A Slippery Dilemma
Will donating money, hair, or time really help clean up the BP oil spill?
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com.
Dear My Goodness,
It seems to me I should be donating money in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The nonprofits that are cleaning animals are obvious choices, but I was thinking more about the people who are suffering economically from the disaster—fishing families, for example. But I am having trouble wading through the options. Also, should I boycott BP? Doesn't that harm our local businesses?
—Virginia in Atlanta
I have long red hair and have donated about 3 feet of it to Locks of Love in the past 10 years. I'm getting ready for a haircut and wonder if I could donate it to make booms to soak up oil.
—Katherine in Tucson
I hate the photos of the pelicans covered in oil. What can I do? I'm willing to take off from work and rescue birds.
—Tamara in Santa Monica, Calif.
Dear Virginia, Katherine, and Tamara,
My Goodness has received many letters like yours from people wishing to respond in some personal way—with money, volunteer hours, or their hair. Unfortunately there seems to be no single volunteer clearinghouse to harness these good impulses efficiently. The Coast Guard and BP have authority, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups focusing on bird and animal rescue. Unfortunately, there's no spill volunteer czar, but here are some suggestions to help sort out what is helpful and what is not.
Your local church or service organization may have a sister group in an affected Gulf city—and that's a great place to start looking for a home for your charitable dollars. Virginia, bless her, wrote back that she'd just learned her church's relief agency was working in affected communities, and she gave to it.
As to whether to boycott BP, there is an organized movement, complete with a Facebook presence. Boycotts sometimes work, but it's worth noting that the BP station on the corner is a franchise owned by a local businessperson, who will absorb the initial effect. A brilliant column by Sharon Begley explored whether it's really so great to pass by BP and give your dollars to Exxon or any other oil company. If you want to punish the whole industry, stop driving.
Altruistic gifts of hair are a great American tradition. Jo, the protagonist in Little Women, cut off her chestnut locks—"her one beauty"—to pay for her mother's trip to visit Father March in a Civil War hospital. More recently and nonfictionally, Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher donated a year's worth of hair to be made into wigs for women who'd lost their hair during cancer chemotherapy (this in memory of the grandmother who raised him).
Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Photograph of a brown pelican coated in oil by Win McNamee/Getty Images.