My 4-year-old was determined.
"I need to bring money to school," Dylan insisted out of the blue last month. "Miss Isabel needs money. She needs lots of money for the needy children."
After buying a Thanksgiving dinner and groceries for Metropolitan Ministries, filling a couple of shoe boxes with Christmas gifts for kids in war-torn countries and keeping up with all our regular nonprofit donations, I could feel charity fatigue and budget stress setting in.
I gave him a few coins. He frowned.
"Miss Isabel wants dollars."
Okay, kid. But if you want folding money, you're going to have to earn it, I said. And putting on your own clothes and brushing your teeth without a fight don't count. You're supposed to do those things anyway.
That's exactly what his teacher had in mind.
The kids aren't supposed to simply pester their parents for money. They're supposed to earn it by doing odd jobs. Granted, a preschooler isn't going to be able to pressure wash the house or take the garbage to the curb. But he or she can help clean up toys or cross items off grocery lists or sort laundry. At my house, we picked up acorns that had fallen onto the concrete driveway. We also swept and mopped the kitchen floor. Never mind that it took twice as long as it normally would. My son was learning the value of work and a sense of responsibility.
We also talked about who these "needy children" were and how, unlike my son, they didn't have many toys to play with. At bedtime we put them on our "God bless" list.
The earnings were to be taken to Kids' Stuff Preschool in Land O'Lakes where prekindergarten teachers collected them and marked progress on charts. At the end, the kids would get to go shopping and spend the money they had earned on gifts for clients of the Pasco Pediatric Foundation.
The nonprofit agency, founded in 1995, provides medical, dental and mental health services for kids who can't get help through federal and state programs such as Medicaid. Recently a child paralyzed with cancer needed a stander that insurance wouldn't pay for. The foundation stepped in. Other kids need life-saving surgery at faraway hospitals, but the parents can't afford the airline tickets or hotel rooms.
It also funded a playground for special-needs kids in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. And it provides holiday gifts to children who might otherwise go without. This year, 69 children from 24 families received presents at a luncheon that also included a visit with Santa.
Kids' Stuff began a holiday gift program in 2002 after spending years doing food drives. Isabel Trentman, my son's teacher, introduced the idea after doing it at her previous preschool.
Not only does it instill a work ethic, but builds empathy for children to pick out a toy they might like for themselves and give it away.
The children's generosity has also inspired others. In the early days, kids would go on a field trip to the bank with rolled coins they had collected and deposit them. One day a man in line noticed and asked what they were doing. After he was told about the program, he gave each child $10 for his or her account.
"What goes around comes around," Trentman said.
The number of kids participating now make trips to the bank no longer practical. But the kids still shop.
One by one, each class boards the school's minibus and heads off to Kmart, which always gives a discount and sets up a special checkout lane just for the students.
With help from some of us parents who are able to get off work, the kids shop in pairs for an assigned age and gender.
The trip is a bit like herding cats, with the kids sometimes forgetting they're not creating their own wish lists or trying to buy one toy that blows the entire budget. (So in addition to a work ethic and empathy, they also learn a little about finance.)
Ten minutes later, it all works out and the kids sit down in the cafe to free popcorn and frozen drinks. In addition to the treats, Kmart also gives each student a goody bag.
This year's effort at Kids' Stuff raised about $1,000. Previous drives during the boom times took in twice that much. But the folks at the Pediatric Foundation know that even donor families are struggling with layoffs, pay cuts, foreclosures and increases in health care costs.
"We appreciate anything we get," said Jeanne Hoidalen, a nurse in the Pasco County School District who works with the foundation.
When my son sees his shiny new bicycle and Woody the sheriff toy and various race cars, he can also know that somewhere the 3-year-old boy we shopped for will get a Spider-Man action figure who rides a dune buggy, some cars from Disney movie Cars, a 28-piece jigsaw puzzle, a book about the New England Patriots, two coloring books and a pack of crayons.
Not a bad haul.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.