In my job, I live by my calendar. It tells me where I am supposed to be, with whom, for how long, and why. But sometimes – like this past weekend – life happens. And instead of attending a day-long summer reading book distribution sandwiched in between two rubber chicken charity dinners, I found myself singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with a four-year-old homeless girl.
I met this bright slip of a little girl I will call Valerie at the book distribution in a park near my home. She and her mom had wandered over to see what was happening. This little one was overjoyed to learn she could receive free books. While she was busy choosing her books, her mom, a young woman in her early 20s with a permanent weariness etched into her face, timidly asked if the volunteers knew of any resources for her and her daughter.
With desperation bringing a steely resolve to her voice, she explained that there had been more month than money and she had been kicked out of the room she was renting for her and her daughter. She needed a place for her and Valerie – and the unborn baby mom was carrying – to begin again.
The volunteers pointed her out to me and my husband. They explained that they had given her directions to a local city resource center and enough money to catch the bus. She was sitting across the street at the bus stop with a push cart loaded up with all of their belongings, little Valerie sitting next to her with a tiny tots grocery cart holding her toys.
My husband and I looked at each other and decided to offer them a lift. Surprised, mom sized us up, and then decided to accept our offer. It would only be 30 minutes or so. We would still have enough time to make our next appointment.
But Valerie was hungry. She was whimpering to her mom in the backseat about it. My husband asked mom how long it had been since they had eaten. Thinking out loud, she said they had been living in the park for three days, but had eaten some snacks along the way.
“We have time to stop and get something to eat,” I stated emphatically. My eyes cut sideways to my husband, knowing I was blowing up both my calendar and his. Without hesitating, he nodded and stated that he was hungry, too. We can be late to the next appointment, but still have time to get the calendar back on schedule.
Fast forward to the city resource center. They knew my husband and offered everything they could, but stated that it would be Monday before they could contact any shelter that might be able to offer housing assistance. And the board member of the women’s shelter I knew and had reached to said the same.
On this bright Saturday afternoon, Valerie was playing with the toys in the city center, oblivious to the conversations and calendars that affected her. Mom’s shoulders slumped, realizing there was nowhere for her and Valerie to sleep for the next two nights except the park.
“You’re not sleeping another night in the park,” I found myself blurting out to mom. “You can come home with us. One way or another, it’s going to be okay for you and Valerie,” I reassured her.
My husband’s eyes met mine as I rubbed mom’s shoulder while she cried and thanked us. He smiled and told her we would get them home and settled. It’s just a calendar. I can delete events. And besides, I don’t even like rubber chicken dinners.
For the past two days, I have cooked and cleaned and helped mom do laundry for her and Valerie. I went to the grocery store, coming home with ingredients to make homemade macaroni and cheese (Valerie’s favorite) and ice cream sundaes. Along with the groceries, I also brought home a Disney Princess Belle barbie doll, a coloring book, and a bottle of bubbles.
Valerie and mom each took long, hot baths and put on clean clothes. They ate. And then went back for seconds. They watched cartoons together, snuggled on the couch.
At one point, Valerie shrieked with laughter, blowing bubbles and running through them as the breeze in the backyard caused them to float across the grassy lawn where she played.
And then Valerie climbed up into my lap, asking me to read the stories in her new books. I did, loving the way she relaxed into my lap as her tiny fingers followed mine as I pointed to the words as I read them aloud.
Suddenly, without knowing why, I asked her if she knew the song “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. She didn’t, and I began singing it to her, my hands making the motions. She smiled as the “spider” climbed up the water spout. She watched as my fingers made rain drops, washing the spider out. Quiet, she watched as my hands became the sun, drying up all the rain. And she giggled as my fingers became the spider, climbing up the spout again.
This morning, with the help of my board member friend, we drove Valerie and her mom to a women’s shelter where they were waiting to take them in. There, mom has access to a long-term apartment, free daycare, work programs, healthcare and other resources that can help her begin again.
But I can’t help but think about all of the other Valeries and moms in parks and alleys and other “water spouts”. For too many, the rains have come, washing them out and away from already substandard and too few resources. Just one downpour means they are swept away where they become the last. The least. The lost.
And, not that it matters, but mom is not on drugs. She had a minimum wage job, but couldn’t keep working when she lost daycare for Valerie. Mom aged out of the foster care system and has been hustling ever since, trying to make ends meet. She attended college for a while before she had to drop out because she could no longer afford classes.
I could rant about the gaping holes in our social service safety nets. I can point to my metropolitan area having some of the fastest-rising rents in the country, pricing out people like Valerie’s mom from affordable housing. I could speak to the need for wraparound services that provide affordable, safe daycare so moms can work and provide for their families.
Instead, I choose to be the sun. I choose to find a way to dry up the rain – and the tears – of Valerie and her mom. I choose to set aside my calendar, instead reading stories and singing songs to a little girl who needs sunlight, Belle, bubbles and macaroni and cheese. I choose to warm the shoulders of a weary mom by lightening her load and using what resources I have to connect her to those she needs.
It doesn’t solve the gaps in our societal system. But for the itsy bitsy I met this weekend, it dried up all the rain. My hope – my prayer – is that it is enough to help at least this one climb up the spout again.