"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
December 17, 2012
What can we give?
by Melissa Howell

My son has had an ongoing desire to perform acts of service for others, a trait not commonly found in a child with autism. He once disappeared for a few moments in the grocery store. Assuming he was scoping out the Hot Wheels display, I was surprised when he returned and asked me if I knew where he had been. Admittedly, I had not. He indicated toward an elderly woman.

“I saw she was having a hard time walking and pushing her cart, so I went to help her push her cart,” he told me.

And so, in this spirit of service, he was inspired after watching “A Christmas Carol” last Christmas season. Initially unbeknownst to me as to a reason, he began collecting what money from his family and around the house he could. And then he brought me an envelope with the following wording on the outside:

“Dear poor people here is some money inside envolope (sic).”

He relayed his desire to find someone in need with whom he could place his sweet offering. My husband suggested a slightly different message, and they came up with this:

“Merry Christmas I hope you find some joy this season. Here’s some money for you. Love, Connor, age 8.”

And thus, the day after Christmas last year, my husband and son set out to find someone who could benefit from the small monetary gift given from the biggest of hearts.

We live 15 minutes outside of a city with a population of nearly 90,000, and often there are people on certain well-traveled corners and outside of some temporary housing shelters who are asking for money, or by all appearances are down on their luck.

“This should only take a few minutes,” thought my husband, figuring a quick drive through a certain part of town would yield the opportunity they sought.

The usual corners where people stand with their cardboard pleas for help were deserted, with not a soul to be found. They headed to the corner outside of a temporary housing shelter, where its residents often congregate. It was completely empty.

Truth be told, I was irritated with my husband for not taking Connor out before Christmas to do his service. But perhaps the empty corners revealed a commonly held understanding that the day after Christmas people are less likely to give, that maybe they’ve given what they wanted to give in the spirit of the season and retreat once again into their inward-looking worlds. Perhaps this is when we need to give most. And like the widow and her mite, there was a boy who quantitatively had very little to give, but in reality was willing to give all.

“Come on, Connor, let’s just go home,” my husband tried to gently persuade our son. But he was unswayable.

“I don’t want to go home until I find a poor person,” he staunchly replied.

Unsure of their next move, my husband started driving around town. They noticed a man sitting on a curb, a dog at his side and a sign asking for help in his hand. Buoyed by the opportunity that had presented itself, my determined duo decided to make a stop at the Subway restaurant in the nearby shopping center, in order to offer a meal along with the envelope. They made the purchase and excitedly returned to the spot where the man had just minutes before been sitting.

It was as if he had disappeared into thin air… he was nowhere to be seen, and a thorough drive through the area resulted in nothing.

Again, my husband tried to encourage Connor to give up on his quest and return home. You can likely guess his response. So on they pressed.

They searched shopping centers and streets, parks and sidewalks for someone who appeared to be in need. This required a certain amount of judgment-making, which as we know can be tricky. Can we look upon someone and know their secrets sorrows, their hurts, their needs? Perhaps sometimes the writing is clearly on the wall as best we can observe, but this is not always the case. Alas, it was all they had to go on.

A couple of times they thought they had found a recipient for Connor’s service, but both times, when asked if he or she could use a little money and food, the person replied, “Nope, I’m good.”

In the movie “Elf,” when Buddy the Elf meets his father Walter, Walter assumes Buddy is a singing telegram, and with annoyance, asks for a song so he can return to work.

"A song?” Buddy asks. “Uh, yeah. Anything for you, dad. Um, I'm... I'm here with my dad. And we never met. And he wants me to sing him a song. And, um, I was adopted. But you didn't know I was born. So I'm here now. I found you, daddy. And guess what? I love you. I love you. I love you!"

As my husband and son continued their search, Connor broke out in song, “I’m here with my dad, and we’re trying to find a poor person. Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?”

If there’s one thing I’d love for my children to develop – in addition to the spirit of service – it’s a sense of humor. My husband was pleased to find Connor display both of them that day.

After some time, they came upon a woman digging through a dumpster, and they once again made an offer of money and food. This time it was accepted, without hesitation, and with humility and much gratitude.

What started out as a quick drive to town turned into a 3-hour endeavor. It was now approaching dusk, and they decided to make it a full day and go to dinner and catch a movie before returning home.

On the drive home, my husband asked Connor if he had a good day.

“It was one of the best days ever!” Connor responded, with gusto.

Brian asked Connor his favorite part, and without a moment’s hesitation he responded, “Giving the money and food to the poor person.”

Connor did what he had set out to do. And in so doing, he was an example to my husband and myself about the true meaning of Christmas, of the true meaning of service. How many times do I think about doing something for someone else, and don’t follow through? How often do I perform service only if it doesn’t require me to leave my comfort zone, extend myself and make a full effort?

The old adage about children often teaching us more than we teach them certainly rang true on that December day, and in the days since. My son’s sacrifice, patience, diligence and kindness shined brightly that day.

I’d like to be more like him when I grow up.

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About Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell was born and raised in the woods of northern Minnesota. She has a degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

As a single 20-something, she moved to Colorado seeking an adventure. She found one, first in landing her dream job and then in landing her dream husband; four children followed.

Upon becoming a mother, she left her career in healthcare communications to be a stay-at-home mom, and now every day is an adventure with her husband Brian and children Connor (9), Isabel (6), Lucas (5) and Mason (2).

In addition, she is a freelance writer and communications consultant for a variety of organizations.

Melissa serves as Assistant director of media relations for stake public affairs and Webelos den leader

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