Just look at the photo above. It’s everything you sent for school supplies for the children of immigrant families. All these things–headphones, notebooks, binders, paper, markers, computer mice, calculators, etc.–were put into a backpack and given, one by one, to children who needed them. The photo reflects not just color, drawing, learning, and fun, but also the generosity and compassion that are everywhere in the universe.

Nevertheless, yesterday Jimena and I had a sobering conversation. We give out $750 in food cards, $200 in cash for help with rent and utilities, and 2 large boxes of squash and small peppers that Aussie’s best friend, Leeann Warner, gave us from her garden.

“Jimena,” I said as we sat on the bench on Main Street after everybody had come and gone, “I only have about $2,100 in the bank account now, a little over 2 weeks of reserves. We sold out the Amazon wish list of school supplies in less than a week, which was great (see above photo), but after that few contributions have been coming in both for the families and for my blog. Life’s going on, new causes come up, people lose interest. I’m not sure what to do.”

We had to say no to four people who came and asked for food cards, two men and a couple. They’re new to the area and heard about our Thursdays. Jimena took down their names and phone numbers, asked them where they were from. “La proxima semana,” she tells them. Next week.

Fifty dollars isn’t that much for some, I think to myself, and a lot for others. We’re now caring for closer to 100 families rather than the 90. I’ll call Deals & Steals early next week and see if they have extra food for us to give out.

“Schools are starting to open up for hybrid learning next week,” Jimena tells me.

“There’s a lot of stress all around,” I say. I think of people’s anxieties about the virus, dire warnings about what’ll happen this winter, long term effects of covid on some people who got infected, and of course, there’s always the election.

“Terrible things happen from stress,” Jimena agrees, and proceeds to describe what happened to one family she’s working with.

Maria (not her real name) has 4 children, all of whom are squeezed in a small room doing remote learning. And of course, they don’t want to be forced to sit on a chair for hours on end, they prefer to run around and play. The father works, Maria is home with the children. They make noise, she comes in and berates them for not doing their classes, tells them to sit and listen to the teacher, and goes back to the kitchen to cook or clean. She comes back again and again because the three boys are still playing around.

“This happens day after day,” Jimena explains, “they’re kids, what do you expect? But Maria lost patience and pushed one of the boys onto the chair in front of the Chromebook he was using and said a bad word in Spanish. The audio and the camera were on, the teacher heard and saw everything, and reported the family to DCF [Department of Children and Families]. Immediately they started an investigation to see whether to take the children away and put them up for foster care. The daughter left to live with another family, to make things easier, but Maria went pretty crazy and next thing I know she has a breakdown and goes to the ER. That,” Jimena says, “is what can happen from stress.”

Luckily, she continues, the man who came from DCF seems to be nice and understanding.

But of course, she adds, most of the families are illegal, and they don’t want cameras to be on all the time, they’re afraid. “It’s so hard for them, Eve,” Jimena says. “It’s easy not to understand what happens when people are squeezed together in such a small space and they can’t go anywhere. That’s a big reason why they want their children to go in person to school. They don’t want cameras looking into their apartments.”

This week’s Montague Reporter has a long article quoting kids in the area about what it’s like to do learning from home. They say the study goes too fast, they don’t see their friends, they have to learn apps they never learned before. The cover photo shows a nice desk, a lot neater than mine, with a tablet, notebooks, lamp, pen holders, chair with cushion, and a warm woolen cover draped over the chair just in case the child gets cold.

Not one mentions what it’s like to do this squeezed together with other siblings, competing for space, for play, for quiet. A family bursting at the seams from pressure, a teacher who feels responsible for reporting things, and an agency that comes in, and suddenly there’s the possibility of the family being split up.

A friend who supervises visits between parents and children who were taken away and put in foster care told me of a visit she supervised between such a mother and her two-month-old infant. The mother, who wants him back badly, took him in her arms and held him close, then freed up the lower half of her mask. As soon as she did that the baby’s face shone and he started cooing.

“Eve, he knew her,” she told me. “That little baby, who’s barely seen his mother since birth, knew his mother the minute she half-removed her mask.” She paused. “I waited a few minutes and then had to tell her to please put her mask back on.” I could see it broke her heart..

“What should we do if the money runs out?” I ask Jimena. “Should we eliminate the cash for now?”

“No, we need the cash because people fall behind so quickly. Let’s cut down the food cards to 10 a week instead of 15, if possible, and continue with the cash.” I nod. Jimena continues: “Most teachers understand that the children come from a world that is very different from this one,” Jimena says, “but some don’t. They’ve had no experience with it, and rules are rules. I can’t blame them.”

Rules are rules. Doing a bearing witness retreat in Rwanda some years ago, we met a few Rwandan Hutus who helped save the lives of Tutsis during the genocide there some 25 years ago and we gave them financial help. We were aided in this by Paul (not his real name), our Rwandan contact, a personable, talented, multi-lingual man. A generous friend heard of this and wanted to bring Paul over to the US to discuss a project in Rwanda that our friend could donate to.

“Great idea,” Bernie said on the phone, and then added: “You should know that as we finished our time in Rwanda, we discovered that Paul took a little of the money we used to give the Hutus to cover school costs for his children. It wasn’t much.”

Immediately our friend cancelled all plans for donations. “I can’t abide those kinds of things,” he told me on the phone.

“Charles,” I said, “they have nothing over there. Schools cost very little, but many don’t have the pennies required to send the kids to school. I’m not defending Paul, only telling you that before you judge him, remember how different it is there.”

He refused to listen, and that was the end of the project.

What’s right? What’s wrong? What do you do in the face of so much stress, so much need? “You do what you can,” Bernie used to say. “That’s all you can do, do what you can.”