Friday, November 18, 2011

No one likes wax beans, generic KD and apple "beverage" aka my take on charity

 Last night I posted this to my personal blog, and because it received a good dozen comments and it was suggested I share it more publicly I am also posting it here. Please feel free to pass this one on to anyone you think would benefit from hearing my story of charity at Christmas time.

I'm going to get off on what I hope is a slightly intelligent, rather passionate rant and I'm hoping that those of you who think of yourself as progressive open minded adults will take something from this little rant.

We are approaching the holiday season, which for some is the good old American Thanks Giving, followed by Christmas, and others celebrate Hanukkah, Solstice or more traditionally these days what I like to call "Giftmas" which is some hybrid of the traditional Christmas and the over-commercialization that has come from a very spoiled upper middle class perspective.

Guy's we are SPOILED.

Now I'm not going to get off on a tangent about helping the needy or the less fortunate because gosh darn does Christmas ever suck when you're eating spam out of a can with a plastic knife on Christmas Eve sharing a king can of cheap beer with the misses. Everyone who has ever been poor can tell you it sucks to be poor, and I am in general of the opinion that helping people in need is not something anyone deserves a pat on the back for.

Unless you are giving up your life and all of your wealth for a philanthropic cause a la Mother Theresa you aren't getting a cookie from me for giving the homeless guy some change.

And while I bring that up, let me elaborate on why I routinely give the homeless people in my neighborhood in the realm of $8-$20 when they ask me for spare change (I usually carry between 20-60 in change on my person so when I'm asked I reach in for a handful of coins, and because I am Canadian and we have our $1 and $2 coins this can often amount to a decent sum of money) the reason I stand by firmly for this, is while it's all good to donate your time and your money to a shelter or soup kitchen, what very few people in a position of privilege fail to understand is that those places fill up, they run out of food and they run out of space. Men are put lower on the list than women and children, and even if you are a man with a child, you aren't prioritized (in most places) ahead of women. Shelters are not a perfect solution. Neither are soup kitchens. A lot of these places refuse to serve people with addictions, and some even refuse to serve people who don't believe in the religion that is being preached at that mission.

And on a lighter note I am happy to give the guy pan handling outside of the liquor store my change, because even if he uses it to buy booze not a sandwich, his life has got to suck more than mine, after all I have somewhere warm to sleep, and a bottle of wine in my pantry and I don't need to rely on the sympathy of strangers to enjoy a beer. The way I look at it, the guy outside the liquor-mart has more reasons to want a drink than I do, by a long shot.

So this is my basic view on giving, I think it's something you should do in any capacity you can, be it spare change, donations to charity, time spent volunteering or canned goods for charity whenever and however you can.

It's just good old human kindness, if you can afford a cup of coffee you can afford to help out from time to time.

But that said, you need to consider how you help people. Of course there is going to be some self satisfaction from giving to someone who needs it. But you need to also consider what you are giving.

Everyone has been to some event or benefit where they were asked to bring in a can of food for the food bank. and what do people usually donate, a random can from their pantry, often something they're unlikely to eat, canned ham, spam, wax beans, white rice, generic mac n cheese.

Let me derail this into a story about my own experiences receiving charity.

Once upon a time there was a 22 year old recently separated mother of two children ages 13 months and 3 years respectively. I had left my husband 6 months prior and was having trouble getting on my feet. My girls and I shared a very small one bedroom apartment, we had a very tight budget, I had no skills and an ex who didn't pay support, and really I had no idea how I was going to take care of us. So because I needed all of the support I could get I had joined a church a few months before I moved out on my own and had grown quite close to some of the people I attended "small group" (bible study group held Friday night) with. There was this lovely woman whom for the sake of this story I will call "E" who had 3 sons ranging from ages 13 to 5 and all of them were going to a very prestigious private Christian school. Their father was a former minister who now taught at a school and "E" herself was a teacher as well. They were a lovely family and did so much to make me feel welcome and supported and included in the church.

I was volunteering in the nursery at the church one Sunday about 6 weeks before Christmas when a woman comes into to the nursery dressed in her Sunday best with her toddler and drops her off, she chats a few minutes with the other women and then notices the hampers in the back room full of canned goods and she asks quite incredulously "what are those for?" and one of the other women in the room replies they're food hampers for the less fortunate for Christmas. And this woman is completely shocked, she replied "well surely NO ONE at THIS church would be that poor! I mean we don't live in poverty in this country, that only happens in Ethiopia and other places like that" this dialogue continued for awhile and I tried to hide my combined embarrassment and annoyance with her lack of tact and understanding, I had known plenty of people growing up who'd needed the assistance of a food bank and knew first hand how hard it was to make ends meet, if it hadn't been for credit cards I'd have been lined up at the food bank every week myself at that point (and eventually, they took away my credit cards and I was but that didn't come until later). Eventually the woman left and I tried to shake off the discomfort her remarks had caused me and put it out of my mind.

About a week before Christmas my dear friend "E" from church called me up and asked if she could stop by for coffee later in the day. Now to say I wasn't exactly at my best with my Charlie Brown falling down Christmas-tree and tiny apartment that had been thoroughly destroyed by two toddlers would have been an understatement, but because I adored "E" and wanted her to like me and somehow approve of me I of course invited her over for coffee, and spent 8 consecutive HOURS cleaning my house so that it would be up to her (and more over my perception of her) standards. So at around 8 at night I get a knock on the door and open it to find, much to my surprise that "E" and her three boys have arm fulls of boxes of things for myself and the girls. There is an entire box of wrapped gifts for the girls, and a few things wrapped for me, and three large boxes of canned goods and food bank food. "E" and her boys put the things on my kitchen table and beam proudly she turns to me and says "we were so happy to be able to deliver the Christmas hamper to you and the girls, we felt it was so very much in the spirit of the Church, Merry Christmas Ani!" and they beamed with the satisfaction of having done their good deed for the day, and with that she quickly ushered her boys out of my apartment, without so much as having take off her coat and went home to her perfect clean house in the suburbs with her perfect family for their perfect Christmas, complete with the lesson of helping the less fortunate.

Now, I was completely stunned, I mean I knew I wasn't doing well financially but I certainly wasn't destitute and I'd never thought of myself as "in need of charity assistance" and I most certainly hadn't signed up to receive a Christmas hamper. In fact I'd always been a very proud person and determined to "make it on my own" I really felt that the "surprise gifts" would have been put to better use donated to someone else. But there I was, in the middle of my first Christmas as a single mom, with two very little girls, surrounded by boxes of Generic mac and Cheese, Apple Beverage (not juice, apple beverage, which is 90% water with some high fructose corn syrup and apple flavour) about a dozen tins of wax beans, a box of half mouldy christmas oranges, two loaves of mouldy bread and about a dozen cans of spam.

I cried. In fact I wept. For the most part it was food I couldn't imagine feeding to my children or eating myself, and a good percentage of it was expired (and for the perishables, was spoiled) and in general it was not quality food.

Now I am familiar with the phrasing "beggars can't be choosers" and you know that's true and maybe my lack of gratitude was due to the fact that I hadn't asked to receive a Christmas hamper from the Church, and that I was in a difficult place to begin with emotionally that year, I didn't want to feel like someone's "feel good" project or that I was in need of saving, I wanted to be successful, or at least to feel like the people that I thought cared about me had faith in my ability to get through and survive and come out on top.

But my very long end point to this little story is that it's important to be mindful when you give, yes this is a season for giving, and that should extend beyond "what can I buy my loved ones" into "how can I help or make a difference" and whether I believe you should do that year round ( and I do) isn't so much the point. I suppose my overly convoluted point here is that in the spirit of giving you also need to be mindful of the gift.

So do me a favour, and next time you attend a function where people ask for a donation for charity don't reach for the minute rice or the wax beans that you know you're not going to eat, don't find the unlabeled can at the back of the cupboard, reach for your favourite tin of soup, or a jug of real juice or some healthy pasta, or the really yummy tomato sauce that you picked up three jars of on sale last week and consider how much MORE receiving that kind of generosity will mean to someone who does need the help, who can't always afford the real Kraft Dinner and who might want to feel that instead of getting a hand out from someone who wants to feel good about themselves, they are receiving a gift in the spirit of kindness and compassion.

And such is my two cents on helping those in need.


  1. Wow Ani, that is one powerful story. Thanks for sharing. Although I have never been to the depths of despair that you have written here, there were many years that I did live on the edge.

    Mostly self inflicted and highly curable, it's sad that when we the better off look to charity it's often an excuse to clean out our cupboards of shit that would never get eaten anyway.

    I often give to street people, there was one in particular whom I called Jesus of Osborne St. He was a late middle aged homeless dude who lived in and around the village.

    He never asked for money, so I always gave him some. He was a landmark, summer and winter in his torn blue parka. Never looking up, just sitting there.

    I think you hit on a fine point in your piece challenging us as people to look deep into our selves and to find that charity. To give what we would want to be given. Help of any kind is always appreciated but moldy bread and Lima beans is a pretty backhanded way to show someone you care.

  2. Thanks for the comment Bob and thank you again for your kindness to me and as always great conversation in the bar.

  3. Hi Ani, I just found your post through

    Thanks for writing this, I second that it's very powerful. I don't know what the welfare system is where you are, but my country has what I believe is a pretty decent benefit system (I've utilised it myself in the past, as have my parents more recently when Dad was made redundant, so I feel like I have a decent insight). I moved off a benefit and into a good job a few years ago, and have gradually climbed upwards since. Because of this, I admit I've always struggled to empathise with the homeless people we have in our city, particularly those drinking, as I've felt like they're just not taking advantage of the substantial amount of funding on offer from the government. But what you said about giving money to a homeless person outside a liquor store really has made me stop and think about why I have this possibly ignorant, definitely judgmental attitude.

    I always go out of my way to give tourists directions, lend someone a lighter or give them a smoke, even pay for others' purchases if I can afford and they're short on change. But I can't remember the last time I gave money to a homeless person.

    I'm 22, still working out who I am and forming opinions about the world, but this post has definitely made me feel a bit shit, and determined to change my attitude towards people, and give more often (and donate some decent goods to the food bank).

    Thanks Ani.

  4. thanks for the comment Alice, I think often it's difficult to understand why if we've experienced decent help from a system like social welfare that other people in similar positions can't just instantly use the same tools to garner the same results. Best of luck to you on your journey through life, this whole figuring out who we are thing is a lot of work and I'm a long way from "having it all figured out" my self.

  5. Ani, this is one of my favorite posts on the Internet and I read and share it every year for the last several. Thank you for writing it!