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Learning to Give Back During the Holidays: The Empirical Edition

Two years ago now, I took my oldest and one of her friends camping to this mountain lake I love. It’s a rugged area, the campsites all primitive, steeped in nature. Steeped in beauty. We stayed for three nights. As you can imagine, there’s a lot to bring on such a trip. So much, in fact, that I didn’t have room to take any wood.

“What are we gonna do?” Alli asked.

“I know a place — don’t worry.” And I did. Just before the road that twists and turns to our campsite, there’s a 180-degree, right-hand turn you can make that takes you away from the water and straight up what is essentially the side of a mountain. After a quarter mile or so, the road dips down and offers a gravel drive on the left — one that cuts through a valley of sorts.

It’s here you’ll find a collection of dilapidated trailers, a few broken down cars resting upon cinderblock pillars, a mangy-looking dog or two and this:

I can’t remember the details of why, but my daughter and I were the only two to go on the wood run. And as the tires crunched along the dusty trail, Alli stared in wide-eyed wonder at the scene all around, unsure, this girl of privilege, exactly what to make of it.

“Do people really live here?”

“Yes, honey.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve bought wood from them before.”

“Is it a store with a cash register or something?”

“No, honey. It’s not. You put your money that,” I said, pointing to a slotted, wooden box next to the firewood stand.

“Is there someone who makes sure you pay?”

“Sometimes. There’ s a nice older fella I’ve met up here a time or two. Gets by with a cane. Raymond, I think his name is. But other times no one has come to greet me at all.”

“Well then, how do they know you’ll pay?”

“It’s an honor system, honey. And you’d have to have no honor whatsoever to take from these fine folks.”

I got out of the SUV and opened the back and began to throw in the sticks of wood, unsure whether I’d need three or four cubbies’ worth. Alli, who would normally help with such an activity, instead stood idly with a blank look on her face, still trying, it seemed, to comprehend the abject poverty which surrounded us.

Until, that is, a girl walked out to greet us. She looked to be about 15.

“Hey there,” I said, as I abandoned my task and approached the young lady with an open hand. “I’m John.”

“Hi,” she said, shaking my hand. “I’m Farrah.” Her Appalachian drawl was so thick that it was hard to understand.

“It’s nice to meet you. This is my daughter, Alli.”

“Pleased t’meet ya.”

“Hi, Farrah” Alli said softly.

“Is Raymond around?” I asked.

“So you been here before, huh?”

“I sure have. I’ve come up here a few times through the years. Always thankful for y’all’s service. Without it, I’d have spent many a cold night camping out by that beautiful lake.”

“That’s my grandpa. Raymond is. I’ll tell him you was askin’ about him.”

“Please do.”

“Well, y’un’s take all that wood you need, y’hear? Just pay when yer finished in that box yonder,” she said as she turned to go back inside.

Alli remained silent as I loaded what would be four cubbies into the back of my SUV.

“Ready to go, honey?”

“Yeah.”

“You wanna pay for us?”

“Sure. How much do we owe?”

“Twenty dollars,” I said, as I handed her just that.

She folded the money and put it into the box and started for the car before she saw my outstretched hand.

“What’s that?” she said.

“A few more dollars.”

“But I thought it only costs 20.”

“It does. But don’t you think it’d be nice to leave a few more?”

Alli smiled at the notion. “I do,” she said, folding the extra ones and carefully sticking them inside the box with the rest.

The 15-minute ride back to the campsite was filled with questions I knew to expect. The ones that tried to make sense of the plight of the less fortunate. Many of the questions centered on Farrah, and I soon realized that the little girl had put a face on poverty that my daughter could identify with.

It looked a lot more like hers than she ever would have imagined.

About this time every year, we revisit that beautiful holler in the Southern Appalachians where our friend, Farrah lives. Not literally, but in conversation. As it’s through Farrah’s example I remind Alli the importance of giving back to those less fortunate — a lesson that she’s mastered. I know because she’s often the one who brings it up.

Which kinda makes sense to me. Because when I was growing up, I learned stuff a whole lot better when I experienced it in real life.

Looks like Alli’s the same way.

How do you teach your kids to give back during the holiday season?

A big thanks to Citi for sponsoring this campaign. Click here to see more of the discussion.

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