Is this self-destructive, negligent mom taking advantage of my generosity?

Advice on how to make the world better.
March 25 2009 6:53 AM

Deserving Kids, Undeserving Mom

Is this self-destructive, negligent mother taking advantage of my generosity?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Patty and Sandy,

Ungrateful woman.
How can you help deserving kids without encouraging their mother's negligence?

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?

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Abby in South Carolina

Patty:

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.

Sandy:

It sounds like you have the very best intentions, Abby, but I disagree with my mom on this one. With your current setup (identifying, coordinating, and paying for the fixes), I think you may be enabling the mom's problems without providing much long-term benefit. I say keep helping only if you can take the time to work with her to help identify and meet her basic needs. If you don't feel that you have the time or the skills, acknowledge that and try to put her in touch with someone who can.

If you want to help this family and you have the time to do it right, I would start by sitting down with her and making a list of the issues that she thinks need to be addressed and help her to match those needs to service efforts in your own community.

You don't discuss her work situation, but if she's currently out of work and wants to change that, help her identify skills that she could strengthen through  job training courses. If child care is an obstacle, help her get set up for  subsidized child care  so that she can take those courses. Find out whether she is eligible for the  South Carolina Family Independence Program or  low-income phone assistance  to help her pay her phone bill on her own. The  Family Service Center of South Carolina  looks like a great resource. Even if they don't have a center in your town, they may be able to point you in the right direction for statewide services.

If she's been working with community agencies, she may already have these resources, and if she isn't choosing to use them, you certainly can't make her. At that point, you have to decide what you're willing to do for the children. Maybe it's buying their back-to-school necessities, maybe it's bringing a box of groceries to their house once a week, but I don't think you should commit yourself to paying for her phone service or any other long-term aid. There are government and community resources to cover exactly these needs, and while they aren't always perfect, in the long run it will be more sustainable to have her working within the system than receiving handouts from a benefactor, no matter how well-intentioned.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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