When I first saw him, he was clinging to the security of his mother's hand, as if he were afraid that at any minute he might be ripped away from her. His face was pale and his eyes were red. I could tell he had been crying. I watched as his eyelids bobbed up and down, like they were big and heavy. Hobbling along, with his back bent, he looked as if he were sick. When Luke's mother left him in the playroom with me, he cried. Tears fell down his face and he let out a quiet monotonous sound.
As a community service leader at my high school, I have been organizing volunteer placement at The Elizabeth Stone House, which is a temporary home for battered women, and women with mental or emotional problems. It offers an alternative, feminist approach to mental health. One day a week, after school, I take care of the children while the mothers attend a parenting meeting.
Most of the days I was there, Luke crawled under the table, or slipped off into the corner away from the other children's games and laughter. Slowly he became more familiar with me, allowing me to read him stories and play with him. Each time I came, I joined him in his tucked-away places, and made sure he got the attention he needed.
One day, just a few weeks ago, Luke cried as his mother shut the big brown door behind her, leaving him with me in the chaotic playroom. Hot tears streamed down his colorless cheeks. Gently I wiped them away. I noticed he had a small Gumby in his fist. I offered him another toy, a big yellow tractor that shovelled, but he refused to let go of the little Gumby.
"Luke," I said, trying to capture his attention in another way. "How would you like me to read you this book?" I knew it was his favorite. "Do you know what that is?" I asked, pointing at the train on the page.
He inched closer. I sat his small two-year-old body down in my lap. Nestling in, he moved his hands away from his eyes a crack, and peeked down at the book. "Choo choo," he said.
That broke the ice. He eagerly read the rest of the book with me, and we went on to play with a toy garage. He was searching through a basket of toys for a car when I saw his eyes light up. For the first time since I had met him, a smile stretched across his face.
Out of the basket he pulled a large, green stuffed version of what he held in his hand. "Gumby," he said, walking proudly over to me with his newly-found treasure clutched in his arms. I held Luke close to me, and gave him a long, comforting hug. He had gotten happiness out of something so simple as finding a big Gumby that matched his.
I thought about how, just an hour ago, I had been walking from school to the Stone House. My mind had been full of thoughts: what homework I had to do, college applications, and what had happened that day. None of these seemed significant at the moment. I was with Luke, and he was smiling. I was just happy to be with him, and to have been able to help him feel good about himself.
When I do community service, I can stop thinking about me, and what I have to do next, and take time to help someone else. Not only did it give me satisfaction and happiness to see Luke's change, but it helped me realize all the things in life I have to be happy about. If a Gumby can brighten up Luke's life, when he is depressed at such a young age, a clear sky, beautiful leaf, or a hug from a friend can brighten up mine.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.