BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Mary Jo James and her two youngest children, Megan and Justin, never met a cause they didn't like. They are dedicated volunteers.
They're so busy helping others, they have to make time to help themselves. So, every other week, Mary Jo takes her children out to lunch to talk over their problems and count their blessings.
Mary Jo invited me to tag along this week. The midday meal of the James Gang, as Megan calls the threesome, became a "Lunch with Cliff." That's where I treat to learn how people use their lunch hour.
"We use our lunches to get out of the house and relieve stress," Mary Jo said. "We're always flying around," she added. "So, we use lunch to land for a few minutes and think ahead."
Their lunches have a set routine. Mary Jo, who works nights as a data transcriber for the IRS, doesn't drive. So, she asks her husband, John, a facility control worker at the juvenile detention center, to take them to the Delhi LaRosa's. He eats elsewhere while Mary Jo, Justin and Megan sit at their favorite table and order a cheese pizza from their favorite waitress, Darlene Mack.
"She's super-patient with the kids," Mary Jo said. "And the restaurant is a small, homey place. The kids find they can talk easier here, in a different situation, especially when something's bothering them."
Summer-vacation rules and regulations are bothering Megan.
"I want to go see Titanic again with my friends. But my mother kinda keeps me trapped in the house. She's really strict on what I do. I can't go anywhere without her checking up on me," said the 13-year-old eighth-grader as she nibbled on a pizza slice.
"She even listens in to my phone calls."
Mary Jo frowned. "I do not," she protested.
"Do, too," Megan insisted. "You tell me "You've been on the phone long enough.' "
Mary Jo gave her a frustrated mother's roll of the eyes. Then she corrected her daughter. When a phone call runs too long, Mary Jo tells Megan: "If you can't say it in five minutes, it isn't worth saying."
As Mary Jo recited her familiar parental warning, Justin mouthed his mother's words. This business with the telephone is a mystery to the 10-year-old fifth-grader.
"It is," he told me, "one of those girl things."
Mary Jo took off his baseball cap and playfully mussed his hair. "These are relatively good kids," she said.
She hopes they'll be even better adults because of the volunteer work they're doing now.
Mary Jo and her children became dedicated volunteers after the family's holiday gifts were stolen four Christmases ago in a car break-in. Area charities came to the family's aid with new Christmas gifts.
"We give back by volunteering," Mary Jo said. "When the kids think they've got it bad, it reminds them there are people who have it a lot worse."
Throughout their summer vacation, Megan and Justin will spend two days a week at the Anderson Ferry Food Pantry. Megan stocks shelves and offers encouragement. "People walk in looking angry or sad. I tell them: "Things will get better. Look over the rainbow.' "
Justin carries bags of groceries and clothing to waiting cars.
As they tugged apart a piece of cheese pizza, he and his sister discussed working with the needy.
"If you do volunteer work," Megan said, "it keeps you out of trouble and off the street. You're not a couch potato."
Justin talked about the people he sees at the food pantry. He compared their lives with his.
"I'm lucky," he announced. "The people who come to the food pantry don't have any good luck. They can't buy food. They need new clothes.
"But they're nice. They give hugs and pats on the back.
"That's cool," he added. "But I wonder why they do it."
Someday, I think, Justin will figure that part out. He'll realize the lesson his mother wanted him to learn. Kindness breeds kindness.
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.