Hero for a Moment

Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.
—Fred Rogers

I visited a tiny innovator this summer. I met a young boy brimming with creativity who had harnessed the mighty power of his imagination and, with the help of a kind friend, turned an ordinary moment into an extraordinary movement. When my family met this 11-year-old boy named Caine, I saw firsthand how a moment of kindness turned a mundane moment into the catalyst for changing a life.

Some of you may be familiar with Caine, a boy from East L.A. whose claim to fame is that he played with a cardboard box and invited others to do the same. Caine saw the boxes lying around his father’s used auto parts store, envisioned endless possibilities, and created cardboard arcade games that he placed in the front of his dad’s store. He cleverly created and sold tickets to his games for visitors to play as they walked by. For a dollar, you could play 5 games, but for $5.00 you could buy a 500-game “Fun Pass.” 

Almost an entire summer went by without any customers until one day when a man who needed a door handle for his car stopped by. He was so captivated by the simple wonder of a boy creating with tape and cardboard that he bought a Fun Pass and played with Caine. Struck by the ingenuity and patient hope of little Caine, the customer, who happened to be a filmmaker, decided to surprise the boy by inviting others to come play Caine’s arcade games. To cheer him on and make him feel special. The short film made from the footage that day is so inspiring that cardboard boxes and an imaginative boy from East L.A. challenge thousands of children and adults around the world to create something amazing of their own — all because one man in one moment paused to help a child.

Business goes on as usual at Caine's father's auto parts shop since Caine's short film went viral on YouTube two years ago and sparked a movement of enthusiasm for creativity. When I visited Caine's Arcade, cars were parked on the street in front of the store, and people with their children milled around to see Caine as he sold his Fun Passes and helped people navigate his cardboard games which sat on the floor in front of the shop counter. I struck up a conversation with a local teacher who was there with her out-of-town nephews, sharing our love for the creativity with which children greet the world, and how in a single moment, encouraging a child can change his life. Caine closed his Arcade shortly after I visited — his new dream was to open a bicycle shop. The enthusiasm and emotion that Caine's Arcade evoked over the past two years has generated a foundation that aims to continue inspiring innovation and creativity in children around the world.

The filmmaker had no idea what would happen when he invited others to play Caine’s games — he just knew that a moment like that would make Caine’s day. He became a hero to Caine that sunny afternoon two summers ago, and his heroism launched a little hero who has now inspired countless children and adults around the world to imagine and create. One moment made a difference, not only Caine’s life but also in the lives of the people Caine has inspired. The investment of ourselves in the life of a child never goes to waste. 

A moment spent helping a child can be the simplest gesture of kindness. Paying attention to a child can sometimes make the most seemingly insignificant moment shout volumes of significance to a young child. Few things can make children feel more special than adults looking them in the eye and listening to what they want to say. My friend Marsha, the children’s librarian at a library near my home, is particularly gifted at listening to children. She leads story time 4 days a week and has developed a following of children and parents alike, young and old, who in the midst of listening to a children’s book, singing a handful of silly songs, and making an art project, feel Marsha’s love. Through the way she reads a children’s story, the people gathered around her feel they are part of a community; they feel honored and understood. Marsha has a gift that draws children and parents to her — she understands the power of putting aside her agenda and pausing for a moment.

Marsha knows what happens when she takes a moment to listen to the children around her, and she knows to wait if a child raises her hand to tell her something. Marsha waits for the synapses that are whizzing around a child’s brain, forming connections and highways of learning, to all move together to combine thoughts with ideas and new vocabulary, moving through the brain to the mouth to vocalize a thought. Marsha knows this process is brand new for a young child, and she knows that sometimes it takes a while for the idea to reach the child’s lips, so she waits for it. Marsha will lock eyes with the child, smile kindly, and wait for the answer. Sometimes it seems to take an eternity for the child to say it, but Marsha will wait, even while the room becomes almost uncomfortable with silence and impatience. Eventually, the child will finally figure out what she wanted to say. “And sometimes,” Marsha told me, “I’ll see the mother’s eyes well up with tears at the idea that I spent so much time waiting for the words her child was searching for. And then the other children know I will listen to them too.” 

“In the heart of a child, a moment can last forever,” says Compassion International president Wess Stafford in his book Just a Minute. Something in all of us longs for this kindness and honor. I am often overcome with emotion at the story of the simplest gesture of kindness toward a child and could barely hold back tears at the tenderness and dignity with which my friend Marsha treats the children sitting at her feet listening to a story. 

When we remember how it felt to be a child and have someone either believe in us or dismiss us, deep emotions are stirred. Painful memories of childhood may spring to your own mind as you think of a moment when an adult made you feel small and insignificant, or maybe, instead, an adult was there to take your hand and walk alongside you encouraging you in a moment when you needed a kind word. Those adults who encouraged you when you were small or said even the slightest, kindest word to you are the heroes who may have made a difference in your life. 

“Sometimes the act of kindness we do for a child, though it takes just a minute, can reverberate for a life time.” Wess Stafford says. “Like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a pond, we may never know how far our action spreads or where it finally comes to rest.” 

A mother whose daughter was in my preschool class 15 years ago stopped me one day at the store. “I have to tell you about a project Jillian had to do for school. She was asked to choose photos marking significant moments in her life. One of the pictures she picked was of her sitting in your lap at preschool while you read a book to her. When I asked her why she chose that photo, she said, ‘I was loved there.’” I had never known that any of my minutes had mattered to Jillian when she was 4, but she had known. What a tremendous gift for me to learn years later — a moment when I had paused and paid attention really had mattered to a little girl.

For every moment I paid attention, I wonder how many moments I missed — not just with the children around me, but also with the adults I interact with who might have needed an encouraging word or simply a friend who would listen. Maybe being a hero doesn’t require superhuman abilities, but simply the willingness to pause and pay attention and listen. 

“I am convinced that if God stands a child before you, for even just a minute, it is a divine appointment,” Stafford says. What if we really did live our lives with this idea? That every interaction was an appointment set by God as the moment that really mattered to the people in front of us. Stafford gives us an image to help us understand the importance of such connections: “You, even for a moment, are part of a tapestry of people engaged in the life of any child with whom you have a minute.” 

What if I lived my life as part of a “tapestry” for every person I encountered, whether a child or a grownup? I sat next to a man on a flight from Los Angeles back to Nashville this summer and as strangers next to each other on a plane often do, we began to chat about ordinary topics such as the cities we lived in and what we had been doing visiting each other’s hometowns. Somehow the easy conversation turned to the idea of kindness for kindness’s sake and making every moment matter. The man began to tell me a story of an unlikely friendship he had found with a homeless man who lived near his Los Angeles neighborhood. The two men had played sports together for rival high schools decades earlier, and through a familiar story of unfortunate events that lead people to desperation and homelessness, one of the high school heroes found himself poor and alone and living on the streets. The two men became reacquainted one day because my seatmate paused at a red light and paid attention to the homeless man attempting to clean his windshield. In a moment, the busy man driving home from work became a friend that the homeless man needed. 

Over the next weeks and months, a deep friendship grew between the two men. My co-passenger told me he kept a folding chair in the trunk of his car so that when he visited his friend he could stay a while. He knew that his homeless friend didn’t talk to people very regularly, but he learned over the course of their friendship about the brutality of homelessness as well as his own capacity to pause his busy life and just be in a moment of conversation and friendship.

We continued to talk about our lives and our stories, and when the plane landed, we shook hands and went our separate ways. But my trip to Caine’s Arcade and my conversation with a stranger on a plane have stuck with me ever since. Their stories have rippled into my own story and caused me to pause more frequently when someone enters my life. Whether we are the filmmaker who sees an opportunity to make a child feel special for a day, the librarian who pauses her agenda to wait for a child to share her idea, or a busy man driving home from work who looks past the disheveled appearance of a homeless man to see a beautiful heart, I believe we all have the ability to be heroes at any given time. To be the person who pauses at just the right moment to imagine with someone who needs to dream, to listen to someone who needs to be heard, and to be a friend to someone who just needs a companion to walk alongside.

Deep within the spirit of all of us resides an amazing hero just waiting for the moment, for the curtains of life to open so we can walk out onto the stage and do the right thing that will make all the difference. 
—Wess Stafford, Just a Minute

Krista Barré is a wife and mother who lives in Franklin, Tennessee. She is fascinated by cardboard, tape, glitter, and glue, and she will get out art supplies for any kid (or adult, for that matter) who requests them. To see the magic of Caine and his Arcade, or to learn more about how you can bring the love of cardboard creations to children in your area, go to http://cainesarcade.com.

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