Counting our blessings, one bag at a time

On Monday, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., we made “blessing bags,” plastic bags full of snacks and other supplies for people in need.

Noah first made these at church camp last summer, and I thought they were a great idea. People panhandle at several busy intersections near our house, and I like having something to give them other than money. I know some people have mixed feelings about giving money to panhandlers; my issue is more that I rarely carry cash.

I’m not usually one for DIY projects – one trip down an aisle at Michael’s is enough to give me a panic attack – but this one is so easy, Noah could do it himself.

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More importantly, it’s for a good cause: not just to help the people who receive the bags, but to remind our family of what we take for granted every day. It’s easy to forget.

Over the years, Noah has asked plenty of questions about the people holding cardboard signs at the side of the road. And no matter how Pat and I tried to explain that people sometimes need extra help, Noah’s answer was often, “Well, they should just get a job.”


“He’s young,” Pat said. “It’s a hard concept to understand.”

Maybe. But I have to wonder when I see kids on Facebook forgoing birthday presents in lieu of collecting canned goods or toys for animal shelters. (Yes, I know, damn Facebook comparisons.) In the weeks leading up to his birthday party, Noah’s main concern was where we should position the table where people could put his gifts.

Is that normal behavior for a 6-year-old? Maybe, I don’t know. But still, I was bewildered. Pat and I don’t consider ourselves particularly materialistic, and we talk to the kids about the importance of sharing our time and resources.

“That could be us,” we tell Noah. But it doesn’t seem to sink in. Instead, like a young Ebenezer Scrooge, he counts the quarters he earned from unloading the dishwasher and talks about the next Lego set he wants to buy.

Now, of course I don’t think that a couple hours spent assembling “blessing bags” will flip on a switch of concern for the less fortunate. But I hoped that at least it would make him think about it.

It turned out he was really excited about making the bags, and even more excited about distributing them.

We made an assembly line on the table, and Noah filled each gallon zipper bag with a small bottle of water, peanut butter crackers or a granola bar, trail mix, beef jerky, a Wet Ones wipe, washcloth and a pair of socks.

Noah also wanted to include a drawing in each bag. Sunday night, he excitedly called me into his room to show me his first picture. I had to stifle a laugh.

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“So…I really like that picture,” I said to Noah. “I just don’t know if we want to give people a bag of food with a picture that says ‘Yuck’ on it.”


The next morning, Noah came out of his room with ten drawings with a more upbeat message.

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“That’s great!” I said to Noah. “What else are you going to make?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what could you say to someone else that would make them happy, too?”

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We assembled 24 bags and loaded them into the car before Rory was able to break into what he believed were favor bags for a birthday party.

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We were taking most of the bags to our church, which gives them to people who come in off the street looking for help. But first Noah wanted to drive to some of the corners where he usually sees panhandlers. With it being a holiday, and not quite 11:00 a.m., the streets were quiet, the corners mostly empty. But as we circled a shopping center parking lot, we saw a man in a reflective vest holding a sign. I rolled down the window, said good morning and handed him the bag. He said thank you, and glanced at it briefly before setting it on his backpack on the grass.

“I bet he’s really going to like that!” said Noah.

Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t. Maybe he wishes I had just given him the $5 it took to put the bag together. Either way, a little plastic bag of snacks feels like a tiny drop in the bucket for someone living on the streets. But if it makes their day any better, and our hearts a little softer, it won’t be a wasted effort.