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Root Cellar Overnight

Dec 09 2017

I remember when I was a little boy, and my maternal grandmother lived with us.  One day she and I decided to make a scrap book about 'other lands'. Scrap booking wasn't the popular craft it is today; we simply cut pictures of people, animals, and locations out of magazines and glued them into a spiral bound notebook.  This became a multiday project, and while it was still a work in progress, my second grade teacher, Miss Murphy, announced the class would get to vote on a theme for show and tell.  Certainly, all my seven year old buddies would want 'people from other lands' as a theme, so my hand shot up to make my nomination.  Other ideas were offered, and then it came time to vote.  Clearly, my little pals would all see the fascination of my topic, I would get to bring in my scrapbook (which I remember as being on the caliber of a college sociology textbook) and everyone would be enthralled. In the end, Paula Chates theme of 'monkeys' won by a landslide, and my idea recieved all of one vote.

I say all that to say, I have always been fascinated with Social Studies.  I recieved the outstanding Social Studies student award my senior year of high school.  I've just always found people and culture fascinating.  So when the opportunity to lead an overnight trip to inner city Portland came my way, I was all over it.  You see, Portland, Maine has become a highly diverse city in the past two decades.  Over thirty languages are spoken in the Portland school systems.  And we had a project going that would allow us to interact with people from all over the world.

Five teachers from the school where I work were leading a group of 18 teens (including my daughter, Rose) on a work project at an inner city mission called the Root Cellar.  On day one, we set up their Christmas store. We actually created a department store on the Root Cellar's first floor. We stocked the shelves with brand new clothing and toys donated by local stores and decorated the whole place with trees, lights, and other ornaments.

We were finished with this work assignment just in time for their after school program to start.  We moved up to the second floor as neighborhood kids came in to play basketball, foosball, pool, and for the younger kids, Candyland, dolls,and more.  Our students were quick to engage with the Root Cellar kids, all of whom were children of African immigrants and refugees.  When the after school program ended, it was off to the mall for dinner and free time. Then back to the Root Cellar for devotions, prayer and sleeping on the floor.

The real fun began the next day. After a quick breakfast it was time to get ready to open the store we had created the day before.  Because the Root Cellar is located in Portlands poorest neighborhood, the items were sold at $5 per item of clothing and $2 per toy.  The leaders of the Root Cellar believe that it is important that their clientele pay at least something for these items.  Parents will be more likely to insist kids take good care of a $2 remote control car than they would one given as a hand out.  And because the staff knows their neighborhood so well, people who live in the shelter had a discreet sticker on their receipts to let the cashiers know their items were half price. 

While the teens were store clerks, restockers, and served the customers free coffee and donuts, I was one of three adult cashiers.  It was so much fun because I got to interact with virtually everyone who came through.  And, being the social studies nerd that I am, I loved talking with the immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Myanmar, and a handful of third or fourth generation Americans that included mostly elderly folks, the disabled and a couple of punk rockers.  What a great day!

The students were amazing!  They worked tirelessly, showed nothing but respect to the customers and represented Jesus well to all they interacted with.  It is experiences like this that both highlight the beauty of cultural diversity to our young people, and also show them that, in the end, there are things about people that are universal. They saw that most customers were appreciative, but a handful tried to steal. They saw adorable children and they saw kids running wild. Some saw a Middle Eastern woman in a hijab wish us a merry Christmas, and they saw a disabled woman in a wheelchair who wanted to be as independent as possible as she maneuvered through the store.  They saw loving dads and moms who wanted the best for their children.

In hindsight, monkeys were a cute show and tell theme in second grad, but give me 'people from other lands' any day.

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