The look on my 7-year-old daughter's face was devastating. Her chance to help another person for the holidays had vanished into thin air.
We showed up at the Chetco Federal Credit Union lobby in Harbor to grab a tag off the Giving Tree, and use it to purchase a gift for a low-income child in the community.
Each tag had information such as a child's age, gender, and a request for a specific toy or piece of clothing.
We had good intentions, but acted too late. Not only were all the tags gone, but the gifts had already been purchased and were waiting by the tree to be picked up by the intended children's families.
"Now what?" Alia said, unable to mask her disappointment.
I had no answer.
We drove in silence to Fred Meyer to do our Christmas shopping for family members. A volunteer bell ringer for the Salvation Army stood next to the red collection kettle outside the entrance. My daughter asked why the man was ringing the bell. I explained how the Salvation Army collects money to help people who don't have enough money to buy the things they need. She mulled that over as we dove into the shopping melee.
Alia knows that times are tough for her family and many others. We haven't been able to go to eat out much, rent as many DVD movies, or buy a certain pair of shoes. She's no doubt overheard her parents discuss which bills to pay.
She may or may not know which of her friends' parents have lost jobs. Or a home. Or both. After all, Curry County has not escaped the recession.
With luck, however, she and other children will emerge from this recession knowing the value of a dollar, but without having experienced the pain of true poverty.
The challenge that many families face is teaching our children to value what they have, while making sure they don't go without what they need. Honesty seems to be the best policy, explaining why we can't afford to stop at Dairy Queen for an ice cream, while assuring them that their life, family and home are secure.
Every day I thank God that my family is not among those facing real poverty. But what do you tell a child when they notice the poverty around them? The panhandlers in front of the South Coast Shopping Center in Harbor? Or the homeless people huddling under a blue tarp at the south end of the Chetco River bridge?
Like she did with the Salvation Army bell ringer, Alia often asks who those people are, and why they need help. I explain in terms appropriate for a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old. Still, she is sad for them. Although, she was glad one weather-beaten man at least had a dog for company.
Once, I made a point to buy an extra cheeseburger and give it to a homeless man in front of McDonalds. Alia was happy we did that. What she didn't see, and what I did in the rearview mirror, was the man throwing the food into nearby bushes.
As sad as that moment was, I am glad my daughter has gained a level of empathy for those who have less than she does. Perhaps it will increase her sense of gratitude for how rich her life is.
When we left Fred Meyer, she insisted we leave through the same exit we entered. I didn't know why, until we reached the Salvation Army bell ringer and she asked me for some money. I handed her a dollar, which she placed in the kettle's slot.
"Merry Christmas!" the volunteered smile.
"Merry Christmas!" Alia said, and bounced all the way to the car.