By Jeannie Johng-Nishikawa
My 12-year-old daughter Victoria plays the violin and often needs me to buy her new strings. With her winter concert approaching, I knew I’d be making a trip to Watermelon Music in downtown Davis. I wanted the errand to go as quickly as possible. It was a freezing day and because I couldn’t find parking nearby, the children and I had a cold walk ahead of us.
Homeless people gather in that area of downtown, and it staggers me. Not because I don’t like homeless people. It staggers me because I want desperately to help people who are in desperate situations. But there isn’t a clear solution to homelessness. Homelessness is a problem too complex to be solved by kindness or money alone. I usually give whatever cash I have on hand and walk away quickly. I often feel embarrassed or ashamed I couldn’t do more.
That morning there was a homeless woman seated against the wall near the bank. She had a sign placed in front of her asking for help. I had Victoria and my 8-year-old son Thomas with me, and I wanted to usher them quickly past her. I gave her a $5 bill, but I did what I could not to make eye contact.
In Watermelon Music, we bought new strings for Victoria and asked Mika, a specialist, to string them for her. As Mika was stringing the violin, Thomas asked for a quarter for the gumball machine. I gave Thomas my last quarter and turned back to the counter. Then Mika noticed that the gumball machine had jammed and Thomas had lost his quarter. She gave him a quarter from her pocket and told him to try again. Though I didn’t see Thomas chewing gum, I figured he’d been able to get his gumball and was saving it.
After Mika finished, we left the store and planned to walk to our car as briskly as possible. I’d already forgotten the homeless woman sitting there from earlier. I tried to push the kids along, but I noticed Thomas had stopped right in front of the woman and was giving her something from his pocket. He placed it right in front of her feet.
I felt nervous that Thomas was bothering her, or even worse that me might try to take some of her change. But to my surprise, what he’d offered to her was the quarter he’d saved.
My daughter and I were shocked. We’d never seen Thomas interact with a stranger like that before. Some bystanders had even stopped to watch.
The homeless woman picked up Thomas’s quarter and said, “Thank you. Your quarter is worth more to me than the $5 your mother gave me, because it came from your heart.” As we walked away, I saw the homeless woman had tears in her eyes.
Later I asked Thomas why he had given the woman his only quarter. He said, “I wanted to give her something, but I didn’t know how or what to do, so I just gave her my quarter because that was all I had.”
That was when I felt a rush of joy in my heart. My son Thomas has autism, and at times he has trouble processing complex social situations. He is a loving, compassionate son, but it wasn’t until that day that I’d considered the empathy he felt for homeless people, or other people he’d seen suffering in public. All those situations that I tried to shield him from.
Thomas taught me so much that day. He taught me not to be afraid of suffering, whether it is my own suffering or someone else’s. He taught me to pause in the presence of someone who is in need. And most of all, he showed me that compassion overrides all borders for what we construct as “normal” or “disabled.”
It is possible to model compassion for others, but it is impossible to make their hearts do something they are unwilling to do. Victoria and I witnessed Thomas’ honest act of generosity and compassion. It means something that I couldn’t have predicted it — it came only from him.
— Jeannie Johng-Nishikawa is a Davis resident. Thomas is a student at Birch Lane Elementary School.