Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.
Dear Patty and Sandy,
My church class was given the name of an 8-year-old girl who needed gifts for Christmas. When I delivered them, I was struck by the desperate need for more to be done than just dropping off a few gifts and leaving. A couple of us organized a group to go over and seal her windows. A plumber was paid to make repairs. Treatment was set up for a bug infestation. We have not given the mother money, but we have offered to pay for phone service and other specific items to help out. Being the realist that I am, I know that this woman may allow us to repair things and keep going on the self-destructive path she's on. I'm not interested in enabling poor behavior, but I also know that her children are innocent victims of their family circumstances. Have we done as much as we should, or is there something more we could do to help the kids without being taken advantage of by the mom?
Abby in South Carolina
I believe that the primary way to help a needy family is by supporting the best social-service agencies in your area. However, I also agree that sometimes it can be great for a group to come together to provide direct service to an individual or family in need as you are doing with your friends. It can connect you to your shared values, make you aware of the needs in your own community, and lead to a deeper understanding of the issues and the people you wish to serve.
At first review, nothing you are doing sounds like you are enabling the mom's problems, and you are certainly creating a safer environment for these kids. I think what you are doing is sound and compassionate. If the rest of your class doesn't agree, why not sit down together and write out a few giving guidelines you want to follow on any further projects and, as long as you can find ways to help this family within those guidelines, continue on?
I realize you and your classmates have standards for the way you believe people should live—but I caution you about imposing those standards as a requirement for your giving. A poster next to my desk as I type this that has a quote from an Aboriginal activist group: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." I have returned to that quote hundreds of times in the past decade as I examined my own giving practices.
I encourage you to keep pursuing your own service plan, but check your approach occasionally against this quote to ensure you're on the right track.