Two years have passed since I have accompanied my synagogue’s social action group to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) in Trenton, NJ. I sent some donations since then but a highly prized personal value (and one that my wife and I have worked hard to instill in our children) is getting directly involved with causes that are important and meaningful to us (see also my November post). I was falling short because I was “busy.”I was becoming the guy who simply writes the checks from a distance; while that was helpful, it wasn’t enough in my book.

Ugh…it was not supposed to be this way. While preparing for a workshop earlier this month about the role of articulating values in wealthy families, I pushed myself through an exercise designed to help workshop attendees become more aware of their priority values and how they might be falling short in living by them. Part of the exercise is to commit to one change that brings action more in line with values.

I cleared a Tuesday and headed to TASK with my group.

Fortunately, there was an excess of volunteers on the serving line itself (a good thing as the line and glass “sneeze guards” create quite a barrier to meaningful interaction between clients (as TASK respectfully calls them) and volunteers. So, I was placed in the dining room with two other volunteers, seated at a small table with huge rolls of plastic wrap and charged with wrapping food to go upon a client’s request. TASK is known for some very nice desserts and on this day they were serving beautiful cupcakes. So, when a client wanted to take home some of their food, we would wrap their Styrofoam tray and hot food in plastic and then place their dessert on top and wrap again to keep the dessert separate from the hot food.

I noticed my fellow food-wrapping volunteers following the to-go protocol and when they’d place the cupcake on top of the wrapped hot food they would make a tight seal sure to keep the food fresh until it was eaten later, but leaving little evidence of what was once a beautiful gourmet cupcake. When I got my first tray to wrap, I took the wax paper on which the cupcake sat, carefully placed it around the cupcake and then gently wrapped all of that to the tray of hot food so that the cupcake was still intact underneath.

To my surprise and pleasure, the clients were deeply moved and grateful. I had not realized it before but the clients watched with great care as a stranger was handling a small amount of highly prized leftover food that they hoped would last for another meal or two. Even accidentally leaving off one of several small packets of salt was upsetting to some of the clients. My respectful treatment of the cupcake led to some genuine expressions of gratitude from them, often directly noting how much care I took to protect the dessert. Frequently, conversation ensued about other topics.

When telling my wife about the experience, I suddenly began to cry and this caught me by surprise. Then she cried and hugged me. My calendar is now cleared for this monthly trip to TASK and should other priorities arise, the Volunteer Coordinator has assured me that help is always needed and I can come without my group on another day that week. In fact, my wife, sons and I are all going later this month to wrap trays together.

What is the Lesson?

Enterprising Families: Clarifying values and living by them is a powerful way to get kids (and grown-ups) to step outside of themselves and see the greater context of the world, their place in it and how making a direct, positive impact brings wealth and material possessions into perspective.

Advisors to Enterprising Families: Wealthy families are often concerned that the next generation will be negatively affected by wealth, never finding passion for making an impact with their lives and becoming dependent on the inherited resources. A constructive way to leverage your trusted role with your clients is to discuss the power of making a hands-on impact in the world as a family as part of the process of developing well-rounded and unselfish children.