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Subsequent to the latest global tragedy in Manchester, England they were several posts reminding us about the famous Mister Rogers quote of “look for the helpers”. The story behind the quote was that as a child, Mister Rogers was frightened by the news reports he saw about the tragic things happening when he was a child. To calm him, his mother told him to always look for helpers and that they were always nearby. Good people are always coming to help when bad things happen.
As we think about this notion and whatever tragic event that we can recall, helpers are always there. In Manchester, England it was the cab drivers who shuttled people away from the venue repeatedly. Or the neighbors near the venue who took frightened fans into their homes as they fled in fear.
And then there are the everyday helpers who are quiet and unassuming. They bring the gift of love and support to communities each day. They volunteer at food pantries, day care centers, hospitals and so many other places where their help and love is needed. They are the unsung helpers.
When I think about this idea of helpers from Mister Rogers, I cannot help but think of the huge misperception I had of him. I was born in 1961 and did not watch his show as a child growing up. As a young adult, I was not matured nor wise enough to understand what Mister Rogers was trying to teach us. His lessons, wisdom and value eluded me. And then 20 years later, I happened to be reading a book entitled “Ordinary Resurrections” by famed education author Jonathon Kozol who enlightened me on Mister Rogers. The book chronicled Kozol’s work and research in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven in New York City. During that time, he spent four years in with children at a poorly and underfunded yet enlightened public school. The book provides “a human face to poverty and racial isolation, and provides a stirring testimony to the courage and resilience of young children”. This community showcased familiar patterns of decay and abandonment caused by intentional policies toward places where people of color lived. Kozol bemoaned the many people and organizations that came to “study” the community and children of Mott Haven. As they went about their work, they lacked empathy, care and love as they interacted with the children of the community. They wanted to conduct their research and leave except for one person – Mr. Fred Rogers.
At this stage of his career Mister Rogers was already well known being on PBS for many years. He just as easily could have swooped in with “his people” for a quick cameo and then left. Instead, he came to one of the early childhood centers quietly, without fanfare and stayed for several days. And more importantly, Kozol noticed that he did so empathy, care and love. He witnessed how Mister Rogers interacted with the children of this community. Children who like so many today struggle with the weight of poverty on their young shoulders. Simple things like always getting down on their level and not standing over them. Always looking them in eye, genuinely kind, always gentle and supportive. It was not about him. He did not come to Mott Haven for himself, he came for the children. He showed them they were loved, they had value and they could flourish even in Mott Haven.
It was at that time in my life, I finally came to understand Mister Rogers and what an incredible helper he was. While overcoming my misperceptions, I finally grasped what he was trying to do. His words, actions and love of children remains truly inspiring to me today.
This notion of being a helper relates very closely with Beyond Housing. The very essence of our work is about helping the community, the residents we serve, the municipalities, our partners, donors and friends. We’re constantly running towards the challenges and those in need, wanting to help. At times, like Mr. Rogers we’re misjudged, misunderstood and carry misperceptions of our organization on our shoulders, even after a decade of working as a helper in the 24:1 Community. In the end, we’ll continue to be a helper in the 24:1 Community running towards those we truly love.
I’ve been working in community development in the St. Louis area for 25 years, and I’ve been the CEO of Beyond Housing since 1993. While I’m proud of our accomplishments, I don’t claim to be an expert. At Beyond Housing, the experts we listen to are the voices of the community members we serve. I’ll be raising issues here that I believe matter to our community. I hope you’ll join the conversation. We do reserve the right not to post comments containing offensive language. To paraphrase Dr. King, we can disagree without being disagreeable.