Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Backpacks, Books and Clowns

It’s the third Saturday in August and that means it’s time for the annual Back-to-School Picnic. The parents come to Manna on Main Street’s food pantry, and so their kids can get a free backpack and school supplies for the coming year. Part of me wants to yawn. We’ve been organizing the event for more than 10 years and for some reason, this year, it’s almost a numbing routine.

Three weeks before the event the backpacks show up. The Salvation Army supplies about 750 to us each year (Manna on Main Street is also a Salvation Army station). Shortly after that we talk with the local Kiwanis Club, who will grill the hamburgers and hot dogs the day of the picnic. They also provide the notebooks, markers, paper and other goodies to go into the packs. A teen from Manna on Main Street’s Youth Advisory Board has organized another successful book drive – he collected over 1,100 books for the kids to fill in their backpacks. Then we make the final arrangements for food and drinks.

Just the regular routine, I think to myself. We’ll have over 70 kids registered for the picnic and about 35 will show up. It’s not that they’re ungrateful… other things come up, parents forget or for some other reason they just don’t get there. The parents know that they’ll be able to call and pick up the supplies anyway, so there are no hard feelings. We just want to make sure the kids have what they need to start school.

This year, the activities at the picnic will be a little different. Clown Alley, a local comic club will come out to put on free show. They’ll do a few tricks, dress the kids up in silly costumes and have them parade around; should be pretty cute. Still, it’s hard for me get too enthused about the day.

When I arrive, it’s the usual scene. The Aktion Club is there in full force. It’s the special needs group of adults, part of the Kiwanis. They’re excited about the clowns coming and they enjoy being out among people. And so the day moves on - we hand out backpacks, kids gather arms full of books to take home, everyone has something to eat and then they all move closer to the clown station. The entertainers really get into their routine, and the kids seem to enjoy it as well. While the show is going on, Nick, a member of the Kiwanis comes up to me.

“Hey, see the kid with blond hair, the one wearing the blue cape?” he said pointing in the direction of the clowns.

“What about him?” I ask.

But rather than replying to my question, he starts to explain, almost apologizing. “You know, I wasn’t sure I was going to come back next year. But that kid. I was watching him, stuffing books in his backpack. He looked up at me and he had this big smile on his face. And you know what he said to me?

“No, what?”

“This is the best day of my life!”

Nick looked off and shook his head. “Yeah, you can count on me for next year.”

“You know what, Nick? I think I’ll make it too.”


What’s your mission statement? Do you have a strategic plan? What new programs have you developed? What measurements do you have in place to determine their impact? A lot of smart people ask very good questions about what we do. I tell them: we do backpacks, books and clowns.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A picture is worth...

It seemed appropriate to not have a photo today. While pictures can show us something that is, the lense has not yet proven itself in expressing all the things in our lives. I think about the idea behind the creation of Manna on Main Street, “that everyone might be fed”. We have compelling pictures of needy people being served at the table, and grateful working-poor filling bags with food donated by others. But how we “feed” the community goes beyond that.

Young people come to perform community service. They may have to do it for school or for Scouts or because they got into trouble. We “feed” them by showing them how they can serve and help others; how they can enrich lives by just being there to talk with someone who’s lonely.

A single mom on disability signs up her teenage daughter for the cosmetology class at the local technical school, knowing full well she can’t afford the $300 cosmetology kit that’s required. We cover the cost of the kit, helping pave the way for a girl to pursue her dream of becoming a hair stylist.

He’s in a wheelchair, without a penny to his name. His best friend has died, and he has nothing to wear to the funeral. We buy him a suit.

The stories go on and on. People are in need… we feed them. No pictures, no words, even, can capture it all.