Can a child whose birthright is poverty and a troubled family history blossom?

Not long ago, I found myself face down on the scruffy front yard of a nonprofit near downtown, doing two things I generally avoid: planting and volunteering.

There are people who love getting their hands dirty; I am not one of those. Couple that with my general laziness when it comes to helping others, and it was not starting out to be a fun Saturday.

So while pondering my imminent fate and breaking in my new gloves, a young boy walked up and asked if he could help.

I looked around: Why would any kid volunteer to help a stranger plant stuff?

But he was interested in helping beautify his new home, an Exodus Ministries apartment complex for previously incarcerated women with dependent children.

Yes, you read that right. The 11 mother-and-children family units here have messed up their lives enough that they’re below the bottom of the economic food chain. The mothers all have been locked up — some of them five, six, seven times — and have dependent children, no husbands, no jobs and a small sack of belongings when they show up straight from jail/prison at Exodus, said to be the only nonprofit of its kind in Texas.

The 11-year-old boy asking to help dig in the dirt is one of those kids. Most of us spend more on lunch in a week than his mother will see in a month, and that’s if she’s lucky enough to find a job.

I would like to tell you that this young man and I shared an incredible bonding experience, that we each changed our lives for the better that day.

Instead, I showed him how to dig holes for plant balls and how to cover them up, which he did for 10 minutes or so before jumping up and running off — no goodbye, no hug, no life-changing revelation.

But the kid gave me something to think about. He has nothing except what volunteers have given him, and his mother has 12 months (the length of the Exodus program) to figure out how to make their way in a world where she’s generally not welcome, most often as a felon whose dreams no longer include college, a new car or even a basic “happy ending.”

We can say it’s her fault she’s in this predicament, but we’ve all made some big mistakes in life. Some of us pay for those mistakes forever; some of us get lucky and just move on.

Who knows why we rarely walk in others’ shoes?

If the mother graduates from the Exodus program, she has a chance: Thanks to volunteers and donors, she leaves with an apartment full of furniture, on-site education about finances and being a parent, and a close-knit family of fellow travelers.

The general recidivism rate for people in this situation is about 75 percent, Exodus says; this program reduces that to about 4 percent.

I continued digging holes, frequently glancing down the line of still-unplanted groundcover, knowing that in an hour or two, my volunteer experience would be over. When the kid returned, would his life be better because of what I had done that day?

Like the hard-luck high school seniors we’re profiling in this month’s magazine, this kid needs someone to look up to for more than 10 minutes, someone to help him and his family find their way. And there are hundreds of nonprofits here brimming with similar stories.

The high school seniors found the guidance they need. The person this boy needs is out there, too. Will he find you or me in time to make a difference?

Learn more about Exodus Ministries at

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