When my daughter Rosa was in third grade, she had a Trucker Buddy.
Her wonderful third grade teacher introduced the program with great fanfare. The classroom was going to have a year-long pen pal relationship with a professional truck driver. Each month, the students would write letters to their Trucker Buddy and he would write them back, sharing news about his travels, his pets, and other things that might interest the kids. According to the Trucker Buddy website, the goal of the program is designed to enhance "skills in reading, writing, geography, mathematics, social studies, and history". But that list doesn't really describe what the program did for Rosa--or for us.
Rosa absolutely loved the program. She committed to memory information about her Trucker Buddy including the names of his many dogs. She would frequently repeat the phrase he used at the end of each letter, "Always be safe on the road." When she wrote her Trucker Buddy that she had been given cowboy boots for Christmas that year, he replied that he also had a pair of cowboy boots. She was thrilled with the connection between her life and his.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that the rest of our family found the whole Trucker Buddy idea pretty funny. We made cracks about how Rosa's class was going to do a unit on the use and misuse of amphetamines. We joked about a class field trip to a truck stop. We wondered what the next "buddy" program would be. "Mortician Buddy"? "IRS Agent Buddy"? "Crime Scene Investigator Buddy"? It just seemed so random. Why should a group of third graders spend a bunch of time getting to know a professional truck driver?
But after that year, none of us thought of truck drivers in the same way. When we saw the big rigs lined up at a rest area on the interstate, we always wondered if Rosa's Trucker Buddy was one of them. Truckers weren't anonymous to us anymore. They had a name and a story. They had dogs and cowboy boots. Building empathy for truckers is not one of the stated goals of the program, but it is certainly the best thing that happens when people start to find connection between their life and the life of someone who is strange to them.
I was raised in a political family, one that believed in the importance of protests and rallies, pickets and petitions, letters to the editor and letters to your congressman. I still value all of these actions. But I've come to believe that all change begins with relationship. People think and act and vote differently when they build a personal connection with someone who needs a change to take place.
Older people tell me often that when they were growing up, when they were young adults, they did not know ANY homosexuals. When I was growing up, I knew a handful, including our church organist and, eventually, a high school friend. My children know more gay people than they could count--family members, family friends, mentors. I've read all sorts of analysis for why attitudes are changing around equal rights for gay and lesbian people. Some people have argued that trend reflects the decline of the church, the decline of the traditional, two parent family, etc. But I'm pretty sure that the real reason why things are changing is that more people in this country know someone who is gay.
So, I was delighted to read the story in yesterday's Washington Post about how the sixth grade students at Alice Deal Middle School in the District are getting to know homeless people, face-to-face. The students of this Chevy Chase school "live in relative ease and privilege" so it isn't hard to collect donations of hats and scarves and socks. Usually, that's where school-based community service begins and ends. But this school got a group of kids to go into the city and actually hand the clothing out to people they met on the street. And recently, two people who have experienced homelessness came to speak to the students through a program of the national Coalition of the Homeless. The goal of the teachers organizing the project is "to make personal connections and to find common humanity."
And, of course, to change the world.
Right now, the same thing is happening in Howard County, not through the elementary schools but through the churches. From mid-November to mid-March, the churches of Howard County (and this year, for the first time, a synagogue as well) host the Cold Weather Shelter. We become home for a week or two to a couple dozen men, women and children. We eat dinner and breakfast with our guests, pack them lunches, do their laundry, give them rides in our cars and play with their kids. It's a big project, especially for a small church, and so a large percentage of the church's membership has to be involved in some way. Everyone learns the name of a guest or two. Everyone exchanges a greeting or a smile or a bit of their story.
It can be disheartening to put all that work into hosting the Cold Weather Shelter for a week only to realize that everyone is still homeless at the end. The Cold Weather Shelter is not a solution to homelessness--except for this one, most essential thing. It builds relationships. And relationships are how anything--everything--changes.