We try to protect them as much as we can from the evil and the ugliness in this world, maybe because we know that indifference does not fit in their heart as easily as it has made a nest in ours. And maybe that’s why children are the ones who give us amazing lessons of sacrifice and altruism.
Peter Larson was only six years old when he learned about something that deeply saddened him. Bob Fischer, a guest of the group of scouts that Peter was a part of, said that many children like them did not have a place to stay and therefore sleep outside, even in the cold of winter. He also told them that for several years during the winter holidays, he had been sleeping outside in a sleeping bag to draw attention to the needs of homeless people. People who were moved by his gesture would donate a sum of money to an organisation for every night he slept outside. Immediately, the idea arose in Peter’s mind that he could do the same as Bob.
Peter’s scout group, led by his father, spent a night sleeping outside in sleeping bags to raise money from neighbours and passers-by. After one night, they hadn’t raised as much money as Peter would have liked. So he decided to continue sleeping outside alone during the winter break. That first year, he slept on the porch of the house, where he was sheltered from the bitter cold that gripped the state of Minnesota. However, his disappointment was quite big when he counted his collected money: only $100.
Such a disappointment would have set any child back, but not Peter. His efforts continued the following year, when he took a cardboard box and slept in the yard. His parents were worried, but they didn’t stop him, especially because Peter had shown them responsibility.
He had become an expert in methods of staying warm in the cold, and his father’s sleeping bag—40 years old, but as warm as a duvet—shielded him from the cold. “If he deems something to be important, he goes at it with his entire heart…I’ve seen him with ice on his body and snow on his box…I wouldn’t stop him. You have to step back and let your child figure out what touches them, and with Peter it comes from the heart, not because he’s supposed to,” Peter’s mother confessed about her worries and Peter’s courage.
Peter’s story made it to national television stations, so the money raised kept growing. He, like Bob, began working with an organisation in Hennepin County, Minnesota, called Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP), which helps homeless people. The money that Peter collected from donations went to the organisation year after year. For many years, Peter didn’t have the satisfaction of seeing any families enjoy the money donated, due to the organisation’s privacy policies. However, there was never a year when Peter lost his devotion to the homeless cause.
By the time he started high school, his annual goal had reached $100,000, for which he spent at least 40 days sleeping outside during the winter season. One winter, the temperatures outside dropped significantly, to minus 23 degrees Celsius, yet his parents could not convince him to come into the house, nor could the people at IOCP.
“The people at IOCP called me to say that I didn’t have to stay out, but homeless families wouldn’t have a place to go, would they? Yeah, it was really, really cold, but I made a commitment and if I didn’t stay out, IOCP wouldn’t have the help and a family might not have a home,” Peter later justified his determination.
Impressed by his energy, enthusiasm and effort, the people from IOCP thought of giving him a gift. And what could have been nicer than a meeting with one of the families he had helped? That’s how Peter met Makida Abdulahi and her children. Makida was a refugee from Ethiopia, a mother of several young children, whom her husband had left shortly after they arrived in the US. One of her daughter’s severe asthma and repeated hospitalisations caused her to lose her job. She desperately turned to the IOCP, who offered her a rented house from the money collected by Peter.
When he went to visit Makida, in the house decorated in Ethiopian style, the children were colouring at a table. It was then that Makida found out that the one who had saved them from the street was just a little boy. “I don’t know how to explain what he did,” she said emotionally.
“He was just a little boy and it surprised me so much. My God, it’s really wonderful. We have a home where my children are safe and healthy and because of Peter, I don’t have to worry about them. He took a burden off my shoulders, and for my children took them out of a very, very stressful situation and showed them a beautiful world.” In Makida’s family, Peter remained a constant topic of discussion and an inspiration for the little ones, who set out to do as much good to others as Peter did to them.
IOCP leaders estimate that Peter has helped more than 1,000 families in the more than 10 years he’s been sleeping outside. In 2011, Peter entered college and decided to stop sleeping outside for a while, although he was determined not to stop caring about the homeless. During the winter holidays when he returned home, the whole town knew where he would be sleeping: outside, in the cold, in his sleeping bag. Because, as Peter says, “One person really can make a huge difference, even if they start small. It all adds up.“
Andreea Irimia believes that life stories have the power to transform us. This is because the images born of the almost unreal experiences that some of us have undergone penetrate our souls and respond convincingly to some of our most persistent doubts.