Thursday, November 15, 2012

Teaching Compassion on Third Base

After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I knew I wanted to volunteer.

Actually, I wanted us both to volunteer. I harangued Rayne into going out to Staten Island for some physical labor. (One might call it forced, but he was glad he went. Also, he got to smash ruined furniture with a baseball bat. It was like his birthday and Christmas combined.)

I wanted to help out of a sense of community and compassion. But if I'm being perfectly honest, I was also anticipating Henry's inevitable question, What did you and Daddy do after Hurricane Sandy?

I wanted to be proud of my response. I wanted to set a good example. Be the change I wish to see and all of that.

Is that too selfish a motive?


I woke up at five in the morning the day I was supposed to run the New York City marathon and headed over to the shelter at Brooklyn Tech High School in Fort Greene. What I saw was not pretty. Those being housed in the gym were primarily from Surf Manor, a state-run "adult home" on Coney Island whose residents consisted of mentally and developmentally disabled individuals of all ages.

There was Gustavo, originally from Guatemala, who was in his 30s and seemed to have a crush on me. He smiled so sweetly every time I passed that I had to stop and say hello.

There was an old Eastern European-sounding dude who kept asking me in a really loud voice why I was there if I had at baby home. "No one is paying you to be here," he kept insisting, "but you are paying a babysitter."

There was the sweet elderly blind man who wanted to eat lunch; he was so hungry. I tried to guide him to the cafeteria but he was too frail. (Eventually we brought lunch down to him.)

Then there was the woman (Myrna, I think) who made me search inside her pant legs for her phone. She was freaking out. "My cousin's father is going to call and come get me! My cousins father is going to call and come get me!" she repeated over and over. Who knows if it was true.

And the woman in her 70s who rushed up to me sans pants. "Help, I soiled my pants, I soiled my pants," she pleaded, offering her pants, and presumably said soiled undergarments, up to me. (I got her a nurse and put on gloves after that.)

And the woman in her 60s with a swollen belly who talked to me for twenty minutes about her "pregnancy" and the fact that the Surf Manor employees were secretly "pimps." I could barely understand a word she was saying let alone follow her logic. It didn't matter; she just wanted someone to listen.

Every last resident I spoke to told me they were going home that afternoon, even though I knew they weren't. They might have been leaving the shelter (although it turned out they didn't) but they weren't returning to Coney Island.

When is the bus coming? they wondered.

I think in the afternoon, I lied, after agitating a couple residents with the truth. It seemed easier and, frankly, more humane.

There was a veritable mountain of prescription medication at the makeshift nurses' station. Anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, blood pressure medication, heart failure medication and many others I didn't recognize.
Photo credit: Keith Ramsey

The nurses and other workers associated with the home seemed apathetic at best, very nearly sadistic at worst. I don't have their incredibly difficult job every day; I am trying not to judge. (It's difficult, but I'm trying.)

Obviously conditions in the shelter were less than optimal, and change is hard for everyone let alone the unstable among us. The residents of Surf Manor wanted to get back to their orderly lives, their systems and routines, their psychotherapists whom they mentioned by name.

I'm just not sure the quality of their "regular" life is so different from what I saw. And smelled. And heard.

I returned home tired and humbled.


Rayne and I were both raised in educated, upper middle class homes. And as is the wont of children born on second base, we are on our way to third. This worries me. How do we teach Henry to appreciate his place in our world, to understand and be grateful for his privilege instead of feeling entitled to it?

Third Base

Photo credit: mtsofan

Do we incorporate community service into our family life?

Travel the world over? Show him true poverty?

Tell him repeatedly he is not special but lucky? That from his privileged perch he has an obligation to help those less fortunate?

I don't know, maybe my motives for going to the shelter were less than completely selfless. It's just that I'd be horrified if I raised a son who someday answered a question about whether he was a NASCAR fan with "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners." Such cluelessness nauseates me.

I want to lead by example, but I'm not sure the best way.

How do you instill gratitude in your children?

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