The dilemma of helping

About two years ago I was in our local park late on afternoon when we noticed a child about our son’s age, maybe slightly older. Let’s call him Joe. We (me and my son) were regulars in the park so said ‘hello’ and got on with some play time. Joe seemed OK, perhaps a bit bored. He played on the climbing frame. Off we went.

The next day we were back in the park during the morning and coincidentally he was there again. We said ‘hello Joe’ and he chatted to my son. Must be new to the area. Kids need to be outside, so all was well, nice to meet a new friend. He was a few years older than my son. Maybe 8 at a guess.

Next weekend, same again. Joe was in the park. We had some food and he seemed hungry so shared some with him after checking he wasnt allergic to it. Joe remembered my son’s name and they played round the park. He told him about Batman movies he’s seen and did some somersaults on the trampoline. Impressive. A life spent in the park? Apparently he lived nearby.

So there’s a pattern emerging as the more observant will have noticed. Joe is in the park. He is there every time we go. Every time during daylight hours at weekends. And there are some characters missing from this plot. Joe’s never with anyone. He has a bike which is how he gets around. No parents show. No siblings. No other friends. Just on his own, everytime, all weathers. Hmmmm…..

So – what to do?

On the face of it Joe looks a little neglected. He’s not homeless, but he’s clearly bored, unsupervised, has no food, no siblings around, no other friends. He’s hungry too. He looks sad when we go.

So… Do we call social services? What impact could that have on his life? Do we get him some food? Do we try to contact his parents? Lots of possibilities, but which would be most helpful? Which would move this forward? Could a call cause more harm than good?

How might any intervention inadvertently reflect on us in the modern world of anxiety? Do we take him for lunch with us? Do we give him some money for lunch? What risk are we taking if we are seen by his parents? What will happen if we ignore him? Is it negligent not to act? What does it say about us if we do nothing? What message is that sending him if we ignore him? Dilemma? Yes.

What to consider about direct help:

This was a real situation. It’s easy to intervene when you see someone vulnerable, but just like coaching your first step is to seek to understand. It’s important before you ask, act or advise, so you can make a well rounded decision.

Each time we met Joe made an impression on him. We were polite and kind and we asked questions. We gained information. He was at school. He had siblings and parents. His circumstances had recently changed so he was here every other weekend. You can work out the rest.

What did we do?

In the end, despite fear of abduction allegations we gave Joe some money to buy some food as I decided to park the anxiety and do something. The deal was he had to buy something healthy for his lunch and bring back the change.

Joe came back with some food, some change and…some sweets for my son to say thank you! Probably the nicest thing he could have done and extremely self-less. We made it clear we wouldn’t feed him every week and he needed to go home and ask for his parents for tea later.

It was hard not to repeat this and become his ‘feeders’ each time we met. Dependancy was not the plan but we felt rewarded for not ignoring the problem but not overstepping the mark as outsiders.

Since our little intervention/help we’ve noticed things have improved for Joe. He’s less often on his own and for less hours and his siblings and a parent have been seen with him a few months later. I hope we were the friends he needed during the weeks where he was alone on his own. Glad he had someone to help and be friends with him.

Final thoughts

Modern life can make you paranoid about helping people. There are always considerations, so don’t put yourself at risk, ask questions before you blindly call the authorities but it’s also good to make a small difference to someone who needed some care.