The days of innocence

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

I recently interviewed a young lady named Raye Johnson for a feature story this week (read “Raye of Hope,” Page 15). To put it lightly, Raye is an inspiration. At just 10 years old, she has spearheaded an annual philanthropic effort giving hundreds of unhoused individuals in Spokane care packages containing hats, gloves, scarves, blankets and snack food every Christmas Day.

While asking Raye about what inspired her to set aside her own Christmas to help others, I was struck by how simple and direct her answers were about, well, everything.

Nobody tells you the truth quite like a 10-year-old.

But that’s usually the case when you speak to the young ones, who are joyfully walking through their days of innocence. They don’t see the world through a jaded veil, like many of us grown ups. They haven’t been let down by their best friends. They haven’t had their hearts broken. They haven’t yet witnessed the awful spectacle of grown adults acting like entitled brats. They don’t read about the ugliness of the world on the front pages every morning. They don’t yet know the history of the world, which has been written and rewritten in blood over countless wars and conflicts.

No, all that knowledge comes later in life. 

For these short, blissful years of childhood, kids are allowed to be merry, to ask questions, to give straightforward answers and not concern themselves with the daily quagmires we adults are drawn to.

When I was 22 years old, I packed everything I owned into my car and moved to Los Angeles. After growing up in North Idaho and attending college in Colorado, the world of L.A. was a mystery to me those first few months. 

One aspect of L.A. life that I never got used to was the surreal juxtaposition of a large homeless population that existed alongside some of the wealthiest people in the country. They literally strode side by side down the sidewalks together.

While trying to break into the film industry that first year, I invariably ended up spending lots of time walking aimlessly around the city, taking notes on what I saw and trying to understand it through my perspective as a 22-year-old babe raised in the North Idaho woods.

My new friends would chastise me while we walked the sidewalks, because whenever an unhoused individual stopped me to ask for a dollar, I would often post up and chat with them for a while. 

The truth was, I was more interested in talking to homeless people than I was the soulless, wanna-be actors who prattled on at the nightclubs about how there would be a documentary made about them someday.

I’ve always been drawn more to those at the bottom rungs than those at the top, the latter who spend a lot of their energy tossing down rocks to knock the rest of us off the ladder.

As I exited a bar once, I passed a man playing a guitar on the street and sat down next to him. For the next two hours, we alternated playing songs and listening as passersby occasionally dropped coins in his upturned hat. As I eventually stood up to walk home, he shook my hand and said, “Hey man, thanks for treating me like a human being.”

It dawned on me how often he must have had people pass by and hurl insults at him, or accuse him of being lazy or uninterested in working. The truth about homelessness is that many of the people you see on the street are quite capable of working, but when you start down the road of living on the street, it’s difficult to step back into the regular world again. 

A simple thing like having no permanent address can get in the way of obtaining a job or owning new clothes or having the ability to take a daily shower. Couple that with having no daily transportation or reliable contact information, and you have a firewall that is extremely difficult to breach unless you’re given a helping hand.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that many of those who live on the street struggle daily with mental health issues or addiction, and lack the basic, necessary care to get on top of their issues and begin to lead a productive life among society.

That’s why people like Raye — an exceptional 10-year-old girl with a heart of gold — are such a breath of fresh air. They still believe they can change the world through their actions.

We should never abandon that belief, no matter how old we are.

The world of a 10-year-old is what we give them, both in our actions and attitudes. If we show them love, they will give love back. If we show them cruelty, it will eventually come out in them somewhere down the road. If we reward their curiosity, they’ll keep searching out the answers later in life.

Maybe, just maybe, after their own days of innocence end, our young friends like Raye will rise above the petty nonsense many adults concern themselves with and truly work on making the world a better place.

For me, I’m glad to have met Raye. Hope can be dangerous, but we can’t abandon it. There’s just too much at stake.

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