For Merit Francis and her 10-year-old sister, Emily, it was another new day at another new school.
Times had been tough for their family ever since their father left. Merit's mother had been working at whatever jobs she could find, but life wasn't easy. They'd been forced to move into a homeless shelter in Twinbrook.
Little Emily hoped she'd be able to make new friends, but Merit wasn't too optimistic. Who would want to be friends with a girl who lived in a shelter? Even their clothes were hand-me-downs from charity.
Since their mother was ill that morning, Merit took Emily to her new school, Twinbrook Elementary. She spoke to the principal, Miss Victoria -- who was none too friendly. When she saw that Emily and Merit lived at the Twinbrook Center, her disdain was obvious.
"Does your sister have special needs?" the principal asked. "Is she able to read? To do arithmetic?"
Why did people always think that if you lived in a homeless shelter, there was something wrong with you? Over the last few months, Merit had encountered that attitude a lot, and she hated it.
As Merit walked on to the high school, she did a lot of thinking.
How had everything gone so wrong for her family?
She had no idea where her father was. Good riddance! In a lot of ways, there were better off without him. At least, they would be if her mom didn't have so many health problems to deal with.
Vivian Francis had worked hard to keep food on the table, but when she got sick, she started missing a lot of time. Soon, her boss at the factory fired her, and things went downhill from there.
Merit wished there was something more she could do. Once they
got settled in Twinbrook, maybe she could find a part-time job and
help out a little more.
As Twinbrook High came into view, Merit froze. She wasn't sure she was ready to face up to all the stares, the questions, the insults and ridicule. She sucked in a deep breath and prayed that somehow she'd make it through the day.
Merit was very surprised when she met with Mr. Kincaid, the Twinbrook High principal.
Unlike the snooty Miss Victoria from the elementary school, Mr. Kincaid was kind and understanding. He spoke to Merit about her future.
"According to your transcript, your grades have always been high. Have you thought about what college you'd like to attend and what you'd like to study?"
"College?" She shook her head. "There's no way I can go to college. As soon as I graduate at the end of this year, I'll have to get a job. College is out of the question."
"There are ways, Merit," he reminded her. "Don't close off any options." He then pressed a button on his intercom and spoke to the office assistant. He looked up at Merit and smiled. "I want to introduce you to one of Twinbrook High's Student Ambassadors."
When Merit turned around, she was surprised to see a nice-looking young man standing behind her.
"I'd like you to meet Buddy Bracken," said Mr. Kincaid. "He'll show you around the school, help you find your classes, and introduce you to some of the other students."
In no time at all, Merit felt completely at ease with Buddy. She liked him. He was easy to talk to and fun to be around. He told her all about the school, and threw in a few jokes, too. Best of all, he was really cute, especially when he laughed.
He was there to meet her after every class, and at the end of the day he fell into step alongside her as she started for home. But she couldn't let Buddy know where she lived! She felt ashamed and humiliated, afraid of what he'd think if he found out she lived at the homeless shelter.
She had to get rid of Buddy -- and fast!
"Look, you can stop following me around now," she snapped. "I don't need any more help."
A stricken look came over his face. She knew she'd hurt his feelings, but Merit didn't care.
She turned and ran before Buddy could even say a word. Thank goodness he didn't try to follow her or stop her!
When she got back to the shelter, she checked on her mom, then helped Emily with her homework. They ate at the shelter cafeteria, and soon it was time for bed.
"You've been very quiet, Merit" her mother said as they prepared for bed later that night. "Did things go all right at school today?"
"Did you meet any cute boys?" Emily chimed in.
Merit shrugged. She didn't really feel like talking. She felt awful about the way she'd treated Buddy. He was only trying to be friendly. She'd been wrong to be so rude. She made up her mind that she'd have to be honest with him -- if he'd even speak to her again.
Merit didn't see Buddy at all the next day until after she left school. Her heart actually skipped a beat when he waved at her. She hurried over to him and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry for the way I acted yesterday," she blurted out. "You might as well know the truth. My family's having a hard time. My father walked out on us, my mom's been sick, and we're living at the Twinbrook Center."
"Yeah? So?" He didn't seem to understand what she was saying.
"It's a homeless shelter, Buddy."
"I know that." He smiled. "I'm sorry to hear that your family's having so many problems, but you're not alone, you know. With the economy as bad as it is, a lot of people have lost their homes. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Merit."
Nothing to be ashamed of? Was he crazy?
He was still standing there, still smiling. "I was hoping I'd see you today. I really enjoyed spending time with you yesterday, and I was wondering if maybe you'd like to go out with me sometime."
Yep, he was crazy all right. Merit blinked in surprise, but then shook her head. She knew why Buddy was asking her out. A lot of guys thought that homeless girls were easy, that they'd be so grateful at being asked out, they'd give a guy anything he wanted. Well, not Merit. She was smarter than that.
"Sorry, Buddy, but I don't think so." Merit turned and walked away, but this time, Buddy came after her.
"Please, Merit! Give me a chance, will you? How about Saturday morning? We could take a walk, maybe stop by the art gallery, or catch a movie."
The pleading look on his face nearly melted Merit's heart, but she shook her head again. "Forget it, Buddy. I know what you're really after, and I'm not that kind of girl. Just because I'm homeless, it doesn't mean I don't have morals!"
The smile faded from his face. "What? Do you really think I'm only asking you out because --" He shook his head. "That's not how it is, Merit. I'm asking you out because I like you. I want to spend more time with you and get to know you better."
She sighed. "Well, Saturday morning is out anyway. I'm going to be busy looking for a part-time job. I've got to find some way to help out financially."
"I've got a car," he said quickly. "It's not much, just an old jalopy, but it runs. I'll be glad to drive you around town so you can put in applications."
"You'd really do that ... for me?" Merit couldn't believe what she was hearing.
On Saturday morning, Buddy was there right on time with his "turquoise bomb". He smiled, opened the car door for Merit, and off they went. But he didn't take her out job-hunting.
"I want to show you something, Merit," he told her. "It's something that means a lot to me."
Curious, she nodded. "All right."
When they pulled up at a lot a short time later, Merit was baffled by what she saw. An unfinished house sat on the lot, surrounded by tools and stacks of lumber. Everywhere Merit looked, she saw people bustling about.
"I don't understand," she said to Buddy. "What's going on?"
"It's the Build-a-House Foundation. It's a group I belong to, and this is the third house I've helped build." He placed an arm around her waist. "We build these for people who don't have their own homes."
Merit stiffened. "Why did you bring me here?"
"Because I want you to have hope, that's why. Sure, times are tough, but there are a lot of people who care, Merit. There are a lot of people who are willing to help."
She studied Buddy's blue eyes. "You really believe that, don't you?"
"Yes, I do." He took hold of Merit's hand and led her toward a tall old tree. "A couple years ago, my dad died. Mom and I had our share of troubles. Our problems weren't financial ones, but we struggled all the same. Sometimes the grief seemed almost unbearable."
"I'm sorry," whispered Merit, squeezing Buddy's hand.
"We got through it because there were people there to help us, people who gave their time, their energy, their emotions. When people care, it makes a big difference. I brought you here today because I wanted you to realize that no matter how hard things seem right now, there are people who care. You'll get through these hard times, Merit."
He was right, Merit realized. She'd been feeling sorry for herself and being angry at the world. Worst of all, she'd given up hope. Now, Buddy was holding new hope out for her -- the hope of friendship, the hope of a bright future, maybe even the hope and promise of love. Could she believe in it? Could she accept it?
Yes! Yes! In that moment with Buddy, her life began to change. With renewed faith and courage, Merit had confidence enough to find a part-time job in town. Her mom's health and strength improved, and soon Vivian was working, too. By the end of the month, they'd saved enough to make a deposit on a small rental house.
Now, whenever Merit has a free weekend, she joins Buddy at the Build-a-House Foundation. She knows she's really been very fortunate in her life, and she's doing all she can to help others find the way when things look bleak.
And best of all, she's learning to open her heart and accept true love. Why, just the other day, Buddy stole a sweet kiss. She'll cherish that moment forever.
Being the new girl in school wasn't easy, especially with the shame Merit felt. But that's in the past now. She's glad to be living in Twinbrook, and she's glad she can make a difference in the lives of others.