From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Magic Key

What feeling is so nice as a child’s hand in yours?

Marjorie Holmes

It was a cool September morning when we piled into a rusty blue university van and began our journey across one of the great divisions in our society: affordable housing. Our group of fifteen college students was heading to Milwaukee to help build homes in a poor inner-city neighborhood with Habitat for Humanity.

After passing through miles of farmland that slowly segued into subdivisions and strip malls, we were soon driving through city neighborhoods where the homes were older and packed tightly into plots protected by chain link fences. As we drove on, we saw many homes and businesses boarded up. That’s also when our idle conversation boarded up into stunned silence.

Weaving through a maze of old row houses and empty lots, we knew we were near the Habitat site when we saw cars lining the streets, Dumpsters and a small knot of people armed with work gloves.

At the site, I told the construction supervisor we wanted the toughest job of the day. He smiled and led us to an enormous pile of debris.

“I figure this pile was here before any of you were born,” he laughed, mostly to himself. “I’d like to chuck it all in the dumpster out front.”

After dubbing the pile “Mount Habitat,” we began our arduous task. About two hours into our work, several children walked over and became our kid corps of sidewalk superintendents. We invited them to join us in our mountain assault, and those munchkins enthusiastically agreed.

The smallest boy of the group hung back as the other children put on gloves and dug in. While I was working on a far corner of the pile, I smiled at him when he glanced my way. He strode up to me, puffed out his chest and stated, “My name’s J. T., and I’m real strong.”

“Well, I can see that,” I replied. “My name is David, and I really need some help.” I grabbed a shovel that was nearby and handed it to my small helper.

The shovel towered over him by a full two feet and his tiny hands couldn’t even wrap around the handle. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dug into the pile with great passion. Every few minutes he would stop, then look up at me and exclaim with pride, “I’m helping.”

And each time I responded, “I don’t know what we would do without you, J. T.”

He was dressed much like the other kids: blue jeans rolled up at the bottom so he could grow into them, a T-shirt dirty from the day’s adventures, and an unbuttoned well-worn red and white flannel shirt. He wore high-top basketball shoes that were purposely left untied, and upon closer inspection, I realized they were actually two different shoes.

But it was his beautiful brown eyes that set him apart. When he smiled, his eyes remained wide open, which forced his cheeks to bulge out like the cheeks of a cherub. I tried to imagine what this little boy would look like when the rest of his frail body caught up with his eyes.

To amuse each other, we took turns making up stories about items that we found in the pile. A rusted hubcap became a gear from a flying saucer that crashed many years ago. A beat-up old shoe and a broken cup were transformed into a priceless modern art exhibit. I found an old rusted skeleton key and created a story about a magic spaceship. When I finished telling the story, I gave J. T. the key and said, “Now you have the magic key that starts that spaceship.”

He gazed at me with those huge brown eyes and ran over to his friends to show them his new treasure.

J. T. and I worked side by side the entire day. I had to give up my shovel a few times when some of the adult volunteers needed one, but I always made sure my new friend had his orange-handled shovel.

And then, as we were getting ready to quit for the day, a well-dressed elderly man walking with a cane called one of the children over. The man then began to yell, “Unless you’re gettin’ paid, you git away from there and go home right now. I mean it, right now.”

All of the children dropped their shovels and quickly dispersed. A woman from our group approached the man and tried to explain Habitat for Humanity’s philosophy to him. He was unfamiliar with Habitat’s work and refused to believe that people would volunteer their time and then sell the home for no profit. He turned away and continued to shout to the children.

I watched J. T. as he scurried off. He slowed and seemed suspended between the urgings of his peers, the commands of the elderly man and our group. I stood silently clutching my shovel. He turned and his eyes found mine. We shared a mutual smile. Again, he ran toward his friends, but then he stopped, turned around and ran back toward me.

He grasped my hand and pulled me down so that we were eye to eye. Standing on his tiptoes, he whispered in my ear, “You’ll always be my friend.” Then he pressed something into my hand and ran off with the other children.

I never saw J. T. again, but I will always treasure the gift he gave me, the old rusty key to his magic spaceship.

David “Goose” Guzzetta

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Habitat for Humanity International, contact 121 Habitat St., Americus, GA 31709; 229-924-6935, ext. 2551 or 2552; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: For information on the Jimmy Carter Work Project, visit the Web site:]

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