Monday, December 12, 2011

does it make a difference?

(spoiler: YES!)

Last night I was semi-watching part of 60 Minutes while Mister Melancholy (that's what I'm going to call him from now on; "my husband" sounds too smug and weird, and the "DH" blogging custom is just icky) had it on. There was a short blurb saying that after a segment aired on a homeless family in Florida, viewer donations poured in, giving the family money, job offers, housing, and even college scholarships.

While it's good to know that this one family will be on their feet and much more comfortable, that after-segment still felt kind of gross to me.

This one family dealt with a lot of hardships, losing their jobs and home. Millions of families have dealt with just as many, or even more. Some families never even have jobs or homes to begin with. (Most homeless and people in poverty are women and children, by the way.)

So the fact that the viewers sent money to help one family (there may have been two or three featured?)--that is wonderful for that family and their future.

But I wonder how many viewers realized that the family portrayed was representative of untold numbers of people in similar or worse situations. I wonder how many people thought to donate to food banks, homeless shelters, shelters for battered women and children. I wonder if anyone was driven to get out and volunteer with one of those places. I wonder if anyone thought to write to their representatives in government to bring needed attention to the everyday life that so many people live in poverty (for years or just recently). I wonder how many people realized that helping this one family whose faces they saw is doing nothing to help the bigger problem. That it kind of seems like a selfish reaction, actually, to focus on the people on the screen, rather than all the people behind it. I also wonder if 60 Minutes did that thing at the end of the original segment where they say, "for more information about helping poverty-stricken or homeless people in your area, contact [food bank/charity navigator/national shelter information/something like that]."

This sparked an interesting debate between Mister M and me. I said all of this to him and then asked if he donates to charity. He said that he doesn't feel like him donating $50 or whatever really makes a difference; is he supposed to do that to feel good? That's a drop in a leaky bucket, or a raindrop in the ocean.

I stared at him. To me this sounded like he was implying there's no reason to give a little bit because it couldn't possibly solve anything. He clarified that writing a small check makes him depressed, because even if he donated his entire net worth, it still wouldn't do anything to solve a real problem. And that since he works in policy, he's kind of working to solve it that way.

I replied indignantly, You can't eat policy! If I were to donate $10 to a food bank, that would mean that one person or one family had dinner that night.

Him: Sure, but that's only 1/1000th of the problem for just the next year! 

Me: Right, exactly! Every little bit helps!

Him: I would rather start working out a way to fix it on a large scale so nobody's hungry.

Me: But people need to eat today!

It's interesting; I'm a textbook pessimist at times. But apparently when it comes to the concept of giving back, I'm a full-on optimist.

I spent ten solid months doing service projects around the United States, and then I volunteered regularly for several years after that. I saw for myself that giving back is easy, and it's such a win-win for everyone. Giving back to your community is so much bigger than whatever small project you do for a few hours. You meet new people, you become proof that people care about other people, and somehow that spreads to the ether of feel-good. AND you get things done!

He's heard this from me before, but I said that I wondered how many people volunteered or even donated money. In all my years of being involved with giving back, I was never joined by anyone. No one I knew thought it would be worthwhile to join me and some others for a few hours even for just one day. Now, sure, perhaps they did other volunteering on their own that I never heard about, but based on the reactions I got talking about it and inviting people, most people were confused or put off by the idea.

That makes me sad. Volunteering is a lot of fun. No matter what you're doing. I've done things as mundane as raking leaves in the forest, and as meaningful as constructing walls for Habitat for Humanity. It's all a great time! And it all makes a difference! I hope that if you've never volunteered, you take the next opportunity that comes up. It will be worth it, to you and to the organization, I promise!

(Also, I'd like to state for the record that I think teachers give back to the community in a MAJOR way. So do nurses, doctors, people who staff non-profits, etc.)

I don't have a lot of money to spare. Really I shouldn't be sparing any. But if I can bring myself to buy two books from a local bookstore, or buy a Twix PB at the drugstore, I can find ten to fifteen dollars a month at a minimum to help with a worthwhile cause. In the past I've donated to TrailBlazers, Save the Children, the Nature Conservancy, and Heifer International. I've volunteered many times with the Hands On Network, in Seattle, New York, and New Orleans. Last December I participated in Help Portrait (though I didn't participate this year; it was last weekend). Recently I found this great list from Spend a Little and Give a Lot. This year, I'd like to donate to the Food Bank of NYC, which is running a matching campaign for the holiday season.

I hope you will join me in helping the community--and not just because it's the holidays. I hope you'll join me in creating a culture of giving back. It's not about the amount, it's about the effort. Do you have causes you support, with volunteering or donation? I'd love to learn about new worthy organizations!


Anonymous said...

I volunteered with you (once)! I think it was my first year in NYC. We painted that school and then the principal freaked out and hated it. Remember? I was just thinking about it the other day because I still have the hoodie I wore that day and it has a small bit of blue paint on the sleeve.

J said...

Oh yeah! Of course I remember that one--sorry that I must have forgotten you were there. :) It was fun, right? Though I couldn't believe that the principal wanted to keep the walls so blah after we'd started brightening them up.

Teacher gardener said...

It's probably a combination of reasons, but, yes, it does make a difference. I am a giver at heart and I've been the recipient. Tell your husband that it really does make a difference to get enough money on a short-term basis to pay the mortgage or buy groceries. I sponsor a child in Guatemala, give items needed for a Christmas party at a local nursing home, put food into the food barrel at church regularly, and much, much more. Every month, I have my class do a community project, whether that community is actually local or international. I want to foster the desire to help others. Do I have a large income? No, my private school salary is half that of a beginning public school teacher. But I truly believe that every bit helps.

Nancy said...

I used to volunteer with NYCares. Today, I was on their website, looking for something and I wondered why I don't volunteer with them anymore...I don't know that having a family is a very good excuse. So, I will look for a project to get involved with, probably tutoring... want to join me?

rabi said...

I understand mister melancholy's feeling that a one-time donation is somewhat futile in the big picture. that's why I tithe -- I give 10% of my after-taxes paycheck to the same organization over a long term period. that way I know I'm making a continued contribution to work that's important to me. it's less than $100 a week, which feels totally manageable, but I've been doing it for 6 years now. so it adds up.

I wish I spent more time volunteering, though. I used to do it more and then I kind of fell off the volunteering train. I should stop making excuses to myself (I'm too shy, I'm too busy) and start up again.