Small Yet Beautiful Acts of Generosity

Working professionally in the world of philanthropy for the last two decades, I am often asked to volunteer with the business, legal or fund development aspects of managing a non-profit corporation. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been involved with the “retail” end of the charitable world in which you make modest appeals for help from complete strangers. But it all came rushing back to me on a recent Saturday as I stood at the entrance to Tadych’s Econofoods in Sturgeon Bay.

As I volunteered that Saturday, my role was to speak very briefly with hundreds of people who were entering the grocery store. It was fascinating experience that was incredibly heartening, and I’m sad to say, just a wee bit disappointing.

First, some background. The Door County Healthy Families program helps relieve tensions in families with young children by providing comprehensive support services. Their work often begins in the hospital shortly after a baby is born and continues with home visitations until the child begins school. The Family Support Workers who offer this family support have a single and honorable goal – to help these new parents become great parents.

Unfortunately, the Family Support Workers tell us that these difficult economic times have made life very challenging for some young families in Door County. A growing percentage of our friends and neighbors lack the money to buy even the most basic of resources for their newborn babies. So the Healthy Families program put out a call for help, and that’s how I came to be standing outside Econofoods on a hot and muggy Saturday.

Our volunteer job that morning was simple. As customers walked in the door, we offered them a shopping cart and handed them a list of three household items needed by struggling young families. Specifically, we were asking the shoppers to consider buying a package of diapers, wipes and/or baby formula, then donate the items to needy families by leaving them in a collection cart as they exited the store.

In the grand scheme of things, it was the purest, most simple gift for which you could ask. There could be no concern about “excessive overhead” costs because we were all unpaid volunteers who were doing the asking. You couldn’t object to your money being misused because we wanted donations of specific items and thus you knew exactly what your contribution was for. There are babies in Door County that need assistance, and you could help by donating diapers, wipes or baby formula.

Certainly not everyone who walked through the door at Econofoods that day can afford to make a charitable gift. But I was caught off guard by some who were curt if not outright rude.

Mind you, this was a very small minority, but distinct patterns developed. The “if I don’t see you then you’re not there” people stare straight ahead, walk by quickly, and pretend you don’t exist. Then there’s the “don’t steal my purse” folks whose bodies literally recoil as if afraid they’re about to be mugged by charitable volunteers. And the most unpleasant of all were the “you mean this isn’t a coupon to save me money” people who accept the piece of paper with a smile, read it, then fling it back at you.

Quite honestly, I am completely befuddled by these reactions. Next to our love, the most precious thing we have to share is our labor. That’s exactly what these volunteers were doing on a hot Saturday morning. They were giving of themselves in an effort to help young families in Door County – people that they’ll likely never meet.

It reminded me that I need to be more thankful to those volunteers who are making these kinds of requests of me. Be it the bell ringer at Christmas time, the volunteer who calls me from the telethon, or the board member who sells tickets to a charitable event – these good people are giving of themselves by participating in the act of asking me to give. I might not choose to donate to their campaign, and that’s okay. After all, each of us has different causes we care about and we have varying amounts of discretionary wealth. But at the very least, I should honor and respect the volunteers who are doing the uncomfortable and thankless job of asking me to help.

Of course the good news is that the unpleasant reactions at Econofoods were few and far between when compared to the generosity of most people. There was the little old lady who clearly was living on a fixed income, yet became distraught when she heard about the reality of life for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. When she came out of the store, she placed a box of wipes in the collection cart. And so it went that Saturday as regular folks did what they could to help, one or two items at a time.

The first shopping cart filled with diapers, wipes and formula. Suddenly there were two carts. Then a third, a fourth and a fifth one after that. Individually, each gift was modest, but collectively, the shoppers at Econofoods did something wonderful. Together, their generosity would truly touch the lives of local young families struggling to make ends meet.

What we saw that Saturday were examples of small, yet beautiful acts of generosity. It truly was a wonderful thing to behold.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on July 19, 2012.

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