Dec 06, 2013 / by Alisa Hafen / No Comments

It is family day. The six of us pack up and head for the fairgrounds. The State Fair attracts folks from all around, including many local homeless – and those passing for homeless – looking for a handout.

They stake out strategic locations at the entrance and exit of the fairgrounds. From there, they catch the attention – and hopefully the sympathies – of the crowd with their cardboard signs.

Some are designed to tug at your heart:
“Homeless and pregnant, please help.”
“Veteran. Need medicine.”
“Anything is a Blessing.”

Some are clever and funny:
“Need cash for alcohol research.”
“I’ll bet you $1 you’ll read this sign.”

Each of them has some kind of container – usually a used plastic soda cup or a tin can – into which passersby can drop their contributions. Most are dressed shabbily. Some have shopping carts loaded with all their earthly possessions.

I think to myself “Why would anyone burden themselves by dragging around all their junk?” I do not realize, at the time, that I may well be doing the same thing.

A couple of them are playing instruments – one, a harmonica, another, a flute. As we enter the fair, we pass close by one of them. My family does, that is. I keep my distance. I push my wheelchair forward, studying the pavement carefully to avoid eye contact. “Come on,” I mumble, trying to keep my family moving and avoid interaction with these people. I move ahead.

The leader in these situations must move forward, thereby inspiring his team to pick up the pace, right? My son, picks up his pace, too, but apparently, he didn’t get the memo. He catches up to me and asks, “Dad, can I have five dollars?” I push my chair faster, ignoring my son’s request. He repeats, “Dad, can I have five dollars?” Again, my response is to not respond.

Once we get past these homeless folk, I stop to talk with him. Using my senior executive wisdom, I will help him understand a bit more about life. “Son, these people just sit around all day asking people for money. That’s what they do for a living.”

He retorts, “Dad, don’t you just sit in your chair all day long and make a living? Dad, you owe me five bucks, remember, for good grades. Can I please have my five dollars now?” I give in. This boy is going to head up my marketing team in a few years. I am sure of it. “Okay, here’s your five bucks.”

I count out five ones, because I know he wants to give a dollar to the man we passed.
He runs back and puts it in the man’s tin cup. Not just a dollar – the entire five bucks!
Before I can impart more wisdom to him, his brother politely says, “Dad, you owe me five bucks, too. May I please have it?”

My protest is slight and my somewhat shorter lecture is listened to, and equally ignored. Shondell is not saying a word. Reluctantly, I give him the five dollars I owe him – five one-dollar bills so he can give one or two to the homeless fellow. Surely, he won’t give all his worldly wealth to the poor. I am forgetting that his name is actually “Christian.”

Christian follows his brother’s example. He walks over and gives the homeless fellow all five bills. The man, grateful for his good fortune, stops playing his harmonica long enough to voice a humble, “Thank you.”

My sweet little Gracee, seeing what her big brothers are doing, tugs on my sleeve, “Dad, my room is clean. Can I have five dollars, too?” I am a beaten man. Still no help from Shondell and there is nothing left of me. No pride at all, just a quickly deflating wallet.

Without a word, I take out another five-dollar bill and put it into my daughter’s hand. Short-lived in her tiny grasp, it goes right into the man’s cup. In less than fifteen minutes, this man has acquired fifteen bucks from our little company. He is now a professional musician in a whole other tax bracket, thanks to the generosity and kindness of my children – and their willingness to muscle past my prejudice.

It is a wonderful family day. We wander freely about the fairgrounds. We follow the crowds through the farm exhibits, check out the blue ribbon lambs and pigs, and pet the sheep and baby goats.

We play the games, winning nothing but a good time. We ride the rides, consume hot dogs and fizzy soda and get pink cotton candy sticky-ness all over everything.

It is a great time, but my mind keeps wandering back to the harmonica man and his apparently destitute comrades, each holding down their own little corner at the gates to the fair like the beggar, Lazarus, at the rich man’s gates.

As slowly as the illumination of the rising sun lights the world before the dawn, I get it. It dawns on me that the things that I am teaching and preaching to others are now being taught to me by my executive team. Some of these folks may be conning us, but who are we to judge?

What about the man who seems down on his luck and is playing a harmonica or flute to entertain the crowds in hopes of gaining financial support? He is doing something. He is entertaining us. Who am I to judge him?

I am fairly certain that some people judge me. How many, do you suppose, glance sideways at my emaciated body slumped in a wheelchair and assume I am a drain on society? Perhaps they look on me with pity. Maybe they feel that the world would be better off without people like me.

It is a sobering thought.

As we leave the fair that evening, we see the same gentleman, sitting in the same spot, playing the same tune on his harmonica. It has been a long day. He is still at work getting the job done. My executive team looks at me. I am way ahead of them. Even a CEO can learn!

I say, “Why don’t we get him something to eat before we leave?” There’s a Burger King across the way. I pull out a twenty dollar bill and tell the boys to go get him a hamburger and shake and bring back my change. Of course, there is no change. They spend it all. They bring back enough food to last the man a week.

We drive home in silence. The kids are asleep in the back of the van. Shondell sits quietly beside me with a funny little smile on her face. I am not saying anything, either. What a difference a day makes – especially when you have an executive team like mine.

By the way, I misspoke. I said there was no change. In fact, there was change – in me. Doing things differently starts with seeing things differently – challenging our perceptions and re-examining our assumptions. My team helps me do that every day – especially my kids. My team ROCKS!

In the spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas right around the corner, maybe we could all judge a little less and give a little more. If you give up your spare change, perhaps you may see a change as well. Think of all those spending Thanksgiving at the shelter, on the streets, or simply alone. You have so much to be thankful for!