Sunday, October 10, 2010

Crossing Paths - Spare Change

The other day I stopped at my friendly neighborhood drugstore to pick up a bottle of nail polish remover. As I parked near the front of the store, I saw a young black man in a long trench coat, standing about ten feet away from the front door. I sat in my car for a minute and watched as he politely spoke to every one who approached the door, but it didn't appear he was asking for money. As I continued to watch, I noticed he only asked of those who were exiting the store.

I thought about his routine for a moment as I walked up through the breezeway that led to the front door. It made sense, I thought, for him to ask for a handout after everyone had made their purchases, and then ask for 'spare change'. What is 'spare change?' Every penny in my purse is the fruit of my labor; and in my eyes there is no such thing as 'spare change.'

As I got closer, I became more curious as to why he was there. He didn't smile, but nodded at me as if we ran into each other every day. I kept walking and as I browsed through the store, shopping and selecting knick knacks I didn't need, I thought about the young man and wrestled with my thoughts; trying to decide if I would give him some 'spare change' if he asked for some.
I wondered what he was: a drug addict, a teenage father, an alcoholic, a thief. I berated myself for assuming the worse, but decided for my dollar that I was going to ask.

As I approached him, he looked directly at me and asked if I could spare some change.
Could I 'spare' some change? Not 'did I have some spare change?' The request for 'Spare change' had been shortened. For the first time, I understood.
I smiled at him, hoping to give him some encouragement and handed him a folded dollar bill. His face and jawline looked hard. I looked into his eyes. They looked young and sad. His clothes were not tattered; his shoes looked average, not new, but not too run down. I guessed he couldn't have been older than twenty years of age.

I asked him why was he out there. He looked surprised for a moment, then explained in a very humble and soft spoken voice:
"My girlfriend and I were in foster care. We're both eighteen now. We're trying to get a place together because we don't want to be apart. She just got a job down the street at Mickey D's - that helps a lot; but if I can get a few more dollars in the next couple of days we'll have enough for the first month's rent on a place we found. Right now we're sleeping in my car." I wished him luck and told him I would pray for him and his girlfriend and went on my way. He gave me a big smile, thanked me and said, "Thank you ma'm. I needed that."

We hear these stories every day, but when these situations stare you in the face, sometimes it catches you off guard. It is certainly a wake up call. I chided myself, thinking how I assumed so much because he was asking for a handout. I walked slowly back to my car. As I drove away, I saw him bend over and smile at a baby in a stroller as the child's mother dug through her purse for 'spare change.'

I thought about his story and hoped he was telling me the truth. A couple of weeks after this encounter, Gov. Scharwzenneggar signed into legislation to extend transitional foster care services to the age of 21. Currently children in the system are emancipated at age 18. I hope the young man and his girlfriend will be able to take advantage of this program and move forward with their lives.

I know we can't help everyone, but I think we can all make a difference, with brief words of encouragement, a prayer, sharing knowledge, and even a dollar, one person at a time. The next time someone asks for 'spare change' it may not just mean they need a dollar or two. If you have time, say a prayer, give them a smile, or a kind word to help them along the way.

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