A few years ago, my phone began ringing off the hook. It was the week before Thanksgiving and I was operating a shelter for women and children. Dozens of people were looking for places to donate food, resources and their time. A few weeks before this, we were struggling to find help and now, as the holidays approached, there seemed to be no end in sight of people who wanted to give their time for a few hours on a random Thursday. Now, one might argue that all of us in the nonprofit world should be grateful for the sudden outpouring of support. But as I fielded the calls, I started to have some suspicions about their intentions.
“I want my kids to learn to be thankful for what they have,” one woman said. “I figured if they saw all these people without, they might learn their lesson.”
Another person left a voicemail message: “My wife and I have been very blessed and we need a reminder of how bad things can be.”
As the calls continued, it became clear that many of these folks weren’t thinking about the clients we served, rather their own particular interest. They essentially wanted to use the holidays as a poverty zoo. A type of tourism where they could go and observe disparity from behind the safe space of a serving line and then leave feeling better about their circumstances. This isn’t a blanket judgment either; this was their own words.
I was faced with a difficult decision. Do I turn these folks and their assistance away or trade a mother’s dignity in exchange for goods?
We made the decision as an organization that moving forward, we would only allow volunteers who had been with our program for a while to participate during holidays and birthday events at the shelter. Why? Because people’s individual suffering should not be used as entertainment for adults or cautionary scare tactics for children. Many of these folks were we serving had already been exploited on the streets and we didn’t want to continue that within the confines of our shelter, which is supposed to be a safe haven.
It certainly wasn’t a popular decision, but it was an important one. We even stopped allowing people to wrap presents during Christmas! Instead, we had people donate unwrapped gifts and supply the parents with wrapping paper, allowing them to pick presents they felt their children would like, wrap the gifts themselves, and give the gifts to their children in the privacy of their own rooms.
At first, people were upset. However, slowly we started to notice more people saying, “How do I sign up as a regular volunteer? What other needs do you have year round? How do I get more involved?”
The biggest difference came in how our guests responded. Shortly after celebrating a birthday with one of the children staying with us, her mother found a new home. When they left, the little girl said, “Thank you so much! No other hotel we stayed at gave me a birthday party.” That was the proof we needed of the success with this policy. This little girl didn’t feel like she was impoverished and staying in a shelter. She felt like her mom was just looking for a house and staying at a nice hotel. When we changed the way that we responded to people, it changed the way they responded to their circumstances.
It isn’t easy to change the way we’ve been doing things for so long. For many families, going to a soup kitchen or shelter during the holidays is a long standing tradition. But not all traditions are good, helpful, or healthy, even if they are well intentioned. I think for a long time, our society hasn’t even thought to ask the question of how our giving might make the receiver feel. But slowly more and more organizations are adopting the philosophy that receiving help shouldn’t hurt or leave scars. It should be part of the healing process. That means that some of the ways we’ve been doing things is going to have to change.
So this holiday season, seek out charities to participate in, to give to, and to assist, but make it part of your life and not just for a season.
Nathan Monk is a social justice advocate, former Orthodox priest and the author of Charity Means Love. He lives in Pensacola, Florida, with his three children, and works with nonprofits and local governments to address issues associated with homelessness and poverty. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram.