One Spoonful, One Single Act of Kindness

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It was 1977. I was scared, but I knew I was in a good place. Surrounded by 10 other girls my age, I was just dropped off at summer camp for the first time. I was a shy, but athletic kid. I could overcome my social awkwardness by kicking one of those slightly squishy oversized red balls over the heads of the most hopeful of outfielders. Always, I was the first picked for any teams, and the fastest runner. Yet, none of my strength or speed helped that late morning, when I first stood at the foot of my bed, watching many of the other girls, laughing and reuniting from last summer.

It was a moment of relief, when one of my counselors walked over to me, sensing how I was feeling. “I’m Gina,” she said, pointing to her name tag. I smiled, shyly. “Come on, let’s go meet the other girls.” I let her lead me over to the group, still feeling awkward, but joining in a game of jacks. By the end of the morning, I was already feeling better, thanks to Gina. At that moment, I could not know that 10 days later, Gina would reach out to me again, in the moment I would need it most.

As a former recruiter, I know you can only find so much about a person before you hire them. You ask questions, scan resumes, but in the end you must make assumptions that you hope are right. Most of the time, you get it right – but not always. Some people look good on paper or over the phone, but do not end up being the best fit for a job. Others – you don’t realize just how good they are. That summer at camp, I had both. An incredible counselor, Gina, and a less than optimal one, Nancy.

It was about 10 days into camp (so 10 months), and we were all sitting around our dining table. Servers, who were also bunkmates, were moving back and forth, bringing bug juice, cups, plates, and whatever dinner was prepared that evening. I was a picky eater. No worries. There was always peanut butter and jelly on the table – my favorite.

Dinner that night was some sort of meat. I think it was pot roast -not my favorite. I went to reach for the peanut butter and jelly, the loaf of soft white bread, glistening against the wooden table. Nancy stopped me in my tracks, “No!” She uttered, grabbing my hand. Nancy liked to exert control over us, because she could. Her moods affected her action more than common sense. More often than not, she made up her own rules. We did not know when and where she was going to strike, but when she did, we listened. I took my hand back like I had been burned, and held it in my lap.

Tears sprung to my eyes at the thought of going hungry, or worse having to eat the pot roast. But it was more than that. I was tasting the feeling of fear upon my tongue. I knew that feeling well, as it was a familiar feeling at home, one akin to walking on eggshells. Sometimes the mood was better, and you felt free to be yourself, but then the rules could change in a heartbeat, and you got burned.

But this was camp, my safe place. Yet, there I sat, helpless, my plate empty, waiting for Nancy’s emotions to calm, and her need for control to pass. There I sat, helpless, trying to make myself invisible in a room full of screaming campers, feeling scared and alone as I did that first day. 

Problem was, dinner was ending, and having run around all day, I was really hungry, and afraid to speak up. It was then, I felt it. A tap on my knee. I looked beneath the table, and there was a hand. It was Gina’s. Her fingers held on to a spoon, filled with peanut butter. I realized in that moment, I was not the only one afraid of Nancy. We are never alone – we just think we are.

I looked up at Gina, as if that spoon was a scalpel and we were about to do surgery. She nodded at me. Take it. her eyes pleaded. I nodded back, and took the spoon, got up from the table, away from Nancy’s disapproving eyes. I hid in the corner, eating that spoonful of peanut butter, feeling both shame and relief. Feelings that would fight for bragging rights over the course of most of my life, until I would finally name them both.

As I reach into the my memory box, clearing away some of the cobwebs to come up with the details of this story, I admit to not even remembering if Nancy is her real name, while Gina’s name, I will never forget.

If Gina had not reached out to me, I could have gone a bit hungry that night, but probably not. Nobody went hungry at camp. We were likely getting canteen, candy in an hour or two, or making s’mores by the campfire. But she did, and it meant more to me than she will ever know. She reached out to me, not knowing the impact. 

There were many people in my life, that went on to hand me spoonfuls of peanut butter. My incredible life long friends, my dear husband, my former kind and patient boss, my children and my dogs – all scoops of peanut butter. Playing cards with my father when I was sick, sitting on the grass in the college quad with my wonderful poetry professor, laughing till our sides ache with my husband – all scoops of peanut butter. I have even learned how to scoop my own peanut butter with a nap on the beach, a walk through a wooded path, a funny movie and a warm fire on a icy winter morning.

Summer camp, as it turned out would become one big scoop of peanut butter after another, a place even my daughters would eventually call home, many years later.

I am sure Gina would not remember that night, or knew the impact of such a small act of compassion. Just as we do not know if our smile at a stranger or a quick text to a friend could brighten their day, or even prevent him from hurting himself. Kindness can have more of an impact than abuse, hatred and drama – especially when someone has been the recipient of both. One spoonful, one single act of kindness – so simple and yet so meaningful. We can all impact each other, choose how we connect. Why not choose kindness?

Today, I sometimes wonder where Gina is – if she has a family, what jobs she took on, if she travelled as a single warrior woman, or made a home, nestled in the security of suburbia. I would like to think she is still handing out spoonfuls of peanut butter wherever she goes.

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The Myth of Attention Deficit Disorder

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My seven-year-old son, Drew wandered into my room the other night.  I had been listening to a webcast of a spiritual teacher, Matt Kahn, who teaches about many things within the realm of life, love, and spirituality.   Matt has a certain transmission that after a few minutes you feel like you have just received a two-hour massage. You can literally feel the energy running through your body.  Sound strange?  Well, we all have energy within us.  Just close your eyes and sit for a few minutes.  With practice, you can feel your hands and feet begin to vibrate.

Without saying a word, Drew wedged himself between our dog, Bella and me. The three of us listened, our minds busy with our own interpretations, thoughts and dreams. Drew asked what some words meant, and then offered up the information that Matt felt calming to him.

While this all sounds fairly ordinary, there is something you should know about Drew.

Drew struggles at times. He is smart and sensitive. He is often behaves remarkably, one on one.  What we know is that is has actual physical sensitivities. He doesn’t like tags on his shirts, pants that don’t fit right, blankets that are not soft. And we know he is a very loving, sensitive child emotionally.  To help with these sensitivities, we have enlisted the support of an occupational therapist who has worked with him on gross motor, balance and a few other areas of developmental lagging.

Where he also struggles is in school, in large groups, anywhere where it is loud and chaotic. In kindergarten, he often got riled up, wound up. He was the class clown.  Yet, all those behavioral charts that came home last year, were fruitless.  What has always worked best at home when he is over stimulated is encouraging him to build a fort and spend some quiet time, alone.  Not usually possible in school, though.

Fast forward to one year later, one month into first grade, we began receiving the emails again from his teacher.

“Drew does not sit still during lesson lectures.”

“Drew has a hard time in recess keeping his hands to himself.”

“Drew always seems to be talking in class.”

It seemed that Drew’s inability to sit still and focus in school was destined to be labeled, ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.  Or was he?

That night, while Matt was speaking, and Drew was snuggling, and Bella was dreaming, and the teacher’s emails were spinning around in my head, it hit me.

Drew sits for hours playing Legos.  Drew feels better after jumping on the trampoline.  Drew likes to light candles, smell sage burning, and enjoys calming music.  Drew is smart, creative and loving.  Drew is affected by listening to Matt.  Drew is very sensitive, and this goes beyond the physical.

Drew is sensitive to others’ feelings and moods.  Drew can walk into a room and feel the intensity of what is happening. Drew can feel good because it is Friday and people are excited the weekend is coming, and yet has no idea what day of the week it is.  Drew can feel frustration from a teacher, parent or sibling and resist going near them.  It is very common for all children to absorb and act out the energy of what is happening within a family.  When parents are fighting, we don’t have to look hard for a child who is misbehaving.  This is increased ten fold by sensitive children.

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Drew’s empathic nature may sound strange, yet he is not any different from many adults walking around the world who prefer to be alone, don’t like crowds or loud noises, get riled up by others, and are very sensitive.  These are people who can sense another feelings. Barrie Davenport lists traits of these sensitive, empathic people in her blog post, Empath Traits: 22 Signs You Are A Highly Sensitive Person.

Karen Goode goes on to describe children who are empathic in her blog post, Living with an Empathic Child  “Just imagine what it feels like to be an intuitive or empathic child and not have the language to explain your experiences to your parents or teachers. A child who is overloaded with the energy of others may have on-going illnesses, show depressive episodes, lash out in anger, cry without reason, or try to “fix” things between adults who argue or do not get along well.”

These sensitive, empathic children are not only overloaded as they will take on or absorb the energy of others, but in order to feel calm and peaceful, they need to get this energy out of their bodies. Many empathic people love exercise for exactly this reason.  In an interview, Debbie Phelps had described her son Michael, an Olympic champion, who was labeled as ADHD, as needing to “channel his energies into swimming.”

Like Michael Phelps, and Drew, there are approximately four million children and adolescents who are energetically sensitive.

Drew is not ADD or ADHD. Drew does not have a “deficit.”  This beautiful child is an ESEC- an energy sensitive empathic child. When he is in a crowd, he is actually helping by absorbing some of the energy around him.  In a way, it is like taking someone’s anger, and saying, I got this, so you can feel better.  Only this is not deliberate or understood by most, especially not a child. And unless this energy is expelled, it builds within us. The only way these children know how to “get rid” of what they absorbed is to move, speak, jump, run.  Of course, they cannot sit still for a lesson!

Sensitive children in how they absorb energy are similar to animals.  How we handle our animals is that we say they need to exercise, to get it out of their system.  The only difference is we do not force our animals to sit still for hours on end in a classroom, nor do we medicate them.

Sean, who is an adult now, was diagnosed ADD in 7th grade was put on medication and describes his experience. The medication “helped me focus in school, but I felt like a zombie and not myself. Since then I’ve been able to become more aware of things and am able to focus when need be and yet not lose myself. I’ve created kind of an on/off switch.”

Like Drew, most sensitive children simply do not have the awareness or tools to help. These children are all so misunderstood and they need to be nurtured, validated and helped in a completely different way. The first step is awareness.

It takes a village to raise a child, so let’s all begin to help these children by becoming aware, and celebrate them as beautiful, sensitive, empathic human beings.