One hundred and twenty-five sweaty, wriggling, squirming elementary school children sat in a huge semi-circle. I was the children and youth pastor at a large Presbyterian church in Salinas during the first part of this new millennium, and one of my responsibilities was to innovate and direct a two-week summer program in an environment that welcomed and celebrated every child.
We were together in the gym for our end-of-the-day rally and their parting challenge. Each day, I gave them a challenging assignment to complete at home and report on during the opening rally the next morning.
They couldn’t wait — they loved the challenge. That day, I told them that I wanted them to earn a dollar by doing an actual job or task for someone. They had to put forth some effort. This was not about asking for a donation.
They had to earn their dollar and then be willing to give it away.
I showed them the Heifer Project catalog, and told them that the organization uses donated money to provide animals for families around the world as a way of teaching animal husbandry and empowering these families to be a part of the solution to end poverty and hunger. The catalog pictured trios of rabbits, pairs of geese, hives of bees, goats and heifers. At the tip top, there was the water buffalo.
I told the kids, “Let’s bring our dollars tomorrow and put them all together, and we’ll see what animal we can buy and send to a family who really needs it.”
Sebastian raised his hand.
“If we earn the first dollar, can people give us other money if they want to?” he asked.
“I have $2.23 in my bank,” Robert said. “After I earn my dollar, can I give my money too?”
I had not expected this reaction, but it sounded reasonable. After all, this was their challenge, not mine.
“Sure,” I said, “Let’s do it!”
You’ve probably already figured out where this is going. And you’re right. They were on fire, overflowing with energy. They knew this was a challenge worthy of their very best. Seeing their enthusiasm, I envisioned maybe a trio of rabbits and a hive of bees.
But that’s not what they were thinking.
The next morning, we were to meet in the gym for our opening rally. When the children began to arrive, I noticed that many of the parents were not just dropping their kids off, they were staying. The kids kept coming and coming, and with them they brought bags of coins, piggy banks full of change, a fistful of crumpled one-dollar bills and an old coffee can full of pennies. The kids assured me that they had honestly earned the first dollar by carrying out the garbage, entertaining a younger sibling, picking vegetables or pulling weeds for a grandparent. And then they used their own imagination and ingenuity to make something extraordinary happen.
We poured the money — mostly coins, but folding money, too — into a pile on the floor. The pile grew and grew. And as the pile grew, so did the kids’ excitement. The parents had caught the children’s enthusiasm, had affirmed their efforts and had been just as ready as the kids to watch this miracle unfold.
I was the only one who was truly surprised. They knew they could do it. They never saw rabbits or bees, they saw the water buffalo.
And that’s exactly what happened: With the money these never-doubting, energetic, bright-eyed, big-hearted kids earned and then gave away, the Heifer Project sent a water buffalo to a family in Thailand.
I learned something: never underestimate the power of a pack of squirming, sweaty, wriggling kids to rise to a challenge. Give them a chance to amaze you with what they can accomplish with hearts not yet jaded, hands itching for a worthwhile occupation and eyes that see possibility.
I don’t think there’s ever been such a celebration in that gym. The kids hooted, hollered, high-fived, danced and stomped. They had done it. They knew they could, and they did. I stood there, so proud of them — so privileged to have seen this unfold.
Working with kids? Sometimes it’s just not work at all.