Arwen and his friends are often told that because they are “only” eleven years old, they can’t really do much to make the world a better place. But that didn’t stop them from forming, last year, a club—The Spirit Within Club—which focuses on the spirit within each of us that makes us the same and enables us to do so much good for the world.
Of course, the path to bettering the world is not just filled with laughter and joy. There are a lot of bumps that Arwen and his friends have to learn to navigate. Building on what they learned in the first volume of the series but written to be enjoyed as a standalone, this second volume (of seven that will take them through high school) focuses on the general feeling is one of excitement tinged with anxiety that defines the last year of elementary school.
Arwen’s parents are having marital difficulties even as his workload increases substantially, and he deals with it by burying his head in the sand. Zeke is relieved that his chronic health problems seem to be doing better only to be shocked, late in the school year, by some very bad news. Egan’s membership in the Spirit Within Club is taking its toll on his friendships at his family’s Buddhist Temple. Marco is trying to keep detached from everything since his family moves a lot only to be told by his parents that this time, they are going to be sticking around, making him wonder how much he missed out on in a bid not to get hurt. Aiko is still dealing with the consequences of having changed so much from outgoing and chatty to quiet and introverted. Zafirah’s life is a little easier this year what with her Dad having a job and all, but there are still some difficulties to life as a Muslim girl—such as the ridiculously flat hair under her headdress. Ghada is having some major issues with the dichotomy between what her Bahá’í Faith teaches and the reality around her. The club’s newest member, MaSovaida, is also having similar issues, such as not understanding how the house of a devout Christian family like hers was robbed. And the club learns that perhaps they are not as inclusive when one of their schoolmates, Frank, calls them out for not including him in their activities despite his interest.
But, with the help of two special mentors, their parents, and each other, Arwen and his friends prevail and end the year ready to take on even more.
MaSovaida’s Christmas Drives
Now I might not have known her for a long time, but it was pretty obvious that Saba was nervous. It was a weird thing to see because she seemed to be the kind of person who never got nervous. Mom says it’s because she knows how to listen to people. She also says that because of this and because she never takes anything personally, it means that in a way, she’s never wrong. I don’t know about that, since it seems to be that it could also mean that Saba’s never right—but it’s just too complicated to think about.
We were at Arwen’s house. Again, I have not known everyone for that long of a time, but I could see that everyone else was also a little uncomfortable. I think it’s because Arwen’s Dad had moved out, and even I could tell that something was missing in the house. Arwen’s Mom was acting naturally, as if nothing was wrong. Arwen was his usual quiet, tired, sad self (it was really heartbreaking to see). And everyone else was not quite as relaxed as they were, say, in Aiko’s basement, although they should be. I mean, Arwen’s living room is just as epic; you would walk right in the middle of two big sectionals with plenty of pillows and a small coffee table that always carried something to munch on. I thought the weirdness of Arwen’s Dad’s absence would pass; after all, we had had two other get togethers here. But I guess some things just take a long time to get used to.
I started wondering if Saba was nervous because she had really bad news to share with us or something, so when she started talking, I was ready for anything but: “So, guys… It’s almost Christmas-time, and maybe we should, erm, think about, like, a service project?”
What in the world was going on that Saba of all people would be so nervous talking about something as natural and wonderful as a Christmas service project? “That’s an awesome idea!” I said enthusiastically, thinking that maybe Saba just needed a bit of support from us to get comfortable. “There are so many things we can do during this time of the year!”
I got my second surprise of the meeting when no one else backed me up. Instead, everyone was sitting quietly, looking really awkward. Arwen actually looked more than awkward; he looked… Upset!
“OK, what’s going on here?” I asked.
“Well MaSovaida, erm, we had a bit of a snafu last year when we organized our Christmas service project,” Saba said.
“A snafu. As in, we were not quite able to complete our service project as planned because of a certain… situation,” Saba said.
Arwen huffed. “And by situation, she means a big, giant Christmas party.”
I was getting a little annoyed—and left out. “Could someone please just explain to me what happened?”
“Well,” Egan said, “we had decided to have a Christmas commemoration…”
“A party?” I asked.
“No, a commemoration. We didn’t think it was appropriate to have a mega party that wasn’t centred on what Christmas is actually about. So we had a commemoration—an evening filled with songs and an audio-visual presentation, and all kinds of stuff…”
“Sounds pretty awesome,” I said, thinking of my Pastor. He would have loved this idea of a dignified yet seemingly fun way of remembering His Holiness, Jesus Christ. “Maybe we could do another one this year?”
Almost everyone immediately shook their head. It was kind of funny actually, especially since they were all sitting so tightly together. I could tell that Saba, who was the only one not shaking her head, was trying very hard not to smile.
“Why not?” I asked.
“No one came,” Arwen curtly said.
“Oh,” I said. Suddenly, it made sense. “Too bad, it sounds like a lot of fun. My Pastor would have totally loved such a commemoration, and I bet you all the children at the church would have come.”
“Maybe, then, we should redo our commemoration…” started Saba.
“No,” Arwen said.
“…but this time, present it to someone who will…” Saba continued, as if nothing had happened.
“No,” Arwen repeated, a little louder.
“…appreciate the format that we…”
“I said, no!” Arwen said, even louder. He didn’t shout it or anything, but he was so unusually cold and firm and just plain rude that we all stared at him until he blushed. “I’m sorry,” he said, in his usual voice. “I just really do not want to do this again. Maybe next year. But this year, I would like to make sure to have one good thing going on, you know?”
Everyone slowly nodded.
“What else can we do?” Zeke asked.
“MaSovaida, what does your church usually do at this time of the year?” Zafirah asked me.
I decided to ignore Ghada’s glare (she really doesn’t like me that one, and I still don’t quite know why). “We volunteer at soup kitchens, we do food drives, we do toy drives, sometimes we fix old toys we collected for poor children, we volunteer to deep clean the church for Midnight Mass…”
“I have never done a food drive,” Zeke said. “It could be a lot of fun.”
“I have never done a toy drive,” Egan said. “It could also be a lot of fun.”
I was suddenly hit by a stroke of genius. “I have never done a toy and a food drive together,” I said, excited. “They’re both fun on their own—why not try to do both! Plus, the church has never done that before—we could totally be helping them learn about something new!”
“We could go around this neighborhood, there are a ton of kids who live here, and I’m sure a lot of them can give toys!” Arwen said, excited, sitting up in the couch.
“And everyone has cans of food that they can give with the toys!” Egan said, also sitting up.
“We can make a flyer, then pass it around next Friday,” Zeke said, “then go pick up the toys and the food the following Friday!” His feet had started moving quite restlessly, bouncing up and down and back again.
“I can make the flyers!” Aiko said, jumping out of the couch.
“I can print them out!” Egan said, also standing up.
“Saba and Sépideh have cars, we can have two teams!” Zafirah said, her hands waving excitedly.
“We could ask my parents, they would help, and they have a car!” Arwen, who was also standing up by then, said. “That’s three teams!”
“My parents, too!” Aiko said. “We can have four teams!”
“Mine, too!” Egan said. “Let’s do five teams!”
Saba grinned. “It looks like you guys have your next service project all figured out! How about we sit and do some more detailed planning?”
I would have been so much more excited if I hadn’t seen the look on Ghada’s face. It kind of scares me when she looks at me like that.
* * *
The following Friday, after what had felt like the longest week of school ever, I found myself walking through the cold weather with Egan and his Mom, knocking on a little over 100 doors (seriously, we counted). At each house, we handed out a flyer with all the information about our service project printed on it: who we were, what we were doing, what we needed, when we would come back to pick up the contributions, and whom we would be donating them to. Almost everyone was super friendly and eager to help. We had one awkward encounter with a guy who basically said that he couldn’t trust us—in his own words: “How do I know the food and the toys will make it to the church in question?” Thankfully, Egan’s Mom totally managed the situation with class; she gave the guy the church’s address and told him he could drop the stuff off himself.
“As if he will,” Egan said as we left the man’s property.
“Oh, Egan,” his Mom said. “Shouldn’t you hope for the best in this individual?”
Egan blushed, put his head down, and quickly went up the driveway to the next house.
Together, the five teams knocked on—get this—some five hundred doors. Five HUNDRED! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen the table that Saba had made.
“We actually knocked on 500 doors,” Arwen said, in awe.
“That’s incredible,” Zafirah said.
“Not really,” Ghada quietly said. “I mean, it’s great that we managed it, but think about it… It takes two or three minutes per door, so in an hour, one person can easily visit thirty houses. We had five teams, so if we had just done one hour’s worth of visits, that’s an easy 150 houses. We always had it in us to do this.”
“She’s right,” Aiko said. “It’s a lot of work, but not as much as one would think. It’s part of our group’s capacity, that’s all.”
Ghada looked at her with a beautiful, loving smile. “Exactly. And it means that there is so much more we can do, just as easily as that. We just have to put in the time and effort.”
“I guess it’s kind of like what we saw in the album you gave us,” Arwen told Saba.
I felt a little lost. I was going to let it slide, then noticed that Cole—who had been invited by Arwen to help out—was also confused. I felt bad for him; if I, a year younger than everyone else, was having a hard time, how was it for him? “What album?” I asked.
“Saba gave an album as a gift to the club at the end of summer,” Egan said. “It had pictures of everything we had done last year together.”
“How is today like that album?” I asked Arwen.
“Well at the beginning of the album, there was so few of us—even Zafirah, Egan, and Marco weren’t part of the club at that point. Then they joined, and we got help from other people, and the pictures went to just the four of us to the seven of us, to, like, larger and larger groups of people,” he said.
“All we did,” Ghada softly said, “was to start a club, just the four of us. And then we tried to do service, and we were helped. Just like today—all we did, just us, is to go around and ask people for help. That’s not that much, you know? And look at what we accomplished.”
“I can’t wait to see a giant pile of toys and food in the garage,” Saba excitedly said after a few moments of silence.
It was amazing, it really was, to see how much four friends had been able to accomplish. And it was also amazing for me to see for the first time a softer, loving, wise, and generous side of Ghada.
* * *
The next week, we were divided into four teams instead of five. Zeke was with Arwen (of course), Cole, and Zeke’s Dad; Aiko and Marco were with Arwen’s Mom; Saba, Egan, Zafirah, and Sépideh were together; and, you guessed it, Ghada and I were together on the fourth team with Aiko’s Mom.
“Give me the map,” Ghada said, snatching it out of my hands.
Aiko’s Mom’s eyes flicked over to me; I smiled. No use making a fuss, Ghada would probably manage to turn it around, blame it on me, and be even angrier at me.
But after the fourth or fifth time that Ghada was outright rude or mean to me, Mrs. Yoshiro was the one to make a comment.
“Are you upset, Ghada?” she asked.
Ghada turned her gorgeous, million watt smile—the one she flashes at everyone but me—on her. “I’m not upset, Mrs. Yoshiro! Why would you think that?”
“You have been very short with MaSovaida all afternoon,” she said.
I held my breath; I couldn’t believe she just said it, right like that, so directly. Then again, she is a Mom and has known Ghada for a while.
“I’m sorry if I upset you,” Ghada told her, with a sheepish smile. “I guess I’m a little anxious about the success of this project.”
“Well, it seems to be going pretty well,” Mrs. Yoshiro said, taking a quick look at the back of the car, which was piled high with food and toys.
“I know… But I’m still a little nervous,” Ghada said.
I don’t know if she was lying to get away with treating me badly or if she really had something on her mind; whatever the case, things went well after that. Ghada wasn’t exactly chummy with me, but at least she wasn’t rude anymore.
* * *
At the end of the day, Arwen was standing in the middle of his parent’s garage, his mouth open in shock. Actually, it was more like he was standing toward the front of the garage; there was so much stuff in there that it was almost completely full, except for a little passage down the middle that did not even make it to the very back.
“That’s a lot of stuff,” I heard Cole say, really quietly—I think it was the first time I had heard him speak all day.
“I have never, ever seen so much food and so many toys in my entire life,” Egan said quietly.
We were all gathered outside the garage. We were kind of freezing—I could see a couple of the club members shivering, that’s how cold they were—but we just could not make up our minds to go inside. Have you ever seen a two-car garage? Those things are really big. Now imagine it completely full of box upon box, and bag upon bag, of food and toys.
“Why am I not happier?” I suddenly heard myself asking.
“What do you mean?” Saba quietly asked.
“I mean, I am happy,” I said. “But…” I gestured at the mountain of donations. “I don’t feel like I’m as happy as I thought I would be.”
“But look at all this food!” Zafirah said.
We fell silent.
“What about when it’s eaten?” Ghada suddenly asked.
Saba smiled that smile even I already knew quite well—the one that meant we were onto something and she was really proud of us. “Keep going,” she told Ghada.
“Well…” Ghada had a frown on her face, but this one did not make her ugly—quite the contrary, actually. She looked so smart and caring. “Once the food has been eaten, they will be hungry again. And once the kids are too old for these toys, they’re going to be bored again. We might have helped a bit, but in the long run, it’s not going to count.”
“Are you saying that all the work we did is for nothing?” Arwen asked.
Saba and Sépideh were both shaking their heads really fast and in sync—it was funny, and if I wasn’t feeling suddenly so sad, I would have definitely laughed.
“Not at all,” Sépideh said. “Fact is, there are going to be families who are not going to be hungry this Christmas season because of you, and there are children who are going to be happy to have new toys because of your work. You made a big, big difference.”
“But, indeed, it is quite important not to lose sight of the fact that there is a lot more to do to make sure that no one needs donations anymore at all,” Saba said.
“So we did good but not really?” I said, feeling confused.
“You did great, and you should continue fulfilling immediate needs but without losing sight of the fact that more is needed,” Saba said.
“Are you guys ready for a medical analogy?” Sépideh said. “Well,” she continued after we all nodded, “when someone is in a bad car accident, they’re picked up by an ambulance. The Emergency Medical Technician stops the bleeding, immobilizes the neck of the patient, puts in an IV to replace fluid that has been lost—basically, he does everything to make sure that, in the time it take to take the patient to the hospital, he doesn’t die. Then they patient goes to the Emergency Department. There, the nurses and doctors go further. They go find the cause of the bleeding and patch it up, they check to make sure the neck is OK, they see if the patient needs a blood transfusion, things like that. Then, if the patient is really not doing well, he or she is taken up to surgery for a deep fix.”
“I guess,” Ghada said, really thoughtful, “because there are so many bad things going on in the world, that… Like, when there is a tornado, you can send in food for the first couple of days because there is no store for people to buy food at. But once the store is built, people have money, and they can go buy food again. So, it’s like the technician guy at the scene of the accident.”
“That sounds right,” Sépideh said.
“But the problem is that there are people who are poor,” Ghada continued, “and these people need something deeper, like, getting a job. It’s like the patient in the Emergency Department.”
“But what about a deeper intervention?” Egan said. “The surgery?”
“Do you think one is needed?” Saba asked.
“I think so,” Egan said thoughtfully. “I mean, we hear all the time about how the big companies are not paying employees enough so that they can make more money—that makes the employees poor. Giving them food is not going to create justice, right?”
Suddenly, completely out of the blue and in such contrast with the way she had just been contributing to the conversation, Ghada kicked one of the boxes near the door really hard. “This is so annoying!” she screamed.
Everyone was shocked, except, of course, Saba and Sépideh.
“Why?” Saba calmly said.
“We spent an entire day, an entire DAY, working on helping
people, and after all of this, it’s not. Going. To. HELP!”
I was shocked to see tears in Ghada’s eyes.
“It is going to help…” Saba started.
“Not in the long run!” Ghada screamed. “They are still going to need more food! And even then, they are going to have a sucky job! And people are going to treat them badly! And their kids have to go home alone—the kids that have the keys around their necks—they go home and have to take care of themselves because NO ONE CARES! I’m sick of all the unfairness! It’s like the good people can NEVER WIN! And those of us who are trying so hard to make a difference—just because we are not pretty enough or smart enough, NO ONE LISTENS, even our so-called friends! They go instead and, like, follow the mean people because they look good and are fashionable and I’m so SICK OF IT!”
She had to run by me to get into Arwen’s house, so I might have been one of the only people to clearly see the pain and sadness and tears in her eyes. It’s funny—I had been so focused on Ghada’ negative side that I did not even realize she had it in her to be so caring. It made me feel bad.
I turned around and saw Cole was also staring after Ghada—but contrary to everyone else who looked confused, he looked like he wasn’t surprised, just sad. It made me wish for understanding, because it would have meant that I could go in after Ghada and help. But I didn’t know what to say, so I stayed rooted in place, relieved that Sépideh went after her instead.
“Is everyone OK?” Saba softly asked the rest of us.
I looked around—everyone looked as upset as I felt.
“No. But we don’t want to talk about it,” Zafirah said, just as quietly.
Saba gently smiled. The love in that smile made me want to cry. “Maybe we should just go in and have some snacks then. We can talk about this when you guys are ready.”
I don’t know when I will be ready for this conversation, but one thing was sure: I’m glad I wasn’t alone to deal with it all. I had always been content with the activities of the church, convinced that they were more than enough to create a wonderful world. But it had taken only a short time with my new friends in the Spirit Within Club to realise that there is way too much suffering in the world, and that I needed to do so much more—and that was an overwhelming thought.
When Ghada and Sépideh finally walked out of the room where they had been, when she walked straight into the arms of Zafirah, and when then the rest of the club—me, Sépideh, and Saba included—got dragged into a massive group hug, I knew that everyone else was just as glad not to have to deal with the unfairness in the world alone.