Our lives became tangled on a frigid February evening. I’d been working for the church only one month when Maya came looking for bus fare. It was after-hours, and had I not returned for a forgotten folder, we would have missed each other. She stood in front of the stained-glass doors, holding her toddler son in one arm and drawing her daughter close with the other. I unlocked the door and took inventory – jackets far too light for the weather, no hats or gloves, shoes instead of boots. I broke protocol and drove them home, stopping for dinner on the way.
Maya invited me into her trailer – milk crates substituted for a front step. As soon as she opened the door, I could feel my tears beginning to pool. How could they live like this? Foam exposed on the threadbare couch, plywood revealed under the worn carpet, blankets where beds should be. I could see the places where she tried – children’s drawings taped to the walls, a pile of painted rocks, a few dirty stuffed animals. I couldn’t look at her– afraid my compassion might be mistaken for pity.
Within two days, I had commissioned an army of helpers. We scrubbed every surface, filled dozens of trash bags, sifted through mounds of excess clothing, shoes, and toys. For nearly a year, Maya and her children became my project. I settled her bills; organized home improvements; found beds; bought groceries; enrolled her daughter in school; secured free daycare for her son; guarded her against the sordid “friends” who tried to infiltrate her life. Her world seemed to be organized and running smoothly.
Almost a year into our relationship, I received a call from her daughter’s school. Sarah had been absent for three days and they were unable to reach Maya. Within thirty minutes, I was at the trailer. They were gone. I never saw them again.
What could have happened? What went wrong? I had thought of everything – from her children’s themed bedding to color-coded shower caddies. Green for Maya. Pink for Sarah. Blue for Miles. I hadn’t missed a single detail.
The only thing it seemed I had forgotten to consider was whether or not Maya actually wanted my help. Could it have been that the changes I desired for her were not the changes she wanted for herself?
She had simply asked for bus fare, and I had given her a complete life make-over.
Obviously, there were issues that had to be addressed immediately. The children needed beds and healthy food. However, I took action for her instead of with her.
Shortly after Maya left, I received a voicemail at the church. She and the kids were staying at a cousin’s house. It was not the life I had envisioned for her, but it was the one she could maintain.
I reflect often on my relationship with Maya – on the way I evaluated her life and decided I knew how to fix it. Fix her. I jumped directly to the doing and skipped the listening. Had I allowed Maya to lead, I might have realized that her situation was deep and complicated and could not be “fixed” with new carpet or matching furniture.
I still wonder what would have happened if I’d been a neighbor instead of a manager. Would the result have been different if I’d walked beside her instead of in front? I’ll never know. What I do know is that this experience changed the way I “help.” I’ve learned that my way isn’t the only way and that quite often people don’t need a savior as much as they need a friend.
If seeking more resources, click here to purchase the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert which was the inspiration for this post.