I have wrestled for years with how to ‘give to charity’. I’ve donated to food pantries and barrels, clothing and other goods gathered for fire victims, helped with fundraisers, donated to charity auctions, dropped money into collection jars, volunteered my time manning booths, tables, and events. So many ways to help, right?
Through all that, I noticed my own contributions were about evenly matched by other helpers ‘scalping’ off the top. I learned that it’s quite acceptable for full time volunteers to take a percentage off for their personal costs, so while a woman I worked very hard helping wasn’t out a dime, I was out nearly $100 for buying an industrial sized coffee pot and all the fixins for hot beverages for early morning walkers, plus t-shirts I designed and had printed (was awesome finding a stash of t-shirts on sale for $2 each at a hobby store!), plus other various and sundry costs to me personally, and then her ‘take’ off the top was nearly identical to the dollar amount I’d managed to pull in from donations. And that was only one charity event. I felt all the dis- words after that, like disenchanted and disillusioned. Likewise, I’ve noticed volunteers in food pantries taking home food, or volunteers in clothing drives taking home clothes. I have nothing against people doing this if they really need it and can’t afford it, and I know some volunteers who really did. But too many times some of them were people I knew personally, people who *could* afford it. As you can imagine, I eventually burned out and lost my enthusiasm for ‘charity’ work. I began to wonder if some of the antiques I’d donated to a radio auction that would pay for a woman’s surgery had also been skimmed. Maybe I should have looked into making a payment on her bill myself….
My mother used to drag me around with her taking Meals On Wheels to the homebound, elderly, and very poor. Excruciatingly poor. Mom was a natural talker and made friends with everyone we met, and all those people were so happy to see her walk through their doorways. I think her happy yappiness and personal interest in their stories was probably as big a charity as the food for them, if not bigger. Some of them actually began to improve their capabilities because they’d get so excited to see her, it inspired them to get up and do their laundry, or get outside and show her a garden or hobby they used to have, and they’d even keep in touch with her outside of the program. She started seeing those people more often as personal visits, and even took a couple under her wing as real friendships. And it was like that all her life, even long after she moved on from volunteering for Meals On Wheels. She always found people to help in some way, always took the time to chat about their lives. One scruffy bum of a guy walked into church off the street one day and begged for someone to help his wife, they couldn’t afford her medication and she was very sick. My mom wrote him a check on the spot, no questions asked. She was a turning point in that man’s life, and he and his family became forces of good themselves with that church. It would take a book to give proper attention to just how compulsively giving my mother was. Ironically, she wasn’t that great of a mom, and I often got left behind or used as a pack mule, certainly got volunteered for many a clean up job or babysitting for other people. Even after I graduated high school and got my own life going, she would regift holiday and birthday presents from me to people who thought she was wonderful for being so thoughtful, or tell me she didn’t have any money to help me out because she just gave $2000 to someone else my age who needed it. It was hard not to be jealous when I was younger, but now none of that bothers me, and I think about how ‘famous’ my mom got for being so kind and thoughtful to everyone around her. Personally, I’m just not capable of being a happy yappy person, I’m all the wrong personality for it, so I kind of feel like I’m in a conundrum when I want to pitch in to charity stuff.
I’ve been on the down side of life, grinding through several years of illness and disability, and I learned a lot of things about people from that side of the coin. For one thing, the reason you don’t see more truly disabled people running around is because it’s so extremely difficult, even with handicapped accessible parking and doorways and bathrooms and whatever else. I had so much difficulty just simply walking from spinal injuries (and too much pride to use a motor cart for a long time) that I nearly stopped getting out of my house at all, and that severely impacted stuff like depression and anxiety, not to mention my health standards. For another thing, you find out just how kind strangers can really be, and I was humbly blown away every time someone went out of their way to make something even minutely easier for me. Simply being spoken to with kindness and smiles made my struggle to keep getting out of my house worth it, and over time helped me make bigger and bigger decisions to set higher goals for myself. I’m a recluse, not a phone person, not the sort for keeping friends very well because of my asperger’s, so the tiniest kindness from strangers meant whole worlds to me, whether I was able to effectively show that or not. Thankfully, I’m coming out the other side of that long, dark tunnel, and I look back on what I went through and appreciate every person who unwittingly and unknowingly ‘saved my life’. And I realized THAT is what my mom did for other people.
Scott and I have been tossing around the idea that we’d like to help someone personally going forward, as opposed to going through organized charities and volunteering for generic donation sites. We’ve heard the stories about people sneaking sacks of groceries onto porches, or sneaking envelopes of money into mailboxes, and we’re wondering if that’s really the right way to do it. What if they’re allergic to the food we buy for them? What if someone in the neighborhood steals out of mailboxes? Everything we could think of, we could find flaws with. And we looked into paying on hospital bills for others, sometimes you can’t just walk up and say I want to pay $100 on this patient’s account, partly because of patient confidentiality, partly because sometimes accounts have to be set up for gift payments so it won’t screw up insurance, etc. It’s a mess. And on the rare occasions that we have given money as presents, we’ve been disappointed to learn that it all went to a new tattoo or something, instead of a bill or basic needs. We’ve been scratching our heads for a couple of years over how to really help someone.
I got an idea last month. I told Scott about Sandy and asked him what he thought of maybe helping her out this year, as a more personalized charity. He agreed that would be better than dropping food off in a bin or putting coins in a bucket, for sure, but the next step was how to go about approaching it. I mean, it could get weird. Having relationships with people is like walking a tightrope, and I know from past experience that sometimes being too nice can make everything oh so awkward. Scott and I both suck at being personable and chatty, and I really don’t want to make it weird for Sandy.
So this week she was walking with me to my car (nowadays I’m more like a break for her to escape out of the store for a couple of minutes), and I finally worked up enough courage to just say, “Can I ask you a personal question?” Ug, that could get so weird. But she said sure and kind of shrugged. So I told her I had talked to Scott about the stuff she’d told me this year, and we were wondering if maybe this year, instead of helping faceless generic charities for the holidays, we could slip her a Christmas card. I told her I didn’t want it to be awkward, and I especially didn’t want to get her into trouble at work, and it’s not like we have a LOT of money, but we can certainly share, and we’d rather know what we share was really helping someone. And Sandy was uber cool about it, no gushing (the potential ‘hug’ moment thankfully passed without any awkwardness, as far as I could tell), and said sure, she would slip the card into her jacket and no one would know. And I said “Great, I’ll tell Scott then.” And that was that.
So I guess this is going to get a little more fun than simply putting a sack of groceries into a bin. I’m thinking maybe a gas card, maybe a Pizza Hut gift card, maybe a little cash, maybe a gift certificate to a store, little things like that. You know, stuff that will fit into a card and be fun to get. I think the most awkward part for me is I got lucky. I walk out of that grocery store with salmon steaks and fresh raspberries, and I’m pretty sure she’d never dream of wasting that kind of money on food. Sometimes it’s awkward knowing that she’s my ‘servant’ coming out of that store, helping me to my car, and I’m financially better off, thanks to my own husband being in good health. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be at her age to do such menial work in miserable weather for so little pay, having to smile and be nice to sometimes arrogant people walking out with all kinds of food she can’t afford.
I think the biggest charity we can have is noticing other people, and asking them if it’s ok once in awhile to be nice to them. I know I have a lot of pride and don’t like people making a big deal out of my stuff, and I think she’s like that, too. Some people need the ‘oh you poor thing’, but sometimes they just need ‘wow, that sucks, see you next week, thank you for helping me.’ Sometimes they just need to know that someone cares about their story.
Incidentally, my mom used to call me Charlie Brown, because I was always confused as a child what to do about how I feel. Maybe it comes easy for some people, but this one took me awhile to figure out.