The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 17, 2021 1:00 am

The gift of DIGNITY

Anonymity eases stress for families already struggling

Jama Smith

As we fall deep into the season of all things pumpkin spice, no doubt you've already spotted the glitter of the upcoming holiday décor poking through an aisle here or there at your favorite shopping destinations.

Christmas is looming in the rearview mirror, but for those of us who do charitable Christmas assistance programs for the community, we're already in the thick of it.

My 13th Christmas as an Adopt a Family coordinator is approaching, and while I traditionally spend this time soliciting donors to consider families in need, I wanted to address an issue that continually rises to the forefront of the coming season: the importance of anonymous giving.

Before I explain, I need to stress two very important points:

1) I truly believe that in our current society, any act of giving is a beautiful thing. Often when I'm asking for support for my organization, there will be another similar program to which someone is giving instead. My response is always, “Great! Thank you for supporting our community!” Because I strongly feel that one cause does not trump another, or that any nonprofit is more “deserving.” Giving with your heart to an organization that helps people, anonymously or otherwise, is an act of selfless love.

2) I have been witness to many programs that successfully operate without an anonymity factor. This is not an effort to malign those programs should you find yourself affiliated with one that works for your charitable giving. Rather, this is to offer an explanation as to why the most frequently asked question in our program – “Can I meet the family I'm donating to?” – is “absolutely not.”

Every year, out of the hundreds of donors who adopt a Christmas family, there are always a few prospective benefactors who try to convince me that meeting the family that will receive their generosity is a necessity. The most common responses to our privacy policy are:

“I can go over to (insert charity or church name) and I get to meet the people I'm giving to.” My response: “That's great! They're a great organization, and I'm sure they'll appreciate your partnership!”

“How do I know these people will actually get the stuff I purchased for them?” Response: “We have a process to ensure this; however, I can assure you that I'm not interested in stealing any of this family's stuff. I didn't go into charitable work for the Paw Patrol merch.”

“If they're really poor, you would think they would just be happy to get the stuff however it's given.” Response: “Gross. For so many reasons.”

Although it's perfectly natural to crave that warm and fuzzy Hallmark moment of grace and gratitude, here are a few downfalls beyond the obvious safety and security of named giving. Although I have several, I'll stick to the three that give me the most soul-ache throughout my years as a social worker:

1) Expectations of what need looks like doesn't always match reality.

One of the complaints I would hear when we still allowed named giving was that donors were disappointed when the family didn't “look poor” enough. Although all of our clients are required to provide proof of hardship during the interview process, donors were often dismayed to find that they were living in situations that were not of Dickens proportions.

“They had a flat-screen television/Playstation/etc.”

“The apartment looked really nice. It didn't look like they were struggling.”

“Her nails were done up, and I'm pretty sure she had a designer purse.”

Efforts to explain that even poor families like to have a nice place to live, that gifts from Grandma, secondhand items or even something purchased before a financially devastating event befell them are things they shouldn't feel shamed for, or that a woman who does her own nails doesn't warrant a con artist title would fall on deaf ears.

What they envisioned as poverty disappointed them as people strived to display some level of comfortability amidst the struggle. No one wants to “look” poor. But that's what some people needed to feel good about their generosity.

2) Humility is a complex emotion, especially when expected to be performed to an audience.

“They didn't seem grateful” was probably one of the most difficult grievances for me to understand. It goes without saying that we all feel and show our emotions in vastly different ways.

Having to ask for help is a lot to process emotionally without adding the awkwardness of a meet and greet.

I think back to several years ago and a young woman who came to pick up gifts for her toddler son. After watching me load an enormous pile of gifts into her car, she asked emotionlessly, “Is that it?” Irritated, I took this as greed, thinking she was insinuating that her crammed-full car wasn't enough for her. I bit my tongue and wished her a Merry Christmas as she drove away without thanking me.

Almost immediately, I discovered she had forgotten the gift card her donor had purchased for her, and I phoned her to ask her to please come back for it. When I met her in the parking lot, I was stunned when I looked at her face. It couldn't have been more than 10 minutes that had elapsed, but her eyes were already bright red and her shirt drenched with tears. She had obviously broken down the moment she drove away with her gifts.

She hadn't wanted to show me her tears; she was just trying to keep her composure. I looked back at her file after she left to find she was a new client, never having had to to ask for help before; her son had been diagnosed with leukemia. This entire process, the entire world she now lived in, was all foreign to her in ways I would never understand.

I learned a great lesson that year: Giving to someone in need is a gift that shouldn't require exhibition.

3) Christmas is not the time to introduce the reality of struggle to children.

I've had literally thousands of children come through our programs, several of whom already had a greater understanding of their family's financial status than they rightfully should have. It showed in their tiny faces and empty tummies, and it's a cruel burden for someone so young to bear.

There is nothing wrong with children knowing that their gifts have been given by a charitable giver, just as there is nothing wrong with them believing that they came from mom and dad, or Santa, or whoever else's name is placed on the tag.

But that responsibility should always be in the lap of the parent or guardian, not in the strangers who show up on a porch step.

That gleeful “surprise” factor that gives such pleasure to the orchestrators can do damage when forced or even pressured upon a family.

I prefaced this piece by saying I believe that all giving is beautiful regardless of the delivery, and I stand by that. If you have a system that works for your charitable giving, please don't let this stop you from giving with a full heart. However, if you are otherwise considering helping someone less fortunate this upcoming season, I urge you to consider giving the gift of dignity and selflessness that comes with anonymous giving.

Jama Smith is program director for the Fort Wayne Salvation Army.

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