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12-year-olds forced to act like adults
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Before I met Robbie — a lanky, shy sixth grader who attended Sequoia School — I did things like raise money for the Boys & Girls Club because I thought it made sense. It was the right thing to do. It made me feel good. That type of thing.

Besides, it was hammered into me by words and actual deeds by my mom and grandmother to always help others when you can.

I met Robbie by accident. I was the troubleshooter for Operation Christmas, a now defunct Manteca Chamber of Commerce effort that matched 300 of Manteca Unified’s neediest elementary-age children for a $100 shopping spree with willing donors who picked up the tab and either accompanied them or relied on volunteers to do so. They were to buy clothes and one toy.

There were seven kids left over, all older with two of them who exceeded the age limit The teachers thought the two older kids had an exceptional need. Robbie was one of the two.

This doesn’t sound right, but as we were rustling up additional volunteers no one wanted to go with Robbie. He was shy and shunned people standing against a wall with his head bowed

I rode on the last bus from the Boys & Girls Club with him to Mervyn’s. I tried to strike up a conversation to no avail. When we got to the store he immediately wanted to buy things for his baby sister and for his little brother to wear and not himself. I told him we couldn’t do that as the money was being provided specifically for him.

He gave me a list his mother had provided with his sizes and needs. Topping the list were shoes. The ones he had on had visible holes. I took him to the shoe department but when we got there he froze. He said he didn’t want shoes. I insisted. Then he started getting teary eyed and turned red. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked what was wrong. He said he was embarrassed because his feet stunk and his socks had holes in them. Not knowing what to say, I lied. I told him half the time the socks I wore were riddled with holes too and that my feet could smell up a room. He laughed. Finally he took his shoes off to try on a pair of new shoes. He wasn’t kidding. His feet stunk and there seemed to be more holes than material.

He insisted on getting the least expensive items for all of the clothing needs on his list.

The second and final stop was Kmart. We had $20 left. I told him he was supposed to find a toy for himself. Instead he came back with a costume jewelry necklace for his mother. I told him he couldn’t do that as we were told the money could only be spent on a toy for him. He then went over to the men’s accessory department and picked out an umbrella.

I was getting a bit exasperated. I told him he was supposed to get a toy. He looked crestfallen. I asked why he wanted an umbrella.

I’ll never forget his answer: “I want it to keep my books dry when it rains when I walk to school.”

That wasn’t normal thinking for a 12-year-old. I then remembered the necklace and asked why he wanted it for his mom.

He told me that she gets real tired trying to take care of three kids because she had cancer and he wanted something to make her smile. Needless to say Robbie got the necklace and the umbrella and my wallet took an inconsequential hit.

On the way back to the club he talked some more. His dad had found a temporary construction job in Oregon and had left him as the oldest in charge of helping his mom take care of his sister, brother, and the house. He also did the cooking.

He asked what I did and I told him I worked at the Manteca Bulletin. His eyes lit up. He asked in an excited voice whether I could get him a job as a newspaper carrier so he could help out at home. We still had youth carriers back then so I told him I’d find out but made no promises. I asked if had ever been to the Boys & Girls Club. He said no. I told him what there was to do and he seemed excited. I paid for a membership before the day was out.

Several years later, I penned a column about Robbie. One of his former teachers called and said she knew who I was talking about. Robbie had since moved away as his father found permanent employment in Oregon. She added that Robbie talked glowingly about being able to go to the Boys & Girls Club where he was able to be a kid for awhile. He only went a half dozen times due to his adult responsibilities but it made an impact.

If you read today’s front page stories by Vince Rembulat you will understand there is a big need out there. Kids are being put in situations that adults would have a hard time handling.

Anytime I get frustrated working on the telethon I think back to the two hours I spent with Robbie.

I may not have had much of an impact on his life but he had a big impact on mine.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.