Years ago, I was the self appointed, project leader in my Honors Classical Civilization class. After studying the ancient world, the professor wanted us to make a contribution to the modern world. Part of our final was to Do unto others. The final exam coincided with Christmas. Perfect!
We signed up for a sub-for-Santa project. We took our list, went to Mervyns and purchased clothing for our family. On the appointed night, we drove to the family's home. It was my plan (remember I was in charge of creating a charitable experience that would turn everyone's hearts toaster-oven warm), to knock on the door, be invited inside and feel the gratitude for all our benevolence. Dear us. One of my companions suggested it would be better to be anonymous. Oh no, I wanted to make sure the family had gift receipts and that we had human contact.
Nothing terrible happened, but I had misjudged the real purpose of charity.
To give or not to give is a theme that frequently runs through my mind and writing. I have yet to solve the complicated algorithm of giving: when is it best to help and when it is best to step back? When am I really serving others and not myself?
On a Haitian street, a man sat working at a sewing machine. The machine predated the style my mom used when I was a child. It was hand operated since electricity in Haiti is sketchy. But at first I didn't think of the electricity and to myself, I planned, dreamed, and concocted how I could provide a new sewing machine and how it would increase his productivity and eventually improve his life. After a considerable amount of time devoted to planning his life, all unbeknownst to him, I realized I most likely wouldn't be improving his life at all.
My daughter informed me of a guest speaker in one of her classes who came to address charity and the needs of the poor. The organization had donated prenatal machinery to a hospital in a poverty stricken country. One year later, the organization returned to assess the first gift and found the machinery broken and unused. They had missed the mark. When they asked the people directly about their needs, they found that midwives, instead of incubators, would have much preferred sharp scissors to cut umbilical cords to reduce the infection from using other instruments.
While in Haiti, we met with a man whose desire is to open an orphanage, but in visiting orphanages, visiting schools, and corresponding with charitable organizations, we came to a strong conclusion about orphanages in Haiti:
One of our greatest concerns is that orphanages are taking children from their families. Parents cannot provide for their children, so naturally, they want the better care the orphanage provides. In the long term, Haiti's children need to be raised by their own parents--Haiti's strength will be increased when the family is the core. We need to help the family, the parents; this will only be accomplished if parents have decent work. Haitians are hard workers--this was apparent. We are working to find ways to bring cottage industries to women in Haiti. This is where we would prefer to put money with hopes of long term solutions and with hopes of building parents so they can provide and care for their children.
In the 1960s and 70s, the US welfare system implemented a plan that in the long term is blamed for the destruction and patriarchal strength of the African American family. A woman could receive more money if there wasn't a father in the home.
In our striving to help others, we often muddle the meaning of help. True help is aiding others to help themselves. We must throw the rope into the pit but the person still has to climb themselves out.
And so I have hope, not only for others, but for myself too.