By Kessie Kaltsounis
The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.
Last night I found a yellowed, crumpled piece of paper in a drawer of my battered desk. I have a habit of putting away small snippets of poems, stories and sayings that move and inspire me. The author was unknown but the words affected me. They are one of the reasons why I volunteer and why I work with children.
Four years ago, I helped start a Blessing in a Backpack program in my school district. It is a neighbor-helping-neighbor program designed to supplement the nutritional needs of children and their families. Each week we distributed backpacks filled with a weekend's worth of non-perishable food for at-risk students in our district.
Our packing area was located in the district's charter high school, made up of students who could not make it in a traditional classroom, or who had academic issues that would keep them from graduating. We had to pack 400 backpacks every week, so it was important to have help. The principal of the academy assigned us a young man who was having classroom and personal issues. Andrew was a polite, handsome young man, tall and lean. He had a ready smile, but his eyes showed hurt and he seemed fearful of adults. You could see the toll the "hard knocks" had taken on him.
During the packing, he did what we asked but we could tell his heart was not in it. But after a few weeks, our young volunteer started to warm up to us and the job. After a month, Andrew was very involved and recruiting other young people to help us. At the end of summer, we said our goodbyes. Andrew promised to be back in September so he could help us organize. We could see he reveled in being given a leadership role.
We came to rely on Andrew more and more. He blossomed in his leadership role as our liaison to the school. Then he goofed up and was expelled for three days. He begged the principal to allow him to pack during that time, but the principal said no. The following week my co-chair and I talked to our young friend, letting him know how important he was to the organization and how he had disappointed us with his behavior. You could see the tears in his eyes during our talk. He was embarrassed that he had let us down.
As the months passed, we could see a change in Andrew. He became focused and positive about his future. A few months before June, he informed us with a huge toothy grin that he was going to graduate. I think that might have been one of his proudest moments. This young man had no family unit to live with or care about him. Now as he bragged about his grades, he was a new, confident young man who looked at his future with happiness. The principal later told us that had we not stepped in and given him support, encouragement and guidance, he was sure Andrew would have been dead from gang violence.
As graduation approached, students talked about who they were inviting and how proud they would be to have their families there. Everyone, that is, but Andrew. Not wanting to embarrass him, I asked the principal who Andrew was inviting. He had no one who would come. No one cared. Those words cut deep into my heart. I knew that I could not let him down, not after all his growth and improvement. I would be there for him.
As the proud graduates proceeded down the aisle to sit on stage, I made sure that Andrew would have to pass by me. I could see a light in his eyes as he approached. When he reached me, he touched my hand, as if to say thank you. Tears welled up in both of our eyes.
I learned that my dear friend Andrew turned his life around. He had earned a scholarship and was going to major in mechanical engineering. He is now in his second year and doing very well. Not only had we fed him meals on weekends through his own Blessing in a Backpack, we had fed his soul.