty little secret from the middle ages: The practice of infant exposure. This was the act of abandoning a newborn or toddler to the elements. Hansel and Gretel was a commentary on this practice. Child abandonment looks different these days, but we can be sure that there are many neglected abandoned children near us. How can we help? Can we be Jesus to them?
Let's call her Heidi. That's not her real name but she was a real girl that I knew well. I was the director of youth ministry at a church near her home and she was one of many rural children with few resources that made their way to our church for Wednesday evening Bible study for youth. I prepared and served a big, hot, homemade meal each and every week to any young person that came in and word had gotten around. These adolescents stayed on after supper for a Bible study and open gym.
Some of the teens showed up sporadically but many, like Heidi, were there every week. After we had prayed, served food, and got seated, I would take a seat next to a couple of children I didn't know well and ask them to tell me their stories. They were heart breaking. Shocking. Nearly unbelievable except that I knew they were true. A lot of these kids were classified as McKinney-Vento. This is a definition of homelessness that includes an amazing number of children in our public schools.
A few of the students needed a ride home after the meetings. An male adult volunteer took the boys, and I took the girls. It was while I was driving the last girl, Heidi, that I heard a phrase that has rung in my ears from that day until this.
I had become accustomed to the old, dilapidated mobile home that was perched perilously on rickety cinder blocks. I knew how to navigate the steep, dark driveway, and I was used to the fact that no light marked the door. And the fact that mom was home, had a car, and could have picked up her own child...but I digress.
One evening as I was taking Heidi home, I turned on my turn signal to make the right hand turn I took each week. "Oh. Don't go that way." She said. "I'm living with my sister now. I can tell you how to get there."
It was a significantly longer drive, and after a few moments of silence I asked, "Why are you living with your sister?"
(note: among families with very limited resources it is a common practice to refer to people who are not biologically related to one another by family names such as sister, brother, aunt, uncle, etc. Heidi was not living with a biological sister but with a young adult friend of the family.)
As casually as if she was telling me what she had done in gym class that day, Heidi said, "My mom can't afford to keep me anymore." I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. Swallowing back all the responses that popped up in my mind I replied with the only phrase left in my brain. "Oh."
My mind reeled. "My mom can't afford to keep me? What? She can't be serious..." But she was.
I digested the information for a moment and then asked a few more questions. Here is what I learned: Heidi had moved in with this friend few days earlier. Money was tight and this sister had agreed that Heidi could stay with her until her mom got more money. The sister was "nice" and so was her husband. They had some kids of their own. They wanted Heidi to do her homework. I think Heidi thought that this last fact would impress me. Hmm.
Sending a child to be cared for by someone else when money becomes an issue is not something that the vast majority of us would even consider. but I knew several children in that church and in the next church I served who were farmed out, kicked out, checked out or left out. Child abandonment has many 21st century faces.
Child abandonment can look like a single mom moving a new boyfriend in to the house who beats, bullies, and badgers the teenage son for a year before kicking him out of the house while his mom does nothing. Imagine being fourteen and having to find your own bed each night. Food each day. What would you do? Where do you get your clothes washed? Do you find a church lady who would feed you once a week and ask if you were okay? Ask to spend the night with a friend and stay three weeks? Then move on to another friend? I've known kids who've done that. Go to school for the food and to be warm? Yep.
Child abandonment looks like pre teen siblings being left home alone for days while the grownups get away for a break. Left with a few groceries but no money or support system the insecurity is real and the anxiety is too. This rejection stays with kids all of their lives.
How can we help? We're not all full time children and youth ministry workers. I haven't worked in that profession in nearly nine years. But there are a lot of us who are committed to loving and serving the hurting children of our communities, and there are so many seemingly small things that you can do that will change the life of a lonely, frightened child in your church or school. Here are some things to do:
Recognize that there are needy children around you. It would be comforting to think that all the children in your community are loved, educated, fed, comfortable. Look just barely beneath the surface and you will learn, as I did, that children who lack quality care and love are all around you. And they don't always look like what you would expect. Realize that they exist. In your community.
Be the safe person for that child. Keep a relaxed, smiling face when greeting a young person whose home is insecure. If you express shock, they will avoid you. Make conversation. Tell them you are glad that they are there...wherever you are. Compliment sincerely, befriend them genuinely. Don't ignore them. Make them welcome.
Give what you can, but not cash. If you are nicely resourced, there are things you can do to support the needy kids around you. Go to the high school and ask to make a donation for outstanding lunch accounts. It takes $30.00 to feed one child breakfast and lunch at school for a week. These children are allowed to "charge" their lunch accounts but these balances go up. The kids are pressured to pay these accounts off, but they have no way to do so. School is often the only place food is offered to them. Buy a kid lunch.
Tap in to existing services. Many schools have a "backpack" program that provides children with food insecurity a backpack filled with easy to prepare food for the weekends. It takes volunteers to pack these packages and deliver them to the classrooms or to an area where kids can get them with no shame. Get with a friend and volunteer to do this. I do it every five or six weeks and I really look forward to it!
Hansel and Gretel were tossed out of their home by adults who shamelessly put their own needs ahead of the children's. This happens in our society more often than you can possibly imagine. For those two children, there was a wicked witch ready to consume them by enticing them with sweet, wonderful treats. That same wicked witch still sets up shop anywhere there are children without parental care that works. Seek out and meet Hansel and Gretel on the path to the witch's gingerbread house and offer them what they really need. Friendship, food, compassion, understanding. In short, give them love.