Sometimes, when we think of middle school aged children, we imagine surly moods, acne, hormones, and the occasional breaking of rules. All of this stuff is pretty normal and comes with the territory. What doesn’t come to mind is a middle school kid who spends most of his free time figuring out how he can help others.
This amazing kid goes to school with my son, and they’ve become good friends. HIs name is Caleb, and he is the founder of the Caleb White Project, a Detroit-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping those in need. This past weekend, my family and I headed to Detroit to do some volunteer work for Caleb’s organization. Since I had worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly nine years, I knew what to expect when working at a large event. What I didn’t expect were the friends we all made that day.
That morning, my husband and I woke our boys early, put ourselves into the car, and drove downtown with assistance from Mercedes, my beloved navigation system that I cannot live without. Mercedes drove us into a pretty sad looking neighborhood. There were several houses with no windows, graffiti, broken sidewalks, and closed businesses. But in the middle of this suffering neighborhood, there stood a bright light, The Beulah First Missionary Baptist Church.
Decorated with balloons and streamers, the church parking lot was filled with volunteers from the church, as well as other people from my neck of the woods. There were many smiling faces racing around trying to get everything set up before our guests were to arrive. One man stood out. He was tall and slender, his face had the biggest smile, and he held a megaphone so he could help instruct the volunteers. Just by looking at his face, I could tell he was happy, excited, and ready to have a great day. He greeted us when we entered the parking lot, welcomed us to the church, and introduced himself as the Pastor. I liked him immediately.
We joined Caleb and his mom (who looks like a cross between a model and a twenty-two-year-old college student, and who is a nice as she is beautiful), in preparing for the day. My boys were volunteering in the game tent where there were all sorts of board games, footballs, prizes, and more. My husband and I were in charge of monitoring the bounce house.
Caleb had organized this entire event, and the party had everything anyone would ever want. It was a perfect “Back To School” party. There were hot dogs and chips for lunch, snow cones and cotton candy for dessert. There was a spinning apple ride, relay races on bouncey balls, the aforementioned games and bounce house, nice clothing to give away, beauticians on hand to style hair and give haircuts, manicures, and face painting. They even had a nurse there, a prayer table, restrooms, and lots of bottled water. The best part was that for every child who attended the party, he or she would leave with a backpack filled with school supplies, because Caleb has said, “No kid should ever have to start school without school supplies and a backpack.” Caleb is right.
The families arrived just a few minutes after 10:00 am. The children were excited and beaming. I noticed that just about every child came dressed in his/her very best shirt, shorts, or dress. All the girls had perfect hairstyles, so many with beautiful braids tied with colorful matching barrettes and hair ties. Boys wore colorful t-shirts and brand new tennis shoes. Some of the dresses worn by the girls were so fancy and beautiful. Everyone looked so nice; you could tell this was a very special day.
It was a blast to monitor the bounce house, and also a lot of work. There was a lot of bouncing going on that day!
We had two little girls, dressed in matching shorts and t-shirts, hair done in braids with matching hair ties, who jumped so high I thought I’d have to go inside the house and get them off the ceiling at some point. We had Cameron, whose favorite thing was to bounce and kick (karate-style), and chat with my husband about school, how much he wanted to learn karate, his new t-shirt and shoes, and his love of sno-cones. When he found out both my boys did Taekwondo, he asked me if I could go get them so they could show him some moves. I did, and my boys and Cameron jumped and kicked together. My boys said Cameron could kick really high, and would make an excellent Taekwondo student.
There was a group of tween girls who taught me how to play “Dead Man” (sounds a lot worse than it is), inside the bounce house, but let me know that it’s more fun to play on a trampoline. There was so much giggling going on in the house when they were playing that game, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. It was obvious that Dead Man was a fun game, despite its scary name.
We met Jackson, who was one of our youngest volunteers, and who kept my husband and me laughing all day long while he did tricks for us, told us jokes, and tried to hide from his mom (also a volunteer), when she tried to get him to take a break from all that bouncing.
There was Marcus and Miles whose great-grandmother brought them to the party. Their favorite part of the party was the cotton candy, but they liked the hot dogs, too. I got a chance to talk with their great-grandma, who has a few kids of her own, several grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. She was actually called, “Nana”, and I found out later that not only was she great-grandmother to Marcus and Miles, but to Cameron, too. I told her what a lucky lady she was to have such nice boys. She agreed.
We probably let too many older kids get in that bounce house and jump that day, but I wasn’t going to tell them they couldn’t jump. They were just having way too much fun. One boy could do front and back flips over and over again, and I couldn’t figure out how in the world he wasn’t getting dizzy. He certainly made it look easy!
I was amazed at how many of these children, who didn’t know me at all, talked with me with such ease, let me pick them up and help them into the bounce house, and came to me to get a hug when they bumped their elbows on other kids’ heads while bouncing. Every child said “thank you.” Every child said “you’re welcome.” And one of those tween girls told me how much she liked my toenail polish. I felt almost cool for a few seconds.
What I felt the most, though, was that I belonged. I felt like we all belonged. We all belonged there together, on the corner of that little street in Detroit, laughing, talking, playing, and eating. It didn’t matter where we lived, the amount of money in our bank accounts, or the color of our skin. We were all meant to be there together that day to have a party and to make new friends.
I watched my boys help the really small children play board games, and throw a football with some of the older kids. I watched them teach Cameron a few Taekwondo moves. I watched them sit together with so many of our other volunteer students and guests, eating hot dogs, and telling jokes.
I saw so many of Caleb’s classmates and their families there to help out, as well as one of our school’s vice principals who brought along his children to join in the fun. Many of my fellow middle school moms were there, and it was nice to catch up and talk about what we all did over the summer.
I expected a day of fun, a little work, and great weather. I expected an event that would help teach my kids how important it is to give back, and to make it a priority to volunteer for projects, events, and organizations that mean something and help people in need. What I didn’t expect were the giant bear hugs I got from children who simply wanted me to know how much they appreciated my help and attention, the enthusiasm of a church pastor whose gleefulness was so contagious, every single person who chatted with him left with a bigger smile than when they arrived, and the modesty and unselfishness of a thirteen-year-old boy who started this whole thing because he “just wanted to help other people”. Caleb preferred not to get much attention, but rather liked to sit back and watch his guests enjoy a perfect day.
It was a perfect day. We all came together for a party and everyone had a good time. Hundreds of children had full bellies, overflowing backpacks, and were excited to start a new year of school. And to think it all started because a little boy wanted lots of other little girls and boys to feel special, loved, and happy.
What a day, what an event, what an organization, and what a kid.
Thanks, Caleb, for teaching us all what it means to make a difference.