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How to Help Your Kids Become Poverty Fighters

"Do you want to play with me?" "Yes!" 
Drawn in a Service Learning journal by a second grade HOPAC student. 

Just last week, my friend Trudie sat in my office at Haven of Peace Academy. Every year at Christmas, our elementary school kids participate in a gift collection for a local charity. Trudie coordinates our Service Learning program at HOPAC, and as she and I discussed the various options for this Christmas, I heard these words come out of my mouth:

I'd really like the students to be able to donate stuff, instead of just raising money. For young kids, donating stuff is so much more tangible than money.

I know what I've written before. Don't write me off as a hypocrite just yet.

But I'm telling you this story because I want you to know that I get it. I'm the mom of four kids. I'm the principal of 150 kids. Every single one of them falls into the category of "economically privileged." And just like you, I'm always looking for opportunities to teach them to be grateful, compassionate, and generous.

So I get it. I get why it's so cool to take your kids to Target, help them pick out gifts for an under-privileged kid a world away, write a note, pack the box together, and pray over it.

But this is the key question we must ask ourselves:

Are we only interested in teaching our kids generosity and compassion, or do we want to raise them to really, truly make a difference in fighting poverty?

Think about it. Filling a shoebox (or other charity gift programs) is sending the message to our kids is that donating "stuff" fixes poverty. That what poor people are lacking and what we need to give them is stuff.

But what if all that stuff we're donating in order to teach our kids compassion is actually making poverty worse by creating shame, helplessness, and dependency for the recipients? And what if there really were better, more helpful ways we could teach our children how to fight poverty?

I think there are. And I've learned them from Haven of Peace Academy.

We're a privileged school. We are an inexpensive school compared to other international schools in Tanzania, but we still are only accessible to the middle and upper classes. Yet on one side of our school is a hollowed-out rock quarry that is now a slum inhabited by some of the poorest people in our city. And right outside our gate sit people who are pounding rocks into gravel or selling bananas or sweeping the streets and living on a dollar a day.

For many years now, HOPAC has had the vision to teach our privileged students how to fight poverty. We know that one day, our students are going to be government officials and business owners and educational leaders in their countries, and we want them to have the tools to be world-changers.

So what I'm sharing today are the parts of our Service Learning program that can be implemented by any parent anywhere.

#1 Kids need to be educated about poverty alleviation, just like any other school subject. And they can learn it a lot younger than we might think. For example, last year in sixth grade at HOPAC, Grace learned (and even memorized!) the Sustainable Development Goals put out by the United Nations. And all ninth grade students spend a good portion of the year going through When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. (They also watch a video series based on the book.) For the past ten years, I've recommended When Helping Hurts over and over and over again. Every American Christian needs to read it. And HOPAC has shown me that kids as young as fourteen (with adult help) can digest it as well. Why not? 

If your kids are too young to be reading books on poverty, then you read it and bring it down to their level. There's still lots they can learn.

#2 Kids learn best from local, relationship-based service projects. HOPAC students have these kind of service projects built into their curriculum--but they could easily be built into family life as well.
  • Local: The occasional overseas missions trip can be great, of course. But kids need to learn that poverty is not just "out there," across an ocean, far away. Every single community includes under-privileged people, and the best people to help them are in their own community
  • Relationship-based: This is different from anonymous gift-giving or even volunteering occasionally at a homeless shelter. Kids learn best from an on-going project or activity where they are given the opportunity to build relationships with those who are under-privileged, preferably with other kids.
And if that sounds scary or impossible or too time-consuming, let me reassure you: This could be as simple as regularly visiting a park in an under-privileged neighborhood in your city. Seriously. That simple.

Let me also emphasize the importance of doing both of these things together. Simply jumping into #2 without doing #1 is not going to work. Learning how to help people in poverty requires an entire shift in worldview, and that requires education, not just a heart of service.

However, starting with #1 is an excellent place to start, even if you never get to #2. In fact, if you're a family of readers, let me suggest you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers before getting into When Helping Hurts. I have never read a better book that presents the harsh reality and incredible complexity of poverty in an engaging (albeit disturbing) way. This is not a fun bedtime read, but most kids as young as twelve are ready to start thinking deeply about our fallen world.

I get that reading books and playing at a run-down park isn't actually doing much to fight poverty. But that's okay. Growing up is a season of learning, right? And I guarantee that if you work hard at exposing your kids to the reality of poverty in your community, as well educating them on how to best meet those needs, that your family will organically come up with some pretty great, tangible ideas on how to help...without hurting.

Which brings me back to my conversation in my office with Trudie. Yes, I'm not always a fan of donating stuff. But I understand the value of kids learning generosity through it. So why do I feel confident in this particular charity drive? Because in my years of learning about poverty, and Trudie's wisdom as our Service Learning coordinator, I've found that there are good places and times to donate stuff.

So this Christmas, we decided that HOPAC's elementary school kids will be asked to donate school supplies to a nearby school which is serving the poorest disabled kids in their community. This school, which is run by passionate Christians, is running on bare bones and has very few resources. I feel confident donating stuff to them because they are local, we will be buying local products, and we have a relationship with the school, so they can tell us exactly what they need. Plus, it's only one part of the bigger picture of how we are educating our students about poverty and giving them opportunities to be involved in local, relationship-based ministries.

Thanks for caring, friends! And if you have other ideas, I would be happy to hear them.  

HOPAC kids (green shirts) teaching under-privileged kids about caring for the environment.

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