by Jason Boyett, Relevant Writer
“Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” No doubt you’ve heard the axiom before. It’s often used to condemn no-strings-attached giving to the poor. Cliché or not, it paints a nice picture. Unfortunately, the saying only pains half the picture—it’s great to teach a man to fish, but if the man has no fishing gear and no water nearby, how do you expect the knowledge of how to fish to do anything for him?
That’s the plight of the poor. As it is for millions of people across the planet, poverty is a problem in the United States as well. And while dealing with the problem of poverty involves “helping the poor to help themselves,” we need to remember that such a solution is long-term. What are we to do in the short-term? You can’t alleviate the problem by yourself; no one can. But what you can do is distribute some grace to your corner of the world. The thing to remember is that helping the poor isn’t just about donating money. It’s about meeting needs. The holidays are always stressful, and it’s easy to get consumed with buying presents, traveling and spending lots of money on Christmas-related activities. But December doesn’t have to be a time that we forget about those in need. Here are several ways you can reach out to the needy this Christmas season:
If you live in a city of any size, there is probably at least one homeless shelter that helps people with meals, beds, hygiene and other services. Most shelters welcome volunteers for a number of activities, from preparing and distributing meals to working in the business office.
Surveys indicate up to 40 percent of people serviced by community food banks at one time or another, had to decide between eating and paying rent. If that’s a decision you’ve never had to make, why not find a way to help out? Community food banks are instrumental in assisting the poor in your community, particularly around the holidays. They employ volunteers to sort and collect salvaged food (much of which comes from area supermarkets), distribute bread, manage inventory and perform office tasks. You can help by doing the above or by organizing and giving to inventory builders like canned food drives.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Since 1976, Habitat has built in excess of 100,000 simple houses across the world for families lacking adequate shelter. A non-denominational, non-profit organization, Habitat sells its houses via interest-free mortgages. The homes are built by the homeowners themselves and a team of volunteers. If you have any sort of construction, electrical or plumbing skills, you’re exactly the kind of volunteer help Habitat needs. For those who don’t know a Philips from a flathead, Habitat projects provide a fun, unintimidating environment to learn—all the while helping a very appreciative family. Contact your local chapter, or visit www.habitat.org.
CLOTHING & NECESSITIES
Most of us have far too many clothes—in our closet, stuff we haven’t worn in years. When you run out of space, resist the urge to sell your old clothing on consignment or in garage sales. Instead, donate it to a charity like the Salvation Army or its equivalent. My wife and I worked one weekend a few years ago with a downtown women’s center, the kind of place where battered women stay until they get their lives back together. We discovered the center was always in need of decent women’s clothing, in addition to baby supplies and kids’ clothes. After that weekend, Aimee cleaned out her closet immediately. If you have a full closet or baby clothes you’ll never use again, why not give them to someone who’ll treasure them?
I know many kind people who just don’t feel right about giving money to the homeless, worrying that they may be paying for an alcohol addiction or their next drug fix. But the truly compassionate still find a way to give. I know of one elderly lady who has begun collecting coupons or gift certificates for free meals at local restaurants. She keeps them in the ashtray of her car, and is happy to pass them along to the hungry. Once, my sister, who was 16 at the time, was moved to tears by the sight of a small family on the street corner with a sign that read, simply, “hungry.” She had no cash on her, but told the family to wait five minutes. She sped home and made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches out of an entire loaf of bread, shoved the sandwiches back in the bread sack, and returned to the family. Tears were shed on their end, too.
If you have a chance to interact with the needy, make a point to talk to them like you would any individual—your neighbor, a business associate, a family member. Often, there’s no better gift than the feeling of worth and civilization they feel when someone treats them like a real person. I once read a newspaper feature on the homeless, in which one of the individuals profiled said something I’ll always remember: “You don’t think I feel like crap when a generous person takes me into a restaurant and feeds me? Here I am in the clothes I wore yesterday and smelling like trash. But you can take my mind off that by speaking nicely to me and not looking down on me.”
The poor aren’t just looking for money. They’re looking for understanding, significance, a human connection—gifts to which no dollar amount applies.