Donating a coat enabled a child’s own act of love

Every year I buy each of my children a new coat to wear. They also have last year’s model that they can (just barely) fit into, plus a hand-me-down from cousins, floating around the closet.

That many coats seems a bit excessive. But when I look at the Lost and Found pile at my son’s school, I know that I’m not the only mom who’s neurotic about her children staying warm.

Each time I look at that stockpile of jackets, I think about my first year of teaching in California. I was a brand new teacher in East Palo Alto, a city known for drugs, gangs and murder. I saw poverty every day that still make me hurt almost 15 years later.

One of my third-graders was a little girl named Alejandra. Her dad was in jail and her mom was in Mexico. Alejandra and her younger sister were living with an aunt and uncle. The uncle drove a brand new Cadillac Escalade, but that didn’t mean he provided Alejandra with any coat at all.

When it’s 45 degrees and you see a little girl shivering at recess, you want to do something. But I was a first-year teacher and didn’t have any money. When I did have something extra to spend, I usually bought paper and pencils for my classroom.

So I went to my mentor teacher and asked her for help. She had connections at a place like Lynnwood’s Clothes for Kids, and brought a warm coat for Alejandra the very next day. It was purple, reversible and vintage 1980s. Alejandra loved it!

I felt like a hero for about two days. Then I noticed that Alejandra wasn’t wearing her coat any more, even though the temperature was continuing to drop. I was pretty peeved. Here I had gone out of my way to help this child and she had lost her new coat in three days! I was an educator, not a social worker. But what else could I do?

I was stewing about all of this at morning recess duty. It was so cold that you could see your breath. I looked across the blacktop and saw Alejandra running around in a T-shirt. But then I saw her purple coat running around too. Alejandra had given it to her little sister, Vanessa.

I can still picture Vanessa wearing that coat. It was way too big for her, and you couldn’t see her hands because they were stuck up in the sleeves.

Every once in a while she would stop running long enough to hug Alejandra. They’d both jump up and down a few times, like they were trying to warm Alejandra up. Or maybe they were just happy to be together. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I learned an important lesson about feeling self-righteous. Luckily, my mentor teacher came through for me again. She brought Vanessa a new coat the very next day.

Now that I’m older, buying a warm coat to donate to a child in need is one of my favorite things to do every winter. But I could buy 100 coats, and I still wouldn’t be as generous as Alejandra.

Jennifer Bardsley is an Edmonds mom of two and blogs at http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com.

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