Sometimes I don’t realize just how sheltered my children are.

My mom and I took the boys to Washington DC for a few days over their Spring Break. It was a great trip to a truly beautiful city, one the boys tackled with gusto on their Razor scooters as they weaved in and out of traffic on sidewalks and streets and covered a full seven miles on one day and six the next, my mom and I speed walking behind them. They loved the carousel and the Spy Museum, were massively disappointed that the paddle boats on the tidal basin were closed due to wind, and had mixed reactions to the war memorials. Braedan was old enough to be awed by the awe-inspiring list of names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, asking over and over again, “All these names, mom? All these people died??” Austin, only six, tugged on my hand and whined, “Can I ride my scooter now? Can I ride my scooter now?” as we tried to quietly pass those visitors running their fingers over the names of their loved ones.

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But the single thing that defined our trip above all else was Braedan’s reaction to the homeless people. He noticed them our very first evening, as we walked back towards our hotel after a nighttime viewing of the White House. There were three, huddled under blankets in the entryway of an office building, and he was stunned. I hadn’t realized before how infrequently we walk the streets of our own downtown and see anyone begging (not that they don’t exist in Cleveland, it’s just that my kids aren’t there to see them). He stopped immediately to question us and then eyed the bag I was carrying with the desserts my mom and I had been carefully saving til later. “Do you want to give one of these?” I asked, somewhat begrudgingly. But I forgot my sweet tooth as I watched Braedan rush back with a plastic fork and a slice of cheesecake to wish a homeless man a Happy Easter. “I get lots of treats for Easter,” he announced to us with a proud bounce in his step. “I told him this was his Easter treat.”

He was not so easily satisfied in his quest to make a difference though and began carefully planning what he would order in restaurants to ensure he had leftovers appropriate to give away. He would usually scope out the scene outside the restaurant prior to entering to determine exactly who he would return to with his take-away box (somehow, “doggy bag” just doesn’t feel right in this context). This became the main topic of our conversations as well, as Braedan asked careful and impressively mature questions on the subject at every meal, including “Are homeless people educated?” and “Where are their families?” My mom and I spent a lot of time talking about the many complex reasons people become homeless, the services available to them (especially for those with children), as well as the many issues to be addressed when trying to “solve” the problem. We covered everything from affordable health care to jobs with a living wage to access to high quality education, plus mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and poor personal choices.

Looking to the future, he announced that after he makes millions of dollars for the app he’s planning to design (what this million-dollar app is going to do, he has yet to explain), he will give all that money away to homeless people. I tried to bring him back to the present by suggesting he use his role as a student council member to organize a school food drive, which he eagerly jumped on . . . until I told him there are homeless people and food kitchens in Cleveland too. “No!” he said with certainty. “I want us to collect canned food and send it to Washington DC!” Humph, I guess we need to head to downtown Cleveland and stroll the streets one of these nights. Under some bridges might help too.

One evening, after he gave his leftovers to a woman smoking a cigarette, which I commented was one possible reason people may choose not to donate to her, he said, “Yeah, but mom, even people who make bad decisions deserve food.” As for my job as a bleeding heart liberal mother, I have two words: mission accomplished.

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