How Picking Up Pennies in the Projects Became Meaningful

20090328_pennies_0010fb1(All children’s names in this post have been changed.)

It was a simple farewell gift, but I held it close to my heart after opening it — literally.  A penny in a frame.  Just one penny in a teeny, tiny frame.  All meaningful gifts have stories behind them.  And so, of course, this one had a story, too.

Years ago I was a director for a drug and crime prevention program.  While our agency also worked with school-aged children, my program was similar to Head Start, targeting three to five year-olds.  On paper we were a “Kindergarten Readiness Program” for at-risk children living in government-housing.  But in real life, well, we did all sorts of things.

Yes, we tried hard to uncover their pre-reading skills and their God-given ability to learn.  We welcomed their curiosity and praised every single effort.  We sang songs and showed them how to hold crayons for the first time.  We taught them how to function in a classroom environment.

But we taught them life skills, too.  We wooed good manners out of them and explained the importance of using them well into adulthood.  We gave them a safe place to make mistakes.  We extended natural consequences followed by unconditional love and acceptance.  We modeled how to love others.  And we taught them how to receive love.  (That’s the one that often broke my heart.)

I had ringworm for nearly two years straight.  It’s a skin fungus that’s highly contagious but really harmless.  Our kids often had it growing on their scalps, and it always surfaced on the front of my neck, my collarbone, my chest.  My boss finally had me fill out workman’s comp papers to fund my medicated cream.  I loved holding these forgotten kids, and their heads would rest upon my neck as we snuggled together.  I’m sure I was breaking the law by embracing kids who weren’t my own in an educational setting.

I loved them.

I remember walking Crystal home and hearing her mom moaning in the back room because she was high.

I remember hearing Jasmine’s sexual abuse story for the first time.  Her intense shyness made perfect sense after that.

I remember having conversations about Johnny with my brand new husband.  Could we adopt a boy our first year of marriage if abuse finally ripped him away from his mom?

On Mother’s Day I gave cards to my female employees — all college girls with no children of their own.  They played the role of mom at our Center way more than the role of teacher.  They had ringworm, too.

After two years, I was forever changed at the young age of twenty-five.  Walking into this small, unknown housing community made my world bigger.  It made my heart bigger, too.  But God provided a new job for my husband two states away, and so we packed what little we owned and hugged our friends good-bye.

Leaving the kids, as you can imagine, was incredibly hard.  I had to trust my co-workers would take care of them.  On my last day at the Center, one of my employees held out a tiny gift.  It was a framed penny.

You see, we walked our kids to their apartments each day after our program.  Bits of random trash and discarded coins were always under our feet along with the potholes and weeds.  I could never walk by pennies without picking them up… it just felt weird to ignore them.  From the asphalt into my pocket would go these beat-up, dirty pennies.  My co-workers laughed at me.

Heather first planned to frame a new, perfect penny.  You see, her gift was merely going to be a reminder of the hours we’d spent together.  But it didn’t look right to her resting there in all its shine.  Her heart was too deep.

So she removed beauty and inserted a penny from the neighborhood instead.  It was filthy, discolored, scratched.  It was so bad you’d be embarrassed to buy something with it.

“It’s our kids,” she said.  “They’re neglected and thrown away and forgotten.  But their Maker sees them and picks them up… just like you could never pass up a coin on the ground.  This is to help you not forget.”

Fifteen years later, I have compassion on their moms now, too.  They were probably thrown-away children before they had their own babies.  I wish I would have shared coffee with them each morning before I started loving on their kids.  I’m sure I could have learned a lot from them.

And, well, I finally see how desperately I’m the one who really needs the Great Rescue.  I’m the one who needs to be pulled out of life’s forgotten neighborhood, out of the struggle, out of eternal hopelessness.

Time sort of has a way of revealing your need for grace.  Falling short in relationships.  Losing sight of our purpose.  Living consumed by smaller chapters and forgetting God’s Great Love Story.

He pulls us out of it all.  Out of the filth.  Out of the brokenness.  And He gives us value, transforming us by His own beat-up and wounded Son.


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