They could have been anywhere else on this unusually mild November day.
But there they were Saturday--about 150 mothers, fathers, children and other volunteers--gathered in a circle in front of Francis Scott Key Elementary School, in Suitland, holding hands and praying for the short journey they were about to take.
By 5 p.m., they would pile into 25 cars and vans packed with foil-covered pans of chicken, dressing, potato salad, green beans, baked beans, sweet potatoes, cakes and pies. They would form a caravan up Pennsylvania Avenue, across the District line to the Randall Shelter for Men in Southwest Washington. There, dozens of homeless men were waiting for an early Thanksgiving feast.
For weeks, the students, all participants in a community-based tutoring academy called the S.B. Step Ahead Program, had spent hours in classrooms with volunteer tutors, working on math, science, reading and writing. But now they were about to learn a different kind of lesson.
"Children, we brought you here so you can see what the real struggle is," said Standley Brady, founder and namesake of the tutoring program. "It's a struggle to survive. . . . You're here to serve the brothers and their family members. Children, you've got to go back home and appreciate what you have."
In a world rocked daily by all kinds of tragedy and personal turmoil, it is easy to forget such simple truths--that there are always reasons to be grateful, that it is always a blessing to give.
It is easier still to forget that our children are ever watching, ever absorbing the silent lessons we teach. Lessons like going about our busy lives without pausing to reach out to those who are less fortunate. Lessons like forgetting to show our gratitude to God, our families and others we love for the many blessings in our own lives.
If you think for a moment the children aren't watching, listening and learning, think again. Pay attention for a moment to what these young visitors to the homeless shelter on Saturday had to say.
"My dad is over there talking to some homeless man," said fourth-grader Robert Oneal, 9, watching his father from across the room.
There is pride on the boy's face.
"My dad is doing something good," Robert continued. "He's probably telling him how it is out there in the real world, how to get a job and raise a family."
Deonte Boardley, 10, also a fourth-grader at Francis Scott Key, leaned on Robert's shoulder and without prompting pointed out his dad, who was talking to a group of children a few feet away.
"My dad always says we should be thankful for everything we have," Deonte said. "We should be thankful that we're living in a house. My dad works hard so he can keep food on our table."
Marcus Houston, 8, a third-grader at Doswell E. Brooks Elementary in Capitol Heights, tried to explain why the visit to the shelter is important.
"We're doing something for our community," he said.
But sixth-grader Ebony Johnson, 10, added: "I think the homeless people should get themselves together, get off drugs, have a nice house to sleep in, a nice bed and nice, clean socks. They must not have been doing right in school. They were not living right. They were doing drugs."
At times, the evening felt like a revival. Before dinner, the adult volunteers and children once again held hands, formed a circle around the shelter residents and prayed.
With gospel music blaring from a stereo, the children helped to serve, and the men from the shelter moved through the line to get their dinner. Brady bounced about, giving directions, chatting, joking with the children.
He is the dynamo behind the mentoring program and trip to the shelter. Brady, a lawyer and a church deacon who has taken missionary treks to South Africa, began volunteering nearly 13 years ago as a mentor at Hillcrest Heights Elementary, in Temple Hills.
A single man with no children, Brady he said he feels a spiritual and moral obligation to help. He has recruited several other volunteers and expanded the Step Ahead Program to include students from 10 other schools.
"We're here trying to make a difference," Brady said. "There are so many problems in our school system. But while everyone else is trying to figure out where the problem lies, we're a program that is trying to be there in the meantime."
The students and mentors meet at school on Saturday mornings, then take an afternoon trip to a museum, restaurant, mall or cultural event. More than 100 students participate each week--about 60 of them from Francis Scott Key Elementary alone.
"We live in an area that is full of wealth, but for so many of our families for whatever reasons, they don't take advantage of it," Principal Wanda Grant said. "Through the program, the students get to participate in activities they would not otherwise be exposed to."
By the standards of wealth in some pockets of Prince George's, many of the children in the Step Ahead Program might be considered needy. But on Saturday, they were perhaps the most fortunate children in the county.
They were so because an unselfish group of men and women paused to teach them some of the most important lessons in life.
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