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Cookies, lemonade and a lesson in giving from a 5-year-old ‘people person’

Eli Penland was paging through a newspaper when he saw a photograph that disturbed him. He’s only 5 years old; he can’t read yet. But he knew something was wrong with the woman in the photo. He went running upstairs to his mother, Traci Penland.
“What happened to her?” he wanted to know, his chinquapin eyes filled with concern.
“Well, Eli,” his mother said, reading the story, “this lady’s house burned down, and she doesn’t have insurance.”
“Maybe we could give her some money,” Eli said.
“We don’t have that much money,” Traci said.
“Why don’t we sell some cookies and lemonade and give that money to her?” Eli said.
Sounded simple. So a few days later, Traci found out that the local newspaper was holding a yard sale on its grounds, and people interested in raising money for a charity could take part. Traci went to the store and bought six buckets of cookie dough.
Suddenly a simple project wasn’t so simple. Mom spent hours in the kitchen. She baked 500 cookies. She also made gallons of lemonade. And the following Saturday, with help from her dad, Michael D. Wilson, Traci set up a yard-sale table with two signs: “Lemonade and two cookies, two dollars” and “All proceeds help victims of a house fire.”
Eli was in charge of sales. “I just kind of sat back and let him do it,” Traci said. “He’s much more of a people person than me.”
Saying that Eli Penland is a people person is like saying a fish is a good swimmer. Eli figures everybody is his friend, and friends are always nice to each other. So why not talk to them?  And that’s what he did.
“It’s only two dollars,” he would say to browsers. “Help this lady.”
In all, Eli and his helpers raised $250. Some people gave donations, but left the cookies. The leftover cookies, about 350 of them, were taken to a local shelter for the homeless.
So what did Eli get out of the experience? Well, someone at the table across from his gave him a motorcycle helmet that didn’t sell. Eli had tried it on several times that day, so the owner gave it to him.
But Eli wasn’t looking for anything for himself. The woman pictured in the newspaper looked like she needed help, and he wanted to help. “He thought the Holy Spirit told him to do that,” his mother said.
It’s not likely that at 5 years old, Eli was aware of setting a good example for his sister, Rosalee, and brother, Charles Wayman Penland III, whom Traci and Chip Penland adopted in China in December of 2012.
And he probably wasn’t aware on that Saturday that Mother’s Day was just a couple of weeks away. But what better Mother’s Day present could Mom ask for than to see her little boy — Elisha James Penland, lover of people and master salesman — helping someone he didn’t even know while spreading good will, two cookies at a time.

Phil Hudgins’ column is published in many newspapers around the Southeast.