I ate this morning at Bagels Unlimited, one of my favorite breakfast places, in the company of a young fellow whose friendship I have come to highly value. The more I know him, the more I like him, and I find myself learning in each of our encounters. Over coffee, coddled egg, bagel and lox, we talked about our wives, children, parents and grandparents and found—although of widely divergent backgrounds, nationalities and cultures—that we share intense commonality about the community we live in and our sense of responsibility to it.
He is a financially successful person who I won’t embarrass by identifying, but when he told me he donates 10 percent of his business’s revenue to United Way it got me thinking. The commitment to donating a percentage of revenue, rather than profit, is especially laudable as the profit line item often is an accounting fiction. Back at the office I finished editing Managing Editor Maghan McDowell’s excellent cover story about Gainesville’s Women’s Giving Circle and a theme for my morning seemed to be emerging.
Are we the sorts of people who are generous of spirit? Why and how or even if we choose to seek to help those in need, whether that need is temporary or systemic—these are fascinating subjects. For the religious it is bedrock of faith, as Judaism, many forms of Christianity, and Mormonism, Islam and Sikhism all have ritual, tradition or law addressing giving to charity. Anthropologists, meanwhile, will tell you that the idea of giving or of helping another person, or of sharing what you have, is central to the definition of this being we have come to call human.
More years ago than I like to remember I was a firefighter and ambulance medic for a volunteer fire department (VFD) in a tiny town in northwest Montana where the area’s population was counted in the hundreds. It was rural bordering on wilderness, and among us were many in need of everything from food to clothing for their children and other basic necessities. I was asked to participate in the VFD’s giving program, which involved a cash donation as well as volunteering time to help create boxes of canned goods, sometimes a frozen turkey or smoked ham, gift certificates from merchants and such. These boxes were assembled and delivered, as the occasion warranted, to families in need.
What I remember most was that the VFD delivered those boxes in complete secrecy, leaving them on back porches or front steps without fanfare, recognition or embarrassment to the recipients. It taught me much when I faced the idea that we would not take credit for the good we were doing, that no one would know how it was done—I guess sort of like all good magic.
Here in the Gainesville area there is a strong tradition of giving. Not many months go by without a gala event where many of us get dressed up to share what we have done with our checkbooks for a good cause. That’s a good thing, and is something I like about being here. I’ve also been hearing and seeing good things about the local economy.
Our realtor friends are showing renewed optimism. Our own magazine business is growing.
Here’s the “but.” The organizations that do the good work of helping those in need all year round, mostly without fanfare or getting dressed up in their fanciest clothes to do so, don’t appear to be doing so well. Acquaintances that work in nonprofits of every stripe have tough jobs in any economy, but of late they say giving is down, way down. Many of these “do-good” organizations, whether secular or faith-based, are literally the last hope for people—and children—in need. Yes, even here in the Gainesville area, with its great university and college, its art and culture and theater and its Gator-mania … people in need.
I read that the North Central Florida YMCA has filed for bankruptcy protection. I hear that the United Way could use help and that Salvation Army Kettle donations are down. From the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County and its exemplary programming, to GainesvilleHIPPY and its home instruction for parents of preschool youngsters, to Healthy Families, Habitat for Humanity, the Early Learning Coalition, Catholic Charities, Christians Concerned for the Community and the Ronald McDonald House, to organizations that do equally great work that I have not mentioned out of a lack of familiarity— they all need our help in order to help those they help.
If you are reading this, the odds are you are more successful than the average bear. That carries a community responsibility. Whether you attribute it to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or the Winter Solstice, it is the season for giving. You know what to do.