Our son Zach is nearly 22. His special needs have been the source of both the challenges and the miracles in our daily lives. One of the challenges has been an inability to participate in dining out, as in going to a restaurant, breaking bread and enjoying the entire experience.

Zach doesn’t eat. He has had a feeding tube since age 1. He also has anxiety which sometimes manifests as him (seemingly – although there is always some trigger) randomly targeting a stranger and literally running to them and hitting them. At 85 pounds he has never been struck back, but knowing his propensity to do this we have not enjoyed a life of fine dining.

Sometimes his anxiety manifests by him picking up and object and hurling it across the room. Note to self: Do not leave items around that can be thrown through the glass of a curio cabinet. Learned that one the hard way.

Back to restaurants and dining out. On a rare occasion we have been able to bring Zach out to eat (pre COVID) and keep him entertained, and contained with his iPad and headphones. We normally get the courage to do this for a special event such as a family birthday. We may successfully get “through” the meal, but the underlying stress of being in body guard mode does not make for a relaxing experience.

Fast forward: As I began traveling more for my job and having the opportunity to eat out in restaurants like a fully grown up person alone, no objects flying, full body contact sports or quick exits, I started to actually enjoy dining out. My own experiences keep me sensitive to noticing families who happen to also be there with their special needs kiddos. I can’t help but feel their stress of trying to manage, participate and “get through” their meals.

I found a fun way to celebrate these moments and feel peaceful in them: Anonymously and proactively pick up their checks! Depending on the size of the party, I may just leave extra cash for the specific individual’s meal. Or as in the case of a family I noticed at a resort last summer, who was trying to enjoy a fruity cocktail while keeping their teenager safe, as well as the patrons, I simply asked my waitress to “please use this to buy that couple a round of drinks.”

Returning to the theme of generosity (See The Wallet parts 1 & 2), this is a great feel-good way to celebrate my own ability to enjoy an un-rushed, relaxed meal while also extending an olive branch to that family that is doing their best to participate in something that many people take for granted: A non-rushed, “we even have time to look at the menu” meal at a restaurant.

When I explain to my wait staff that I wish to anonymously pick up the check for this or that, the person is always inspired and smiles with surprise. They seem happy to be part of it. Again: the generosity hits me, the wait staff, and the family. Joy all around, for the simple act of saying “I see you, I know its hard…”

I am grateful to have resources beyond my own needs, so that I can share with others. But money is not the only way to be generous. Making good eye contact, giving someone your undivided attention (nearly impossible with smart phones and our own busy minds) or holding the door open for someone are a just a few non-monetary ways we can be generous and kind with strangers. Try any of these as an experiment, including (discretely and anonymously) picking up a check if you are in a position to do so, and see how you feel!

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