Good starts on a personal level

There is far more good happening in our city and our Valley than any of us could ever imagine. The surprising thing is that most of this good is brought about by regular people doing regular things. I’ve written plenty about how change is possible in our city, and given some broad-stroke pictures of how we could join together to make that happen. But most of us are looking for practical steps to be a part of the change we need.

That’s why this column, and the column before it, focused on the everyday actions of everyday people – I am hoping their stories will inspire others to do something similar. I’ve chosen to keep these people anonymous because it’s not about who they are, but about what they do. Names have been changed to protect the humble, because none of the individuals I’m writing about would ever want to receive public credit for their private activities.

A few days ago, I was talking to a young man, who we’ll call Matthew. Matthew recently started working for a member of his church – who we’ll call Mr. Smith. At 12, Matthew was excited to have a summer job that would pay well and teach him a few skills. He’s painted a shed, done some yard work and learned a little bit about roofing and basic home repair.

As I spoke with Matthew, I asked him how he liked working for Mr. Smith, and he told me he was really enjoying it. What struck me was when he said his favorite part was sitting inside and talking.

I asked Matthew and Mr. Smith what they talk about. Mr. Smith picks up Matthew at his Warren home on work days, and drives him back when the work is done. While they drive, they talk about life, faith, decision-making and responsibility. Over lunch, which Mr. and Mrs. Smith provide, they talk about family and friendships.

Clearly, Matthew has learned a lot more than how to use a paintbrush. Matthew is a different young man than he was a few months ago. He’s always been polite and hard-working, but Matthew is different. He has fresh self-confidence and new life skills.

This story should remind us of something we must all remember: The best change happens in the context of relationship. Of course, it’s no secret that relationships are perhaps the most powerful force in our day-to-day lives. A life can be as easily transformed in a positive, healthy relationship as it can be destroyed in a negative, unhealthy one. This being the case, it’s the duty of us all to pursue healthy relationships and to avoid the unhealthy ones.

The common thread that runs through this column and my last, in which I told the stories of “Sophie” and “Karen,” is the power a positive, healthy relationship has to change a life. In all three cases, these individuals pursued relationships with those around them, and it’s having a real and positive effect on our community.

And this, friends, is the secret: Our Valley will be transformed one person at a time, relationship by relationship. Programs are not the answer, because a program (whether started by a faith-based organization, a charity or the government) is only as strong as the people who are a part of it. If they aren’t pursuing transformative relationships with others in the program, it will be a waste of time and resources. A strong relationship can do what no program alone could ever do. A program can foster, or be a platform for, a relationship, sure; but the program will never have the influence of one-on-one quality time.

We would all do well to take a lesson from Mr. Smith. It’s a waste of time to complain about “the kids these days” if we’re not willing to pursue relationships with them. So, pay the kid down the street to mow your lawn, or the girl across the way to organize your closet. But it’s not about the money, it’s about the conversation: ask them about their week, their friends, what they’re learning in school. And keep asking. Don’t let silence stop you. Change could be just one open-ended question away.

Tennant is a Warren resident. Email him at