During our conversation I mentioned an article I had read in the Calgary Herald about a single mother who had established a small food pantry in her neighbourhood, modeled after the popular mini-libraries often found on private lawns in the city. It turned out the need for food was greater than even she had predicted. The article outlined her incredible effort to help the people in her community, while simultaneously providing for her two daughters and saving for her own dream of a university education.
I told the others this had had a significant impact on me. It reminded me that there are people in each of our communities needing help. I mused that I’d love to figure out a little project I could do. Three of the other women at the breakfast volunteered to help and we agreed to have a meeting to ‘put our heads together’.
Not many days later, we, and a couple of other interested women, gathered in my dining room to discuss what we might do. Cheryl had heard about a need in a local school that we felt might be a great place for us to start our project. This school is not particularly ‘needy’. From the outside it could be considered to be one of the ‘have’ schools. But our group knows that even in the ‘have’ schools, stuff happens. When it does, it’s nice to have someone step up and make stuff happen. With that in mind, we christened our group, ‘Stuff Happens’.
Over the last couple of weeks, with help from a couple of teachers at the school some specific needs were identified we could help with. We set to work making a plan, soliciting donations, and setting up a program to provide a few students with daily, healthy lunches and with some much-needed clothing and school supplies. It has felt incredibly good to be able to be able to address these needs so quickly and with complete confidentiality.
As we completed our first ‘drop off’ this week, we asked if the teachers could find out if the students had any other needs that may have gone unnoticed. The teachers went to work and talked to the students. We were provided with a little wish list. It’s hard to describe our shared broken-hearted reaction when we read that one of the wishes was for one student to get some underwear. For herself and her younger brother.
I was trying to remember being a young teenager. I could recall how important it was to fit in, to not let others think that I was different. I never once had to ask for food. And I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to tell a teacher I needed underwear. Actually, I do know – I would not have been. My underwear, and my feelings, were kept carefully under wraps.
Not everyone hides their underwear. In fact, in many schools both girls and boys display parts of their underwear publicly. Parts that would have mortified me had mine ever slipped into the open when I was young: bra straps, lace, the top band of underpants etc. These students have the confidence to show their underwear. They are not hiding and they are not ashamed. I’ve been trying to imagine what a relief it would be for this girl and her brother if they could show their underwear. Because they had some.
Each of us has many layers of ‘underwear’. When most of us were teenagers it was almost a full-time job making sure that no one recognized any insecurity in us. We certainly did not go around telling others how inadequate we felt, what we were worried sick about, or how we hoped to be liked. We kept our ‘underwear’ hidden. When most teenagers look at each other, they see confident, put-together people. They think they are alone in their thoughts of inadequacy. If only they had the courage, and if only we, the adults, gave them the space to reveal their real underwear.
Now that the idea of people not having underwear has come into my mind, I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t stop thinking about what other things we feel we might be lacking that we hide from our friends and family. We bury our burdens under our clothing, under our skin, inside our minds, and deep in our hearts lest someone find out we are lacking. Secretly of course, we wish someone would notice and help us. Or listen to us. Or at least take us seriously.
I am so grateful that a couple of teachers at this school took the time to have a small talk with some students to find out about what they needed. I’m betting the conversations didn’t take much more than 15 minutes. I know for sure, that 15 minutes will change those children’s lives. It’s very humbling to realize these needs are not new; they did not arise because we had an idea to help someone. These needs were simply allowed to surface because a thoughtful, compassionate, skilled teacher provided a safe space to talk about ‘underwear’.
I’m travelling through my world this week recognizing that everyone needs help with their underwear. Most of us own the physical stuff. But all of us have the other kind of underwear issues. I’m hoping I can find ways to spend a few minutes really listening to someone else who’s having trouble with their underwear.
My inquiry for you is, ‘What underwear issue is waiting for my help?’
Elizabeth is a certified, professional Life and Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is also the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society and she is now a proud member of its affiliate, Stuff Happens. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership programs and personal coaching for individuals and teams. Contact Elizabeth to find out how to deal with the ‘underwear’ needs in your organization.