Thanksgiving has come and gone, tonight is the sixth night of Chanukah, and Christmas is a scant 21 days away. The holiday season is in full swing, which means we’re smack in the middle of giving time. This is when we feel most obliged to help our fellow men, so when better to examine how we as Yalies envision charity, especially in the context of trying to improve New Haven?
It’s a dismal picture. The biggest problem comes from the students who think they’re helping New Haven by pushing city, state and federal governments to pick up the burden of charitable enterprise — be it welfare, homeless shelters, food programs, etc. Whether their motives are selfish or noble, these students are promoting a method of “community service” that does anything but serve the community.
Let me illustrate with an example. This summer I worked at a nonprofit Christian charity organization in Louisville, Ky., called The Cabbage Patch Settlement House. The Patch has served Louisville’s inner city for 92 years, yet receives (by choice) no government or United Way funding, and is entirely reliant upon community involvement and generosity for its various programs aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty through education and prevention. Because The Patch is a private, religious community organization, it works with inner city youth on an individual and group basis, instilling in them a sense of Christian dignity and love. Disadvantaged children make meaningful friendships with one another based on athletic teams, artistic pursuits and service projects instead of street gang activities. They also develop friendships with the adults who guide and help them, and return years later seeking direction from the people who helped them through rough spots as kids.
The Patch’s programs are not free. It does provide day care, tutoring, college counseling, rent assistance, camping and summer recreational programs to people struggling to make ends meet, but instead of just giving away these services, the Patch asks for a small contribution from the families. It doesn’t matter if the $20 they can offer is only a fraction of the $400 price tag for a camping trip — it doesn’t matter if what a single mother can pay doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what her child’s day care costs. It’s the most they can give, and that’s what matters. It’s a sacrifice and an investment on the part of the families, with the pride that comes from knowing they’ve sacrificed to contribute to their children’s well-being.
And with that sense of investment comes a sense of accountability. If an organization helps someone through difficult times while letting him keep his dignity, letting him contribute something instead of just giving him a handout, he feels a sense of gratitude and obligation in return. Perhaps this explains why a large portion of The Patch staff are former “Cabbage Patch Kids,” and why the children The Patch helped years ago become, year after year, some of the most generous and knowledgeable volunteers and mentors. They’re proud of how they became responsible, valuable citizens with the help of The Patch, and they want to show that pride by being examples to other children.
This is something that no government program can achieve. First, forced charity (read: taxes for welfare) defeats the whole purpose of giving. Furthermore, by guaranteeing a safety net without asking for anything in return, welfare-style charity eliminates any incentive for self-improvement, which is what would help New Haven’s poor the most.
Even if this were not true, agitating for the city of New Haven, the state of Connecticut, or even the federal government to pour more money into already existing programs would still be an exercise in futility. Any government program is too impersonal, too cumbersome, and plagued by too much politicking and corruption to ever really focus on the individuals it purports to serve. Will throwing government money at poor families make them feel like they matter? Will these families sense an obligation to give back to the city? Probably not. It’s hard to feel cared for, after all, when you’re just welfare recipient No. 124678-9B; it’s hard to feel invested in something when you’re just the occupant of homeless shelter cot No. 38. It’s hard to feel included, or feel like you matter, when you’re just getting the same standard handout as everyone else and don’t have the chance to show your appreciation by giving something in return (as is asked of fully functional citizens). It’s why private charities like The Cabbage Patch are infinitely more capable of solving New Haven’s problems than city, state or federal government.
If you’re inspired by the season to improve the lives of New Haven’s disadvantaged, think carefully about how you pursue your charity. Don’t sign up to bring about welfare reform. Don’t run for alderman; don’t try to hold city office so you can try to get more money for already failing programs. Instead, sign up with T.I.E.S. or help at All Our Kin, where the people you assist are committed to self-improvement and appreciate your efforts to work with them as valued individuals, not unimportant numbers in a system.
Ideally, New Haven would be best served by a group of Yale alumni who would stay in the city to establish an organization like The Cabbage Patch, with the hope that it would be the first of several. Having the continuity of a reliable corps of adult staff and mentors is essential, but even with their four-year turnover rate, undergraduates could make an enormous contribution to such an organization. Student athletes could coach teams and run sports programs. The more educationally-minded could teach young children how to read and tutor struggling students; Yalies would also have great qualifications for providing standardized test preparation and college counseling. Students active in Yale’s religious ministries could provide the organization, its families, and its children all-important moral guidance and instruction. While it sounds far-fetched and may never happen, this is the kind of project — not lobbying for more homeless shelters — that would really affect New Haven. It would keep people off of the streets and take care of their immediate needs, but most importantly, it would teach them how to really give to their community and to be a part of something important benefiting their fellow men. It would guide the desperate and destitute toward being moral people and responsible citizens, which is the best gift and community service of all.
Meghan Clyne is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.