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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Locks of Love - Or Not

Today's NYT carries a story about another goofy thing people do out of the goodness of their hearts, only to have it all mean nothing in the end.

I'm not a believer in anonymous charity. I think charity is demeaning, yet a helping hand is very important. Everyone (except, perhaps, the very fortunate) has had the experience of really needing help. They might have needed money (to pay the rent, or pay for an abortion), or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to help them negotiate a legal difficulty. That's one thing.

Needing institutional help to get beyond poverty, institutionalized discrimination, ill health, mental health problems, or dysfunctional parenting/familial situations is a very different issue than the occasional helping hand. The weak, the sick, and the poor, as a certain prophet once said, are always with us. This doesn't mean that it's OK for a certain portion of the population to suffer in illness, ignorance, and poverty. It means that a broad societal response is required to meet the needs of those sufferers. For those who need ongoing assistance - whether it's medical attention or mechanical aids, housing or food subsidies - they are not the objects of charity but of societal obligation. Because however we treat the least of us is what defines us as a society.

On the other hand, those who need assistance through a single, sudden catastrophic period equally deserve the help, but their need is different. They don't need society to care for them. They need something specific once, twice, maybe several times in their lives. Cancer patients, for example. They might need wigs, or scarves, to hide the loss of hair that makes them feel bad about themselves when they need to devote their resources to coping with chemo or radiation and surgery.

Along comes an organization like Locks of Love, which sounds like a great idea, in concept. However, it turns out that the execution is much much more complicated than the noble and generous idea that spawned the organization.

So all those girls and boys, men and women, who grew their hair for the consummate act of charity, the noble gesture, the "feel good while you're doing something good for someone else" - are probably feeling very betrayed today.

That's the point of this rambling. If you want to do good for your fellow human, get CPR training and be the designated point person in your office. Check on your neighbours. Make them chicken soup if they've just had surgery or been ill (for heavens' sake, use a good recipe!). Take out their garbage, pick up their mail, walk their dog. Drop off staples at the food bank. Babysit kids at the local domestic violence shelter, while their mothers look for work. Take your nice but too small/large clothes down to the shelter and see if anyone can use them for job interviews. Visit the children at the local hospital in the cancer ward, and read to them. Drop by the senior nursing home and visit the old folks. Bring them gifts. Join your local library's literacy program and teach people of all ages to read. Drop by your local animal shelter and volunteer to walk the dogs, and socialize the cats.

There's plenty you can do in your community on an ongoing basis. We tend to put money in envelopes and send it off to some faceless organization because, in our heart of hearts, we all long to help, to improve someone else's life, to make things better. But enormous faceless charities don't always do what needs to be done. The Red Cross, for example, took $50 million that was earmarked to help New Orleans, and, apparently, used it to build office space for themselves in New York.

So volunteer local. Get to know your community and its organizations and help them out. It feels a lot better than stuffing a check in an envelope, or finding out that the hair you grew got thrown away.

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