Sunday, April 10, 2011
Charitable Giving: We Need A New Model--My Final Revelation
I've know I've been droning on all week about the trip the girls and I took for spring break to do a mission trip to the Appalachian region. I've been trying to stay positive about the whole thing, but one issue has been nagging at me and is so close to spoiling the whole experience for me: Where we truly helping people, or just enabling them in their circumstances? This thought came to me as a one-two punch during the trip. The first time was when we went to build some front steps on the house trailers of two different families. The father/husband for Family A was grateful someone came out to take measurements and offer to help. Actually, his response was to tell our team that if someone could loan him the tools and help him locate the materials, he could do it himself. The main thing was: He didn't have access to a power saw or drill or any other equipment to help him accomplish the task. And, ultimately, he ended up taking a set of stairs we "rescued" from another site where the trailer had burned and installed them himself, with a little help. Contrast that to Family B, where we built a set of stairs for a man who was recently released from prison and was still unemployed. I was struck by this fellow (who was quite a bit younger than me or my fellow adults!). He had an able-bodied (drop out) teenage son living with him, neither of which didn't bother to come outside to tell us where we could plug in the drill. They came and went to the store, while we were working, without a word to any us. (I, personally, would've been curious enough to ask, "why are you doing this?" or "where are you from?" or something. After all, how often do you get 8 people showing up on your doorstep--or lack thereof--in 40-degree rainy weather to build you some steps?) When we were nearly done, one of our team knocked on the door to tell the guy the steps were done except for the hand rail we'd be back to install the next day. His response, as he poked his head out the door? "Okay. Cool." Door shut. That was it. Like we were interrupting his Dr. Phil-viewing or something. It just struck me as odd. Then, I had my second realization. That came on Thursday night, when we went to the local rec center to get pizza and do a little bowling. The facility was quite nice--the building had a weight/work out room, about 8 bowling lanes, pool tables, air hock, arcade machines, etc. As it turns out, the local Baptist church runs the center as an outreach ministry. Because there is so little for area residents to do for entertainment locally (especially teens), the church offers this option for all comers. Just pay for your pizza and shoe rental to bowl. We met the minister of the church, who was bowling. "Are you the Habitat group in town this week?" he asked us. No, we explained who we were--one of two teams in the county for our organization. "I heard Habitat was in town, but haven't seen them yet. See those folks over there?" he said, motioning toward a table of older adults in the dining area. "They came in today to set up for a twice-a-year dental clinic. We're praying for good weather on Saturday, because we'll have 200 people lined up outside the gymnasium before we open. These retired dentists come in from three states every April and October to do the clinic." That's when it hit me: Is the whole economy of this area based on groups of people, just like us, who come in and spend money locally to help people who are in a bad economic state? Are we helping these people with a hand-up or a hand-out? Have we, in our efforts, simply slapped a Band-Aid on a gushing chest wound? We did a few tasks--none of which were particularly complicated--for some people, but did we really help make their lives better? After all, the Trailer Guy had a pile of concrete blocks in the spot for his steps. They just weren't piled high enough or in a stable way to make for a safe stairway. Did we really help HIM? Or was he there to make US feel better about OURSELVES for being helpful? It just got me thinking about whether, with an entire industry of mission/outreach organizations swooping into this region to help people, if the system is actually a disincentive to the locals to strive for better lives. I don't want to paint this picture with such a broad brush that I condemn everyone in this region, but I felt like I had an Ah-Ha moment right then and there. From the attitudes of some of the folks we encountered, I have to admit, the sense of entitlement came through loud and clear. And not just from the Trailer Guy. We had a few glimpses of that attitude from others. (Fortunately, the girls on the mission trip weren't picking up on this at all. It was more of an issue for us jaded adults. And we've tried not to taint the experience for the kids.) Still, I wonder: If the charity wasn't coming right to your doorstep--literally--to do it all for you, wouldn't you be more motivated to do it yourself? Or seek out the help/skills/resources/training/something to do more than smoke cigarettes and eat Cheetos in front of the TV set all day? (Saw that, too.) I think it's time for a new model here. I really like the program Habitat for Humanity puts forth, because they make sure their home owners take classes to learn the skills for maintaining a home (basic care and finances, etc.), as well as expecting these folks to make an investment in the project through their own sweat equity. To me, that's doing more than just giving a hand out. It's bestowing something I think might be just, if not more, important: Education, confidence and skills. I'm trying to resolve the feelings I have for this trip, in retrospect. I think it was a great, great thing for my kids to do. I just wonder about the next time: Can we find another model that can make a true impact on the people? And that's the way I see it. Like it or not.