By Elizabeth Campbell
When I responded to the email and signed up our family for a shift, the details of exactly how we would be spending our Saturday morning didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t pause to picture myself and our older son standing on the edge of a puddle of cindery snow-melt, cigarette butts, and crumpled receipts, the cuff of my jeans trailing over my sneaker soaking up the cold water. We stood outside the Market entrance to Wal-Mart, the only magnet big box superstore in our rural area. My husband and younger son occupied the Home and Garden entrance, engaging anonymous strangers and occasional acquaintances. And we panhandled.
The mom in charge of the booster group for our kids’ basketball team arranged the permissions from Wal-Mart, set up the shifts, and provided us with a laminated 8”x11” sign naming our cause and an empty pretzel jug. Surprisingly, that’s all it takes for an activity that yields a one hundred percent profit margin. No Wal-Mart employee checked on us, and we must not have provoked any complaints, although one skeptic shrieked, “It’s a scam! It’s a scam!” as her companion dropped a dollar in the can.
Fortunately for us, the temperature on the day we panhandled was thirty-five degrees, not the twelve it had been for weeks, and the burst of sunshine seemed good for donations.
When the boys were toddlers, I always gave them each a dollar or two to put into the Salvation Army kettle or for a poppy for veterans or into the offering plate at church. That’s how I’d been raised, and the kids couldn’t see the checks my husband and I wrote over the years—to the United Way and the Volunteer Fire Department, to a scholarship fund established in memory of my grandparents and a scholarship fund at the school my friend founded in rural Nicaragua, to NPR and the Fish and Game Club, to the Cancer Society and the March of Dimes. I wanted our boys to have tangible experiences of giving. My hope was to nurture their giving hearts, for them to grow up never remembering a time they left some stranger poor.
In early adulthood, I passed the particular homeless man who stood outside the corner bagel place near my apartment in Hyde Park in Chicago frequently enough that eventually, I didn’t buy myself a cup of coffee without coming out with two. If I didn’t have enough money for two overpriced luxury items, then I probably shouldn’t be buying one, I reasoned. I’d give him a couple dollars here and there, and once a sandwich I’d packed for lunch. After a few months, he disappeared for a week or so, and then reappeared, looking one hit away from death. His actions embodied the reason most people don’t give to people who act like him. Of course I didn’t want him to die, but I honestly didn’t really care what he did. All I knew about him was that he liked three sugars in his coffee.
Eventually, though, as our kids entered the world of organized activities, and as the tide of fundraising rose around us, irritation about giving rose within me. I found myself constantly buying or selling, for my kids or my friends’ kids, to support a variety of worthwhile activities. The homemade frozen pie sale for the preschool was my gateway.
From there it has been all downhill in the currency exchange that supports field trips and field improvements, playgrounds and pay-to-play. The catalogs of overpriced junk—nine-dollar bags of gummy bears or ten-dollar rolls of wrapping paper—from the PTO go immediately into the recycle bin without hesitation. The fifteen-dollar dollar tub of cookie dough my friend’s son delivered went into the garbage after one batch of plastic flavored cookies. A year’s worth of organic gardening magazines piled up, unread, on an end table in the year three of my friends’ kids sold for the magazine drive for the senior class trip to Washington, DC.
I’ve refused to let the kids participate in most fundraisers for a while. Instead I grudgingly write a check for the buy-out amount rather than guilt our relatives into a quota’s worth of Zap-A-Snacks. But now my husband and I figured it was about time the kids do something to support their activities other than sell raffle tickets to their grandparents the night before money had to be turned in to their coach. Thus we signed up for “the fundraiser” and pretty quickly, the details of what we were doing sank in.
Our younger son learned in the first five minutes to drop the direct appeal. He tried initiating contact—“Would you like to support our basketball team?”—but that caused people to turn and run, and his contagious smile turned out to be the best ask. A few commented on the basketball logo on our sign, but most people didn’t ask what our cause was before dropping a dollar in the can. Between the two entrances we covered for two hours, windshield washer fluid and fifty-inch TV sets seemed to be the most obvious hot items, amidst carts of mundane groceries.
The older fell into a script. “Good morning!” Eye contact. A couple dollars or a handful of change later, “Thank you, Sir.” “We appreciate it, Ma’am.” I’d echo his thanks, maybe comment on the warming sun. The wind thrashed the clouds back and forth, flooding us in sunshine or shadows, warm enough to remain gloveless, but with only one hand exposed at a time, while the other warmed in a pocket.
“Sorry, no cash! You should swipe debit cards!” fortyish moms would call out to us as they rushed their cart to their crossover vehicle, acknowledging us over their shoulders. My son would look at me skeptically and I’d shrug. I could equally believe or disbelieve each one of those moms that passed us by. You’ve got to draw some lines somewhere.
People who appeared most able, based only on appearance, usually made no eye contact and a beeline for the side entrance where we could be avoided entirely. That reminded me of a comment an adult paper carrier told me knowingly: “The longer the driveway, the smaller the tip!” Even though I know that it’s not a good indicator of generosity for people who probably itemize their charitable giving, it does sting to be ignored. Elderly and disabled people, people who looked to have enough on their hands by just getting out of their cars and into the store—let alone endure the exertion of their shopping experience—hardly ever ignored us. They paused, painstakingly extricating wallets from pockets and dollars from wallets, smiling softly. People who know what it feels like to be ignored don’t seem to pass that feeling along.
During a pause in the action, I asked my son how he felt about our efforts and how a person decides how to give. Does the cause matter? In a world of limited resources, how do we make good decisions? “You think too much, Mom,” he responded, a twelve-year-old feeling the success of what he was actually doing in the present moment. I came with him into the present, and when the grainy wind picked up, peppering us with the silty dust of a three-acre parking lot, we’d squint and lean into each other in solidarity. When the twenty-something skateboard type blew past us with a quick hey nod, and we realized he’d dropped us a tightly rolled ten, we shared twin feelings, reflected in each other’s faces.
He’s right, though, I have reflected a lot about giving well. My uncle contracted AIDS in the eighties, and died in the nineties, before protease inhibitors, but not before devising an intricate estate plan. He established a charitable trust of which his nine nieces and nephews would be the trustees. Until the youngest of us turned thirty, we would distribute the interest annually, then eventually, the principal. The annual distributions weren’t huge amounts of money but certainly more than any of us would have been giving out of our own resources. We rotated the decision making, and then made the big decisions on principal together, through email and on an Adirondack porch, over lots of wine, tears, and laughs, lining up our memories, values and our dollars.
I think there is a tendency to want our giving to mean something, to make a difference, to influence a change for the better. Most people like the idea of teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime. I get that, but there’s a bigger and bigger part of me that doesn’t like it at all, that doesn’t like the potential for superiority that can accompany the transaction of money, knowledge, or power. Sometimes hungry people just want a fish, not because they like fish, but because they are hungry, and they will figure out how to get something different than fish next time. Lately I see myself less persuaded by mission statements and program descriptions and find myself more likely to pull out my money and just give away the damn fish. Somewhere where are no expectations involved—hopes that a scholarship recipient will excel or a belief that the advocacy will yield a certain result.
“What’s the point?” one may quite reasonably ask. Isn’t there an inevitable futility to this approach? An endless string of coffees with three sugars?
I suppose there is, and for me, that’s okay. It falls in with the lot of our common humanity, and the likelihood that anyone is as likely as anyone else to need the unexpected compassion of another. I won’t sign up for another shift panhandling outside Wal-Mart to fundraise for youth sports again anytime soon. The generosity of strangers overflowed our cans. As we got home, warm and clean, the kids counted the money, enthusiastic and reflective, and they promised themselves never to walk by person collecting without pitching in. Turns of fate are often hairpins, it seems to me, and in the switchbacks, in the ebbs and flows, keeping my balance requires a give and take.
ELIZABETH CAMPBELL is a pseudonym for a clinical social worker who, because of the nature of her work, seeks to limit personal information available online.