As I stood in the grocery store checking my list, I thought I heard someone call my name. I turned around, but I didn’t see anyone I recognized, so I went back to my list. I heard my name again, but this time there was no mistaking it. I turned to see a young man approaching me. He was about 6 foot 2, and skinny. I couldn’t figure out who he was until he grinned. That grin triggered memories I would never forget, nor could I believe who was standing in front of me.
“Mr. Howard, do you remember me?”
I laughed. “Dustin! My how you’ve grown.”
When I first met Dustin, he was ten, and shorter than my five year old daughter. His mother had kept him locked in his room when he wasn’t in school, and hadn’t fed him very well. Once his parents separated, and his father gained custody, he was free to roam as he pleased.
Dustin had a wild imagination, unbounded energy, and an insatiable curiosity. As we started taking him to church with us, the only thing a person could count on for sure was that he would always do something out of the ordinary, causing a bit of havoc.
But in the years that followed, I saw the power of the love and compassion of a community, and its effects on a young boy that desperately needed it. Everyone was patient and caring as this boy, whose childhood had been anything but normal, gained understanding and self-respect.
Many times Dustin ate at our home, and ours was not the only one. He was invited into homes all over the community. No matter where he stopped, people fed him, and he would often eat more than two grown men. His growth exploded, making up for lost time. He grew about a foot that first year, with little sign that it was abating. He was awkward and gangly. But most of all, he had a contagious grin, and a love for life and the wonders he found around him.
I watched as cub leaders, scout leaders, teachers, and basically everyone in the community watched out for this young boy. His life began to change, as did all of ours as he shared his world as he saw it, and we considered things we had never thought of before. When he was in his mid-teens, his father remarried. Suddenly, this young man not only had the love of a community, but he had the love of a new mother and adoring younger siblings. He continued to become an outstanding youth as his life stabilized.
But then, the family moved away. I hadn’t seen him for four or five years, and now he was standing in front of me. After a short visit in the store, he motioned excitedly with his hands. “Don’t move! I’ll be right back. I want you to meet someone.”
Dustin quickly disappeared down the aisle and around the end of the shelves. A moment later he reappeared holding hands with a sweet young lady while carrying a two year old boy in one arm. He smiled happily.
“Guess what? I am married and have a son.”
I had already guessed as much. The way the young lady looked at Dustin showed she loved him, and the boy was a small model of him. Dustin treated his wife like a princess, and his son like he was the greatest joy of his life. We visited for quite a while, and when we parted, I knew how much it truly does take a community to raise a child. But in so doing, the community is often saving a future family. Who knows where the benefits will end?