Most organizations think of volunteering with a 5-year-old as a sort of un-volunteering. Gently citing concerns about things like safety, public health, and the well-being of those they serve, they would rather you leave your young children at home, where they can't sink grubby hands into shared food bins, pull rescued animals' tails, or ask other volunteers questions like "What's wrong with your teeth?"
I can't say I blame these organizations. But I am grateful whenever I find an opportunity to volunteer with my kids, and Sacred Heart Community Service has afforded several of them. Last summer, Leah and I joined an assembly line filling backpacks with school supplies for needy families. And two weeks ago, we joined forces with La Mesa Verde, a program that provides low-income residents of San Jose with the training and supplies to grow organic vegetables in their backyards.
We arrived at 8 in the morning for a 10-minute training led by wonderful Master Gardeners from Santa Clara County. (Did you know you're supposed to plant tomatoes with just the growing tip above the ground? I didn't. We replanted all of ours when we got home.) After the training, and following an opening ceremony, we were instructed to stand under a number along the wall that matched the one on our packets. The family we'd be helping would meet us under the number, and we'd go together to collect the flats of seedlings and travel to their home - where Sacred Heart had already built and prepared raised beds for the vegetables.
We met Jorge and Sofia* under our number and introduced ourselves. They were participating in the program for the first time too. We all headed over to pick up our plants, making small talk about the heat. Jorge and Sofia each grabbed a flat and turned to leave. "Nice to meet you," Jorge said, walking toward their car.
Ted and I looked at each other. "Uh, we're coming with you!" I said brightly. "We're going to help you plant."
Now it was their turn to look at each other. They had a brief exchange in Spanish, then nodded. "OK. We'll see you there." And off we went to our own car, digesting the awkward realization that they hadn't been expecting us at all.
We arrived at their home in south San Jose about 10 minutes later. We all got out of the car and walked into their yard, where they were waiting with Sofia's mother.
Rebecca took a slow look around, then turned to me. "I don't think they need our help," she said loudly.
I elbowed her, but she was right. The front yard was bordered with every manner of growing thing: rose bushes, fruit trees, vines, herbs, even a hanging upside-down tomato planter. "It's all my husband," Sofia said, giving us the tour. When they had moved to the house 25 years earlier, there was nothing but a barren lot; Jorge had nurtured all of the horticultural splendor around us. There were five or six fruit trees: peach, avocado, sapote. Along the house leading to the backyard were tiered shelves overflowing with hanging plants. And there was more behind the house.
The family graciously welcomed our "help", even though we were pretty clearly just taking up space in their yard. Leah and Rebecca soaked the plants in a bucket, while Jorge sprayed the beds and made rows of holes. Sofia and Jorge's daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter soon joined - and we all worked on setting up the irrigation and getting the plants into the soil. I spent most of my time picking up empty containers and talking with Sofia and her daughter - about swim lessons, being pregnant in the summer, working at Stanford, cooking with tomatillos... the usual.
An hour later, the plants were all tucked into their beds, Leah took her last run down their slide, and we started to gather our things. We left with a peach seedling, a sapote seedling, and a fistful of green onions from Jorge to plant when we got home. I couldn't get over our good fortune at having been paired with this warm and generous family. They invited us to come visit whenever we were in their neck of the woods. It felt as if we'd made new friends.
Volunteering is a funny thing. In theory, you're there to help. But sometimes you get more than you give. Through La Mesa Verde, the kids got to spend a morning with four generations of a family whose life was little more than a stereotype to them before then - "the working poor." Their life is nothing like ours. Their life is everything like ours.
Without La Mesa Verde, we probably never would have crossed paths. I am so grateful to Sacred Heart for organizing this day and connecting us with a family who volunteered to welcome us into their yard - and, for a day, their life. Our community is a better place for these connections.
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.