It was an experiment. Friend to the homeless Judy Knott was asked to teach a troop of Girl Scout Brownies about homelessness.
Knotts has spent 15 years hanging out with homeless people. She writes about her experiences and the lessons her friends have taught her in her new book, "You Are My Brother" (New Tripoli Press, $14.95). It's a collection of the columns she's written as a regular contributor to the Statesman's Saturday faith column.
Knotts is also a retired Catholic school principal; she understands kids, too.
"They could have been turned off," Knotts says of her experience with the Brownies. Instead, they became people who knew things.
What was important about this experiment was that she talked to the girls beforehand. "I put it on their level," she says, "and they weren't intimidated."
She made sure that the activity was very controlled. She chose for them to go to Home Cooked Fridays, which is a collaboration between Micah 6 and the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development at All Saints Church. There the girls walked around and gave the guests bags of donated items. Each had a handwritten note inside.
"It worked fabulously well," Knotts said. "They were so grateful that children weren't afraid of them."
The girls ended up staying and helping serve the meal. They've asked to come back and are planning on doing it again for Valentine's Day.
During this holiday season, often a time when we as parents think we should do something, we should teach our children a lesson about gratitude for what they have and empathy for those who don't have what they have.
After all, without that, the holidays can quickly become about what gifts they are getting instead of the meaning behind the holiday.
Kids are curious, too. They might be asking you about that man or woman they see every time you drive along that spot of highway access road or sit at that intersection.
"It's all about the parents and how they prepare the kids," Knotts says.
Don't try to ignore it or turn away or let the kids turn away, Knotts says. Instead, ask questions, be curious and engage in conversation. Why do you think he is there? How can we help that person?
Explain it in ways that are relatable to their life: We might live in an apartment, but there are some people who don't. They live in a tent or on someone else's couch or in a place with other people who don't have homes.
Answer their questions. Why are they wearing so many clothes? Well, they don't have a closet or dresser so they wear or carry everything they have. Why are their clothes dirty? Well, they don't have a place to wash their clothes.
Kids, she says, are natural givers. They want to do something, and sometimes the things they want to do are very big, like designing a shower or building a house.
"We don't have to solve all the problems," she says. Instead, we do our little things and work on raising passionate, kind children, she says.
Knotts suggests starting slowly with something that is manageable and meaningful and that is kid-led. That could mean going to the store together and picking out socks and blankets. Socks are great because homeless people always need them and you can stuff them with other things they need. You can put in a bottle of water or a bus pass, tissues or lip balm, fresh fruit or even a bar of chocolate.
"It's all about the doing," Knotts says. "You can't just give a box of brownies ... bake the brownies."
Have kids think about what things the homeless people they see might need. Put it on their level and make it feel real to them. Why would they need socks or underwear? Imagine if you had to wear the same pair of socks or underwear every day. Would they get holes in them? Would they get dirty?
"Kids will lead you if they really get into it," she says.
If you can, Knotts says, include a personal note. Knotts has been handing out Valentine's Day cards every year, and sometimes her homeless friends will show her that they still have them years later. "That's how important it is," she says, and it's even more meaningful if it comes from a child.
"They read notes from children and they fall apart," she says. "They don't feel loved by anyone, their family, the guy that stole their backpack, the church that didn't take them in for the night."
When they see a child giving, "it transforms them, and it transforms the child," she says.
You are planting the seeds in your children, and you don't know where that lesson in empathy might show up later.
One of the best things you can teach your kids doesn't cost anything. Knotts says it is making eye contact and smiling. "Acknowledge that other person exists," she says. "It's the biggest gift they can give."