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  • Writer's pictureJama Ross

When the children fall: Meeting basic needs from the start vital for our shared future.

Find the beginning. Start with one.

Around fourth grade, my son approached with his backpack in hand, tearfully producing a crumpled paper from its depths that detailed an assignment that he had weeks to complete. His lip quivered as he explained a very lengthy project – forgotten and abandoned until the night before its due date – involving the research, documenting and mock-fossilization of dinosaur bones.

A quick mental debate about just letting the consequences fall for his lack of responsibility was wiped away when I saw his desperation, and we set upon what must have appeared to him to be the Everest of school projects.

He sat at the kitchen table, overwhelmed at the piles of pictures, construction paper, and glue mache before him. Overwhelmed by the enormity, he had no idea of where to begin. I put my hand on his shaking shoulders and said, “We just start with one dinosaur. Don’t think about all of them; just find the beginning, and start with one.”

“Find the beginning, start with one,” was the matrix I used for most of the complex problems I faced. It’s not the answer; but it’s a single thread through the tangled mess.

Years ago, the nonprofit where I was then working was having a bake sale to raise funds for our center. The youth center director asked the kids if they would like to help, reporting back to me that they had a few teenage boy volunteers who refused, citing baking as “women’s work.” I gleefully escorted these boys to the kitchen and chose a few lovely, lace-edged aprons that I tied around their waists.

The complaints surprisingly died quickly as they became fascinated with mixing and stirring ingredients. After a quick demonstration of egg-cracking, one of the boys opened his egg and marveled aloud at the contents. “This is what the inside of an egg looks like?” Wondrous. Amazed. I laughed, thinking he was giving me a dose of sarcasm.

“You want me to believe you’ve never seen the inside of an egg before?”

His head shook vigorously. “This is the first time I’ve seen one, really.”

“You don’t help your mom make eggs in the morning?”

He quieted down, his eyes dropped down to his batter. He said nothing. Another boy piped up, “We don’t have a stove. We used to have a microwave, but it’s been broke for a while.”

The third boy, haphazardly overmixing with brownie batter spilling over the edges of his bowl, added, “We got a stove. No heat, though.” I glanced over and he good-naturedly added, “Can’t cook eggs on a stove that don’t work.”

That was one of my very early awakenings to how different poverty looks to everyone. My assumptions of what basic tools were available to the children in our community were based upon what I had taken for granted as essential and stationary, when to so many they are still very much luxuries.

Years later, I was on my way back from vacation with my family when I received a text asking if I had checked the local news site. Within moments, the light from my phone was illuminating our quiet car as I read about three teenagers discovered in an abandoned house. In what authorities speculated was a drug deal gone wrong, the three had been murdered execution-style and left to be found days later.

The boys from the kitchen.

As I read the cruel comments about how the kids were “obviously gang bangers,” “druggies,” “thugs who had it coming,” all I could think about was the wonderment in the eyes of a young boy opening an egg for the first time. Another splashing milk out of his bowl as he merrily over-stirred.

They may have become the awful things that strangers were labeling them. But before they became any of those things, they were children who were missing basic needs. Kids who were hungry. Kids who were taught that they could go without and have to seek for themselves, regardless of what path it led them down.

I think of them now as the issues in our world grow in intensity, in tragic impact, in greater numbers. As we search for answers aimlessly in political parties, ignoring the drastic slashes to assistance programs, the violence climbs. The hopelessness can be felt in oppressive waves.

I think of how we have forgotten history and the most basic recurring lesson. The Jews fleeing Egypt after years of slavery and oppression. The overthrowing of the last French monarchy stemming from the Flour Wars. An American nation born out of rage from taxation and lack of representation. The common theme in every struggle throughout time has always risen when those who have in excess bleed those who already have nothing. And when the children fall, the rage will follow.

We are ignoring the ones, the beginnings, the basic needs that must be met before any child can be expected to flourish, then staring at the blaze and wondering how a massive fire ever started.

As tensions continue to build in our society, and we stumble through these immense issues with no idea where to start, I implore my friends and neighbors to think of those we have failed when we cannot care for those basic needs. Where is this leading us? Where will it leave us?

If you’re unsure of where to start, in the mess and the despair and the overwhelming wanting, you’re not alone. But you can help if you just find the beginning. And start with one.

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