The Little Red Wagon that Changed the World

atkins-bookshelf-cultureSomeone once asked the Dalai Lama what is the most important meditation. Without any hesitation he answered: “Critical thinking followed by action. Discern what your world is; know the scenario of this human drama, and then figure out where your talents might fit in to make a better world. And each of must do something that will make your heart sing because no one will want to do it with us if we are not passionate and inspired.” When is that point in one’s life when a person figures out what those talents are and how to use them to make the world a better place? Perhaps there is a Muse of Altruism that jolts people out of their complacency or obliviousness, leading to that compelling epiphany: “yes, there is something I can do about that problem.” For some, that epiphany arrives in adulthood, for others it might occur after middle age, but for the very fortunate, that glorious epiphany can arrive in childhood.

One of the most touching and inspiring stories of philanthropy is the story of Zach Bonner, an eight-year-old who lives with his sister and widowed mother in a modest home in Tampa, Florida. His incredible, inspiring journey is recreated in the docudrama, Little Red Wagon (2012). One morning in 2004 while watching a news report on television, Bonner was moved by the plight of homeless children and their families in the wake of Hurricane Charley that hit the coast of Florida. What is remarkable about this lad’s decision to help his fellow man is that it grew out of his own experience and feelings. This was not an idea planted by his mother, a mentor, a school teacher (as part of an assignment to get involved and make a difference). It was a decision inspired by that mysterious Muse of Altruism. Pulling his scruffy little red wagon to complement his fiery-red hair, Bonner visits and collects donations from his neighbors. Initially, he successfully delivers truckloads of water and supplies to grateful donation centers. Next, he comes up with the idea of “Zachpacks” — backpacks filled with toys, food, candy, and personal hygiene products given to children. But soon he realizes that the problem of homelessness is far greater than what he witnesses around Tampa; he also realizes that his efforts by way of his little red wagon are not enough to help homeless children. In order to raise more funds and raise awareness, Bonner with the help of his family and community, created The Little Red Wagon Foundation with the tagline “Kids Helping Kids One Wagon Full at a Time.” Inspired by a television news report about a woman who walked 25,000 miles to promote peace, Bonner embarked on his first major event in 2007 — walking from Tampa to Tallahassee, a distance of 250 miles over 23 days. Bonner explained to the media: “Thirteen kids on average die everyday for no other reason than the effects of being homeless. I walk for them. I walk to help give a voice to the kids that do not have one.” In 2008, he walked from Tallahasse to Atlanta, Georgia (270 miles). Then in 2009, Bonner walked from Atlanta to Washington, DC — 668 miles over 59 days. If he hadn’t worn out enough walking shoes, in 2010 Bonner walked from Atlanta to Los Angeles, dubbed “March Across America” — a journey of more than 2,478 miles over 6 months. Along the way, Bonner visited homeless shelters and gave numerous press conferences to raise awareness for homelessness.

Little Red Wagon is an imperfect film, criticized for its some of its dialogue, acting, and depictions. Its cinematic shortcomings notwithstanding, the message of this film — Zach’s passion for philanthropy — is undoubtedly noble and pure, and ultimately what redeems this docudrama. And for this reason, the film about “the little boy and his wagon that could” should be required viewing in every middle- or high-school across the country. Bonner’s focus, his perseverance, and his spirit are truly uplifting and inspiring. What the film captures so genuinely, so profoundly, is that helping others truly makes Bonner’s heart sing. And this is what is so critical about the Dalai Lama expressed so eloquently — each of us, given our unique set of talents and skills, should do something to help others — but without passion, no one would want to join us. That is to say, altruism begins with an individual, but it always takes a village. And this is Bonner’s greatest gift to us: as this sweet, determined, giving little boy pulls his beloved red wagon, we are humbled and inspired to happily follow him, reaffirming our shared humanity and moral obligations.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of a Grandmother

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