My daughter (9) and I were recently downtown; as we moved through a subway station, she pulled on my sleeve to ask for some money for a woman who was panhandling. Rachel was so affected by the woman's face; "She looked so sad mom! Her eyes! All these people were walking by her and no one was giving her anything!"
Both my kids have always been very attuned to folks they see on the street, and we've struggled over the years to navigate comfortable action. I know that on one hand giving a dollar to two to someone will not make a tremendous difference in the grand scheme of things ... but on the other hand, it might contribute to a bit more nutrition that day, or a smoke if that's what they need most, and at the very least, an acknowledgement of their humanity and dignity. I also feel overwhelmed by the visible (and invisible) need in our city. Especially when I think about the tremendous privilege my own children have ... more than one quarter of children in Toronto live in poverty, and many of the people we see asking for a hand are asking not only for themselves. And yet I can't give to everyone we see. It's not sustainable, and it's not a hand up. That's why I try to contribute in more tangible ways, such as volunteering for and giving to organizations that provide a more coordinated approach to supporting those that need it. Organizations that not only provide food and shelter, but employment services, barrier-free healthcare for body and mind, and education. A dollar a day in the hand of someone on the street is not likely to make as great an impact as a dollar a day to a fiscally-responsible organization that makes a coordinated impact. My kids know I volunteer my services regularly, and we make space for it as a family. My son is old enough now to volunteer himself at street-level - he will be attending a workshop on Sunday with a group that facilitates teens' efforts. We've organized food drives and book drives. We've baked cookies for shelters. Both my kids donate a third of their allowance to causes that are important to them.
And none of that is directly related to the disappointment and despair that Rachel saw in that woman's eyes. The struggle was made more real as we noted that we were headed to a birthday party for a friend. We had planned to stop on our way to buy a gift. It felt gross to both of us to have not helped this woman only to spend $30 to buy a gift for a friend who didn't need more stuff. In the end, she decided she wanted to give the money to someone in need, in honour of her friend's birthday. So that's what we did when we got off the train. I handed her the cash and she gave it to a man sitting amidst a stream of people. She will tell you how much the man's face lit up when he realized what she was giving him. "Thank you, little lady," he said, with his hand on his heart. She lit up too. And proudly wrote in a card for her friend a simple note about what she had chosen to do, though not sure if her friend would understand, or share her perspective. I was a little concerned too for Rachel. But when we picked her up from the party, the friend's parents immediately expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the gesture.
And though our small contribution may not have changed the world, it made that man's day a little brighter. It reminds me of the story of the starfish ...