The Teddy Bear Boy

He was very quiet, and seemed a little sad.

About a decade and a half ago, one of my coworkers, Don, asked me if I would be willing to rent a room to his 17-year-old son, Lee. He wanted to continue attending my neighborhood high school with his friends, and my coworker was moving to the neighboring county. I said yes, albeit reluctantly.

I don’t “do” kids. I have no children of my own, by choice. I didn’t even hang out with kids that much when I was one myself.

But this young man seemed nice enough. I was assured that he was pretty self-sufficient. He’d buy and prepare his own food, Don said. He was very quiet, and seemed a little sad.

I felt sorry for Lee. Don said that his mother had died when he was very young. He and his brother had been raised by a single parent who worked the graveyard shift for as long as I had known him, so I can’t imagine their lives were particularly conventional.

Little did I know.

Lee would often sleep with his bedroom door open. I’d see him hugging a teddy bear as I walked past at night on my way to work. I thought that was rather unusual for a boy his age, but to each his own.

My next intel about Lee was that his father treated him horribly. I could hear the man scream at him over the phone from the other side of the house. His other son could do no wrong.

I came to realize that Lee was gay, and I already knew that his father was a homophobe, so I thought that explained it all. It made me feel even more sorry for Lee, because it must be awful to be rejected by the only parent you have.

Then one night I had to rush Lee to the hospital with extreme stomach pains. It turned out that he had been existing for years on a basic diet of chocolate donuts and coca cola, and that hadn’t done his intestines much good. This broke my heart.

My heartbreak turned to fury, though, when I discovered that his father had let Lee’s health insurance lapse. Rather than thanking me for bringing his son to the hospital, Don was outraged, because now he’d be stuck with a medical bill. He viewed his son as a massive inconvenience.

Don was so angry that he decided to yank his son out of my house. Before he left, I learned many truths about Lee.

First of all, his mother wasn’t dead, as far as he knew. She had abandoned him and his brother at a rest stop when they were very little. The police had given them each a teddy bear, and he had kept his ever since.

It was doubtful that Don was even his father. Apparently his wife had been rather promiscuous. (I had thought he and his brother didn’t look very much alike.) Don had had to drive several hundred miles to pick the boys up, and he had resented Lee, in particular, from that day to this.

After Don entered my house in a rage and grabbed all his stuff and yanked a protesting, pleading Lee out the door, I never saw them again. Don quit working with me, pulled Lee out of school, and left no valid forwarding address.

I often wonder how Lee turned out. I tried looking for him on Facebook, but his name is way too common. I will forever wonder if I could have done more for that lonely, neglected 17-year-old boy who only had a stuffed animal for comfort for most of his life. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

I’m glad that at least once in his life, a kind stranger had the decency to give him a teddy bear to hug. I hope he was able to rise above his circumstances. He deserved much more from his childhood than he got.

I also hope that karma has rolled over his father like a crosstown bus.

Teddy Bear.jpg

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Charity Chicken: Anti-Dignity and Ways to Counteract It

Happy Independence Day, America! I’ve chosen to write about a topic that goes hand in hand with independence: Dignity.

My mother was a single mom in an era when that was not only less acceptable, but also not as workable. Daycare wasn’t as widely available, and women were often relegated to the most menial low-paying jobs. No one talked about a glass ceiling because women didn’t even consider looking up, let alone moving up. Divorce was scandalous. You were expected to bite your tongue, take your abuse, stay home and raise the children. How were you supposed to survive when society and culture and economics were all stacked against you?

Much to our general humiliation, there were times when we had to resort to accepting a box of food from the local church. Thanksgiving was one of those times. We got a chicken breast, some cranberries, and some beans. Nothing to make these items palatable. No bread, no butter, no spices, no sugar. Nothing. My oldest sister used to bitterly call this “charity chicken”. We were grateful to have food, of course, but it wasn’t a very festive holiday meal for a family of four. In retrospect, this food probably did more to assuage the guilt of the more affluent members of the community than it did to allow us some dignity in our struggle to survive.

Dignity is a valuable commodity when you’re poor, because there are so many mechanisms in place to try and take that from you. I get so irritated when people say that all poor people are lazy and that they want handouts and feel a sense of entitlement. Entitled to what, exactly? Humiliation, hopelessness, hunger and despair? While that may be the case for a pathetic few, the vast majority of us who are struggling would do anything to have it otherwise. In fact, it has been my experience that most poor people work harder than the rest of society. They just get fewer returns for a variety of reasons. Who works harder? A CEO of a fortune 500 company, or someone who is digging ditches in the hot sun?

If you don’t have your health or educational opportunities or a stable family unit, you often wind up at the bottom of the societal heap. Someone always has to be at the bottom, or the people at the top have nothing on which to stand.

I’d like to think that most of us make efforts to help those in need. I read somewhere that poor people tend to donate a larger percentage of their income to charity than rich people do. That says quite a bit. And there are so many worthy causes out there that there is ample opportunity to be generous.

I would like to make a personal appeal to all of you. When you do choose a charity, please choose one that allows people to maintain their dignity. Most people do not want you to throw your money or food at them and then walk away. They want to be able to lift themselves up. Sometimes they just need a helping hand to start them on their way. Donate to programs that give people job skills. Donate to groups that help restore people’s health so they can become active participants in their communities. Donate to organizations that allow people to become self-sufficient.

Here are my two favorite charities:

  • Heifer International. I often suspect that this organization would be much more popular and well known if it didn’t have such a goofy name, but the amazing work they do makes up for that faux pas. It takes your donations and buys livestock with it. Cows, ducks, goats, llamas, honey bees, you name it. These animals can provide lifesaving income and sources of food for families throughout the world. But here’s what makes this group even more amazing to me: they don’t just hand someone a cow and then walk away. They train them in the best ways to keep this cow healthy. They teach them to run a business selling the milk. And best of all, they require that they breed the animal and provide a calf or two to other families in need, so the cycle continues. Those who are helped obtain skills that will sustain them for a lifetime, and then they, too, become helpers. There is nothing more dignified than that. One donation to Heifer International can cause a positive ripple effect that will go on for years.

Heifer

  • Kiva.org. Technically this isn’t even a charity, so if you’re simply looking for a tax write off, you may want to steer clear of this one. Kiva is actually a micro loan organization, so any money you put into it you will get back. Their default rate is so incredibly low that I’ve never lost a penny in the 7 years that I have participated. In that time I’ve made 41 loans to people in 31 countries. Here’s an example of how it works. Maria in Ecuador is a single mother who has a tiny little shop that she runs out of her home. In it she sells children’s clothing. She has noticed that the farmers in her area don’t have a convenient source for heavy duty pants to wear while working in the field. She wants to expand her inventory to include these items, but she needs a loan. You make a loan to Maria, in increments of 25 dollars. Perhaps you and 23 other people around the world contribute to it. Maria then pays you back, and you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve expanded her business, increased her income and improved the lives of everyone in her family. That’s a great feeling, so if you’re like me, you’ll take that same 25 dollars that you loaned to Maria and you’ll loan it to yet another person. Loaning that same money over and over and over again throughout the years, I’ve actually given $1,150.00 in loans and yet have only tied up $25.00 in actual money, which I can get back if I ever need to. What seems like a tiny amount of money can make a huge difference in the life of someone who lives on a dollar a day.

kiva

The beauty of participating in both these programs is that you get to feel all warm and fuzzy and the people you help get to keep their dignity and lift themselves up. How can you beat that?