The sunshine was just right. Enough to warm but not scorch.
Our family was enjoying one of our happy rituals of spending a day at the beach. People give us quizzical looks when we bust out the huge shovels made for digging ditches, instead of sand castles. But before long, they see the “pool” take shape-the huge mound of sand piled high as a barrier between the ocean and the kids as they leap from the top into the 4 foot deep pit below.
Nearby kids can’t resist it either, and before long, we usually have a few stragglers joining in the fun. But this time, our day would not turn out so happily.
I didn’t think much of it when a boy and a girl spent a good hour and a half with my boys playing in the sand. I kept looking around for their parents. Most of the time, moms or dads head over to chat and introduce themselves, settle squabbles, and offer a helping hand.
At the very least, they wave and nod from their towels.
But I couldn’t figure out where the parents were of these two. So I asked them. They waved nonchalantly down the beach and ran into the water.
They kept getting pretty far out in the ocean-too far out for my comfort. I called them back towards the shore, looking around for their mom and dad. The boy, Paul, was 6- the girl, Lacey, just 8. Why were they swimming without someone paying attention to them? I had witnessed grown men drown in this spot over the years, much less a child.
I was getting worried.
Lacey and Paul came back over to our “pool” and where I was handing out junky treat snacks down to my boys. They asked for some food or a candy. Being cautious, I asked them if their mom would be okay with that. I was hesitant to offer them food unsure of what was allowed. They didn’t ask again.
Until they got thirsty.
By this time, a few hours had gone by and we began to walk up the beach to look around for someone who might look like they belonged to the kids. No dice. Lacey and Paul got wise, and ran off down the beach. We saw them in the distance, sitting on the sand and then walking up towards the parking lot. We assumed that they had found their mother, but we were scratching our heads.
An hour went by when suddenly, there they were again, back jumping in the pool with my kids. I asked them, yet again, where their mom was. I wasn’t going to let them dismiss me this time. They timidly admitted that they couldn’t find her, but they weren’t one bit upset about it. They just ran back out to play in the water.
That was when I knew.
My boys would be frantic if I had disappeared for four or five hours. So I walked to a life guard station a ways down the beach to talk to the life guard. He was as concerned as I was. The sun would be setting soon. He asked me to keep an eye on them while he called the police.
I made my way back without giving the kids a head’s up and quickly offered towels, food, and water. They ate like they had never seen food before. My heart sank.
Eventually, life guard trucks would come, the police would show up, questioning the kids and us. They put on a search for the mother. The children knew her phone number and the police officer was able to reach her. A little while later and accompanied by some police officers, she came lumbering down the beach with a menacing look on her face.
She dared to scold her kids. They cowered and then ran off to the water. There was no warm embrace of affection in the exchange-but plenty of fear.
I was stunned. How does a mother leave her children unattended on a public beach, in a dangerous ocean, and then return to scold them?
A series of questions between the mother and the authorities ensued while the mother dodged them. My mom, my husband, and I sat dumbfounded. And then I began to cry. The lifeguard and the police officer tried to console me. They felt the same way they said. They explained that they would have to let her take the kids for now, but that they would be looking into it further.
“We know this is hard. I have seen a lot of bad stuff as an officer, but I can’t believe this mother," the policeman said. “But you gave these kids some care and provision today, and you can be proud of that. You obviously care for your own kids and that’s how you make a difference."
All I felt was grief. We gave the kids our towels since they didn’t have any, despite the great protest from their mother.
And then they walked away up the beach. We stayed for another hour packing up our belongings and watching the sun dip behind the mountains. What had started out as a fun day, turned into a heavy one.
When we got to the top of the parking lot, there were Paul and Lacey playing in the sand while their mother sat with a man at the beachside café.
She approached us to shake our hands and “thank” us for keeping an eye out for the kids. She wanted to know where we lived, but I wasn’t about to tell her. “You can give them more food if you want to, just sayin!” she said as she sashayed back to her seat. I looked at the kids while I held my own in my arms and I feared the repercussions they would be facing that night. I kept wiping away tears as we packed up our car, praying that God would shield them.
It was then that I noticed the life guard trucks parked near our car. And that when I walked off down to the restroom, that one of them drove over and followed me there and back to my car. It was unsettling.
I wished I could give Paul and Lacey's mom the benefit of the doubt. But I knew that these kids were being neglected. I knew they were not eating well. I knew they lived a life of “lay low and stay out of harms way” when it came to their mom. We wondered if we had done more harm than good.
The phone call from social services a few days later confirmed it. They were homeless, and had been reported many times before. There was a history of abuse and neglect. Although the kids were in school, they were in a very bad place. The new social worker was determined to get to the bottom of how these kids kept falling through the cracks.
Even though I felt like putting Lacey and Paul in my car and taking them home with me, I knew that the system was not going to let me do that. I felt truly helpless. Discouraged.
I lay awake at night wondering how many thousands of kids in my city are enduring that kind of neglect. How many young moms who grow up without many options don’t even know any better? What horrors had this mother been facing herself? Eventually, my anger turned to pity.
The social worker tried to comfort me when I expressed my deep frustration at the situation, and she said that at least this time, a judge would find a better solution for the children.
It may not seem like much to me to offer a towel, some food and water, a watchful eye-knowing that they were going right back into the fire. I find comfort in knowing that prayer is powerful. God has His eye on Lacey and Paul and I’m praying for them on a continual basis.
We can become defeated by the enormity of broken and abusive families in the world today, overwhelmed by the poverty around us, and broken by the evil we see played out on the news.
Or we can do for one what we wish we could do for many.
One at a time, you and me-one prayer, one extended hand with a meal, a comforting word, a kind gesture, can impact our world as a force for good wherever we go.
That’s what Jesus did, traveling from place to place and providing needs one person at a time. He didn’t say the word and heal the world in one fell swoop even though He could. He’s a personal God, reaching out to touch one person at a time.
He uses us to bless others, to show them that maybe there is a different path to take, someone who sees them, someone who thinks they matter.
Yes, do for one what you wish you could do for many instead of being immobilized by the vast amount of problems in our world. I know that Lacey and Paul would say it matters.
We may not change the world. But we can change one person’s world, and that will always be worth it.
Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 1 Timothy 6:18
YOUR TURN! Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the problems in the world?
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