The first time I stopped to pick up a stranger on the side of the road, my 4-year-old daughter Abigail and I were on our way to the grocery store. I saw Rosemary walking alongside a busy highway holding the hand of her 18-month-old, Elijah, whose toddling legs wobbled precariously close to the traffic surging by. It was pure instinct to pull over. There was nothing for miles in the direction they were heading, and with the speed that cars traveled on that particular road, I couldn’t imagine how they’d reach their destination safely. After accepting my offer of a ride, Rosemary settled into the front passenger seat, and I reached in the back to buckle little Elijah into the car seat that my younger daughter usually occupied. Abigail showed her toy to Elijah as we pulled back onto the highway and Rosemary told me where they were headed.
Four of my kids were in the car on the day we stopped to help Marina. She sat in her broken-down car in the median of a busy Interstate, trying in vain to cool down her 1-year-old son by fanning him with her hands in the sweltering Midwest summer heat, as traffic whizzed by at 70 miles per hour on either side. After an awkward introduction shouted over the sound of the rushing traffic, Marina accepted my offer of help with tears in her eyes. “So many people were just driving by. I thought no one was going to stop to help us.” We shuffled children around until everyone was secured, then shared our drinking water and snacks as I drove to safety with the air conditioner blasting.
It didn’t take long before my habit of stopping to offer help to strangers rubbed off on my kids. “Mommy, should we stop?” they would pipe up from the backseat when they saw someone who looked like they needed help. We didn’t always pull over. Not every moment is appropriate to interrupt with spontaneous acts of service. Not every situation is safe. But we did continue to look for opportunities to serve, and we found plenty of them.
When we moved across the country several years ago, I hadn’t found myself on the side of a road with a stranger for a long, long time. It seemed that our days of spontaneously helping strangers had come to an end. And then the neighborhood children started showing up on our doorstep looking for friendship and a place to play. First, it was just one. Then two, then four, sometimes as many as ten at a time. Many weekends in my house it feels like there’s a constant stream of children who are not my own coming in and out the front door. The words they say are plain enough – “Can I play at your house for a while?” or “Look at this cool thing I got yesterday!” or “Can I come in?” As I got to know them and listened to their stories, a clear pattern emerged – the kids who show up most often, stay the longest, and are hungriest for attention are the ones who have profound hurt and trauma in their past. What they say is “Can I stay and play?” but what I hear their hearts really crying out for is safety, love, and acceptance.
We decided long ago that when kids showed up on our doorstep, we would do everything we could to welcome them in. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Sometimes I don’t want to use up an entire jumbo-sized box of Goldfish in one afternoon, feeding snacks to a herd of children. Sometimes I don’t want to manage the extra chaos that comes with a high concentration of children in one house. But sometimes the tween from a few houses down – the one who has witnessed more trauma in her short life than anyone should have to endure – sits at my kitchen table and plays with playdoh while I cook dinner, and I know that she knows she’s safe here. Sometimes the kid who is bullied at school meets a new friend in my front yard, and I get to watch them play together. Sometimes I know that even though it’s a small thing, welcoming and loving these kids is worth it. Letting people into our life makes a difference.
Our family is not holed up in a fortress, built with the intention to keep others out like we’re defending against an assaulting army. Our family unit is surrounded by something more like a permeable membrane. (Remember science class? A cell with a permeable membrane allows selected things to pass through its walls, while still providing security and protection for all that is within.) We are a family that allows others in. And we are a family that reaches out.
Are there dangers in this approach? Of course. Thicker, more rigid walls would allow us to risk less. Letting others in always comes with the potential for discomfort, inconvenience, and even pain. But rigid walls around our family would also mean that the love with which we’ve been so richly blessed would have a harder time reaching out to impact the world around us.
We can’t fix every problem. We can’t meet every need. But I hope we are creating a family culture where the needs of others are not perceived as a threat to ourselves. I hope I’m instilling the confidence in my children that they can make a difference. I hope they become noticers – the ones who see a need and are willing to do something to meet it. The ones who will speak up when it’s right, and reach out even when it’s hard.
I hope they’ll keep asking me “Mom, should we stop and help?”
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Sarah Caprye lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband Aaron and their five daughters, where they love connecting deeply with their church and community. She blogs approximately once a year at sarahsotherblog.blogspot.com, and writes informally on social media. When she’s not taking everything in life too seriously, she enjoys stirring up laughter while wearing a T-Rex costume. You can find her Spokanasaurus Rex shenanigans on Facebook or Instagram, or follow her personal Facebook page to read her occasional bouts of writing.
For April 2018, we are hosting a whole series about Intentionally Cultivating Your Family Culture. Check out Episode 38: Every Screen Tells a Story with Christie Thomas and members of the Kindred Mom team, and check back to read more essays in the series as the month unfolds. If you missed it, check out our completed March series on Becoming a Resilient Mom!
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Check out the most recent episode of the Kindred Mom podcast, Episode 38: Every Screen Tells a Story!