Ben was a quiet kid with a big smile and an open heart. He called me Mr. Doug and my wife, Ms. Mary. Ben was one of "my kids" that came to visit us each month from inner city Hartford.
Each month we drew from a group of over two hundred kids. Often the faces we saw each month were different. Ben was one kid that never seemed to miss a visit. He captured my attention the very first time we met. On his first trip to our home he asked my wife for a blanket, took it outside, wrapped himself in it and then lay down to fall asleep under one of our apple trees.
I asked my friend Rev. Brian Keith Sinclair months later why Ben (and many of the kids) would often take long naps each time they came to visit. He simply said; "Because they feel safe here". He went on to explain that the world the kids came from was a world where gun fire was part of daily living. The sad fact he said is that most believed they would not live to see their late 20's.
Our home had become a safe haven for the children. A place that allowed them to fully lower their defenses and re-charge.
I quickly learned that our home was a place that gave them an opportunity to simply be kids. A place to enjoy life , if only for a moment, far removed from their reality. Rev. would often tell me he could feel the kids physically and emotionally transition back into survival mode as the bus entered the Hartford city limits at the end of our long days together.
At one gathering we learned that Ben was about to turn 16 the next weekend. I asked him, "Ben what would you like for your birthday?" I was surprised when he said to me; "I would like to stay overnight at your house with you and your family Mr. Doug". I was surprised simply because I had no idea why any teenage boy in his right mind would want to spend a weekend with a married couple with two kids under 3 and another one on the way.
It was a bitterly cold weekend on Ben's birthday. I was perplexed why he showed up without a winter coat. Ben had to much pride to tell us that he didn’t own one but graciously accepted the one we purchased as a birthday gift. The candles we put on his cake were never intended for a birthday cake but it didnt seem to matter, as this was the first birthday cake that Ben had ever received. There was a part of me that was sad, a part of me that was glad that I would never know what he wished for on that day.
I drove Ben back to Hartford that Sunday morning after a fun filled weekend that celebrated his life. As we entered a rough section of Hartford, he simply said; "You can let me out here Mr. Doug". He didn’t notice that I sat in my car long enough to watch him crawl through a broken door in a boarded up building. Ben was homeless.
Ben was shot a few years ago and died. His name has been carefully added (along with the names of seventeen of my other kids that died before him) in a decorative calligraphy font to the forearm tattoo on another one of my kids (Brian). I often wish I had done more.
Today as I did a little early Thanksgiving food shopping I felt a sense of profound thankfulness. Thankful for having won the lottery of life. I was born into a life of love, opportunity and privilege. I also thought about Ben and my other kids. Despite the fact they were denied access to many things that I have taken for granted, they did their very best to navigate a world that put them at a distinct disadvantage from day one.
In that moment I renewed my pledge to give more, share more and love more with those that need it most. Please join me. We can make a difference together.