Extra Pulp: Change of Heart

A chance encounter with a family in need prompts Laura Anders Lee to resolve to become mindful of the needs of the less fortunate throughout the year.

David Vallejo

I often find myself fretting over insignificant, non life-altering matters I call first-world problems. Most people in the world have it far worse than I do; yet here I am well-clothed, well-sheltered and well-fed, sweating the small stuff. Instead of looking in the mirror and seeing a healthy 30-something, I notice my gray hairs, crow’s feet and cellulite. When I have a so-called bad day, it’s because I spilled a $5 Starbucks on a new outfit, got cut off in the Whole Foods parking lot, shipped an Amazon.com package to the wrong address, forgot to charge my cell phone, or discovered my DVR did not record my favorite show.

Even my sons, Anders and William, have ridiculous first-world problems. These lucky Orlando kids actually once whined, “But we don’t want to go to the Magic Kingdom today! Why can’t we just stay home and watch Netflix?” When I take them out for ice cream, their two scoops are not enough, and they beg for the Reese’s Pieces toppings or a quarter for the gumball machine. When we get Chick-fil-A, they want McDonald’s nuggets, and when we get McDonald’s, they complain it’s not Chick-fil-A. Just two generations ago, my father got fried chicken only on Sundays and only after my grandmother chased one down in the yard.

I am guilty of living in a bubble and raising my children in one as well. Most of my friends went to college and graduate school. My children are enrolled in excellent schools. We only go to the best playgrounds in the best part of town. For the most part, my job as a writer keeps me focused on the travel industry—upscale restaurants and hotels—and the who’s who of the community. How easy it is to forget the rest of the general public who are actually living in the majority. I drive along in my affluent neighborhood in ignorant bliss, until all of a sudden, a stranger comes into my bubble, giving me a reality check.

One such day, the boys and I were on our way to Publix in our neighborhood of Celebration. At a four-way stop, a family with two small children approached our car asking for food. Embarrassed that I had neither food nor cash to give them, I promised we’d be right back. At the store, I pulled into a parking spot and turned to face my sons. I talked to Anders and William about how some families don’t have jobs, and therefore don’t have money, a nice place to live, or enough to eat—much less toys or electronics to play with. I could see the boys felt sad. They had assumed everyone was like us and our friends, and this family had touched their hearts. We decided not only to get them a Publix gift card, but to buy extra to keep in the car in case this happened again—my kindergartener Anders’ idea.

That moment was a wake-up call. I realized I shouldn’t wait until people in need come to me for help—I must make a conscious effort to enter their world and understand their struggles. That Christmas, I volunteered at the Community Hope Center in Kissimmee, which helps hundreds of families like the one I had seen. Through the Hope Center, I learned there is no homeless shelter in Osceola County; many people are forced to live in run-down motel rooms on Highway 192 and somehow provide their children with a well-balanced meal using a microwave and a mini-fridge. (The newly released independent film The Florida Project puts the spotlight on people in transition along the 192 corridor.) The stark contrast between these families and mine is heartbreaking.

During the holidays, a pervasive community spirit prevails. Our hearts and pocketbooks are open. (It doesn’t hurt that at every store, The Salvation Army bells constantly remind us of community need.) But my problem is that I fail to maintain that spirit throughout the year. January comes around and I’m once again in my comfortable bubble, consumed with my own selfish problems and oblivious to the pleas for help.

For my New Year’s resolution, I want to get out of my comfort zone and make a difference—all year and not just during the holidays. I want to keep families who are in need—like the one I encountered that day—firmly in my heart and constantly on my mind. If I’m less concerned with myself and more mindful of the needs of others, I can become a blessing—and a community angel.

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