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Cover Story: To Give or Not to Give

Thoughts on the nebulous and complex nature of charity

By Jeffrey Hillard · December 24th, 2003 · Cover Story
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To Give or Not to Give
Matt Borgerding and Sean Hughes

To Give or Not to Give



"Take this message to my brother/You can find him everywhere..."
-- "Takin' It to the Streets" (The Doobie Brothers)

I'm looking out of the window of a fourth-floor hospice room on this night, and the sloppy configurations of lights throughout Western Hills blur in the quietness. It's nearing midnight, and just after dawn the flag-waving second anniversary of 9/11 will commence.

One of my closest friends is taking some of his last breaths this midnight. In four hours he'll be gone.

After the sun comes up this morning of Sept. 11, 2003 and the first news reports rehash a rainbow of Ground Zero stories of both loss and reconciliation, I'll be thinking of another passing. I'll think of another charitable person the world has lost.

The first thought I had when I received the ominous call at 4 a.m. was how much my departed friend John gave me. I knew him 17 years. As teachers of college students, I could depend upon him for classroom advice. As a fellow writer, he knew. He gave me solace during times I bemoaned the drudgery of perfecting drafts.

He listened, such a modicum of giving when compared to high-end money scale of some charity.

These are emotional handouts, I know. But twice John loaned me serious gas money. I paid him back once.

When I took the elevator down that night at the hospice, it struck me immediately that my friend lay comforted under the visible handiwork of about 200 friends and colleagues at the College of Mount St. Joseph, whose giving spirit covered him in the form of a magnificent quilt.

It was the brainchild of another colleague, an avid quilter who, among other courses, teaches the craft and history of quilting.

While John was in hospice, Marilyn Luecke, the quilter and associate professor of English, dialed up a former student who studied with her and said, "Let's get going. I have an idea. This quilt's happening."

What transpired over the days just before his death was a demonstration of charity not linked to much money. It was an outpouring of shared words, thoughts, memories. Luecke's e-mail invited the college community to write messages to John on strips of cloth. She and her student, Robin Ritchie, would hand-sew the strips onto the quilt.

A blue jean pattern heightened the quilt's meaning. John wore old jeans nearly all the time. The school's gold color mellowed the London Roads design.

A quilt is a piece of art. Art speaks.

It happened: John heard these words on the quilt when we laid it on him.

My friend Loyola read strips aloud, with the pacing of the poet she is. Two other friends held John's hands.

Acts of giving can drive us. In less than a minute, I can think of four charitable people I know.

My wife's aunt has read books to a blind person in a retirement community. A teacher I know in Indiana will buy students paper, pens and pencils, even clothes. My wife and others just coordinated a Thanksgiving food drive at my daughter's school.

One friend, as an excuse for a road trip, shuttles a trunk full of clothes from Cincinnati to southern Kentucky. One Cincinnati man is spearheading a massive food and clothing collection, hauling the goods to needy -- many jobless -- residents in eastern Ohio and West Virginia.

'Tis the season when many have dug and are digging into pockets and purses. Hauled clothes from closets, boxed them up. Are giving -- present tense.

Each of us should know someone who's donated money or time to a cause or to someone privately. We can't ignore the red buckets in supermarkets, the FreeStore/FoodBank, Giving Trees, clothing drives and frozen turkeys being generously distributed. There are those who give, give and give more.

I'm not one of those people. Or else I am. I'm not always sure.

I can't gauge my giving, regardless. What I give I rarely think about. I've dropped quarters into buckets for years, donated to Giving Trees and I've given -- in some cases -- years to organizations.

But I question whether I ever do enough. I probably don't.

I'm like any other person dropping some change into a red bucket -- I wonder how much the Salvation Army needs that day to call the day a success. The nature of charity is nebulous and complex, and it's difficult to quantify ways of giving unless, of course, you're donating for a tax write-off or to fulfill a kind of quota.

Climbing the ladder
And what about the other 10 or 11 months?

The best-selling author Julie Salamon has investigated the subject of charity by cleverly using the guidance of Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish scholar and visionary. The book, just published, is Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give.

The child of a rabbi, Maimonides was born Moses Ben Maimon in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain. A pleasant reality is that Spain harbored a period of peaceful coexistence among Christians, Jews and Muslims until Islamic fundamentalists invaded the country and families like Maimonides' -- whose name's shorter version was Rambam -- moved. After living in Palestine and Morocco, Rambam ended up in Egypt.

His tireless study on Jewish law led him to write thousands of pages of popular commentaries on it, while he also became a physician to Egypt's sultan. Rambam's leadership towered above others.

He believed in community. He was attentive to his patients' needs. He cared about the poor. He gave and talked to them. He grew concerned about the entire culture of charity, of providing for the increasing population of have-nots.

So Rambam created the "Ladder of Charity," with eight levels of giving. They include, from lowest to highest rung: reluctance, proportion, solicitation, shame, boundaries, corruption, anonymity and responsibility.

On the lowest rung of reluctance, one gives begrudgingly. On the highest rung, responsibility, one ensures that his or her giving allows the recipient to become self-reliant.

The rungs in between range from handing money to the poor after one is asked (solicitation) to giving to an unknown person who actually knows you (boundaries).

Maimonides had an answer for each rung. Salamon looks not only into how he interpreted each rung but also looks inside her own preoccupation with charity and how others she's researched and interviewed have given of themselves or their resources.

She's always juggled her books with her day job as one of the premier feature writers for The New York Times. Formerly a reporter and movie critic for The Wall Street Journal, Salamon has written two novels and three books of nonfiction, including a definitive look inside a movie blockbuster and bust (The Devil's Candy) and an investigation into one of the most notorious murders ever in New York (Facing the Wind).

Salamon is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and a volunteer par excellence. Shortly after 9/11, a publisher friend challenged her to write a book on charity.

"It blew my mind at first," Salamon says. "I hadn't thought of it before, and I've been around charity all my life."

Salamon accepted the challenge but didn't know where to start. As she explores the eight levels, her personal life factors into each rung. She's brutally honest about discrepancies she sees in the ways people give, yet she reveals how some people she's been close to on the receiving end have been kept alive by unexpected beneficence, whether in the form of money or time.

As a writer, she's terribly restless. She vows never to write the same book twice.

"I'm always thinking about strange, fresh angles on things," she says. "That's the thing about charity. I've been so involved with charity for such a long time, but I'd never thought about Maimonides."

It intrigues Salamon that in all her books or achievements, she's never outwardly recognized the Bowery Resident's Committee (BRC) in downtown Manhattan.

She knows the place too well. She's a former chairperson of the BRC, a joint homeless shelter and advocacy agency that totally discourages panhandling. More important, it steers its clients -- many of them addicts -- toward self-sufficient living, the highest rung on Rambam's Ladder.

"It may be that I thought of my volunteering there as perfectly natural," she says. "Maybe I didn't want the attention, I'm not sure."

How effective is a charity such the BRC in her eyes? It gave her one of the greatest moments in her book, she says.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the mass exodus from the World Trade Center occurred, as people swarmed streets away from the destruction, some hurried up the street where the BRC is located. Those already being cared for at the BRC -- the homeless, in this case -- got hoses, soap, towels and buckets and washed dirt off executives, investment bankers, secretaries and all sorts of employees in the WTC buildings. They hosed off sidewalks, too, and set up tables with food and water.

"These so-called fringe people were all of a sudden thrown into the position of giving," Salamon says, "and they gave without questioning. It's usually always the other way around."

The generosity of bats
One rainy day in Manhattan, the "Rag Man" stood a few yards away from Julie Salamon.

It rained hard that day.

She was with her son Eli, 7 at the time. They huddled under their large umbrella. They were about to get in a cab when Eli saw how the Rag Man was drenched. He and his mother had seen him before, of course, but not this wet.

Rag Man was a fixture in the neighborhood, ostensibly homeless, someone people living nearby recognized. It was Eli the boy who initiated the act to give Rag Man their umbrella.

"He needs it more than we do," he said.

When Rag Man reached to take it, he said "Thank you" to Eli. Salamon the mother was pleased to witness her son's kind gesture. It came unexpectedly.

In the big picture, though, her mother and father started it all, this passing down of generosity.

Salamon witnessed years of giving at the hands of her parents. She knew that her mother, after being liberated from Auschwitz and living in Prague, worked for a charity that distributed clothing sent from America for mainly the Jews liberated from the concentration camps.

Her mother, she writes, utilized her knowledge of several languages and worked doggedly to make sure needy refugees were taken care of. Salamon's mother also treasured Gone with the Wind, which she'd read before being sent to Auschwitz. While at the camp, her mother knew the chapters so well that she retold them to fellow prisoners. She gave her memory and imagination to others.

Julie Salamon was born in the Adams County town of Seaman, Ohio. It was an impoverished area made more hopeful by the help her physician father gave his patients.

His death just after her high school graduation, Salamon says, inspired her to take writing more seriously. She filled a notebook full of memories on the plane trip back from Australia, where she was vacationing at the time of his death.

Her father's life amazed her because she observed how diligently he treated people as the town physician. In Seaman, he never turned down a patient, even if he or she couldn't pay the bill.

Besides, it was the father's fascination with trees on the main drag of Seaman that convinced him to practice there. Prior to settling in Seaman, her father got very upset upon seeing another small town cut down its trees. He put faith in a town like Seaman that left its trees alone to grow.

Like her late father, Salamon realizes the natural world is a barometer for the way humans treat each other. While researching for Rambam's Ladder, she came across a startling discovery by a researcher who studied links between vampire bats and charity.

Spending five years in and out of caves, he was able to confirm his belief that altruistic behavior existed among vampire bat communities.

But how? According to Salamon, he charted the bats' blood-feeding tendencies. He watched them give blood they secured on hunts not only to their own brood but also to newcomer-bats who would come unexpectedly into that occupied area.

"If vampire bats show this kind of interesting behavior toward one another and present this example of giving," she says, "what's that say about the human potential for giving?"

Wondering before giving
I see the paraplegic man at the intersection, and I wonder.

His cardboard box next to his wheelchair has fat letters: "Out of Work at This Time -- Need to Buy Food. Please Help." I've seen him before in Western Hills, and I've dropped a few bucks in the box.

Today I wonder if I should get out of my car. I imagine some people waver before giving.

I don't know why I hesitate. Usually I don't. I'm three cars in front of this godawful, slow-turning, shopping center traffic light.

Just ahead of me an elderly woman crawls out from the backseat of a sedan and shuffles over with a dollar to put in the box. Just as she heads back to the car, the driver in front of me with the bad hairpiece hops out of his driver's side and makes his deposit.

It's such a long light, so, well, I hurry. I get out and give the man two bucks. I'm concerned that I've reacted only because the man with the hairpiece particularly influenced me. Maybe I want the passengers behind me to realize I do give.

I also think how a CityBeat writer, Larry Gross, fell into a similar predicament of wondering. In a superb article, Gross recounts sitting next to a man on a bus who describes himself as an artist, panhandler and alcoholic. Gross listened when he could have moved. He understood. The man was his own lonely conversation.

Gross wondered if he'd wind up giving the man a few dollars. He did. He beat the hesitation.

At least in Julie Salamon's view I've made it to the first rung of the ladder, because I overcame my initial reluctance to give, period.

"The point is, you did get out of your car," she says. "The folks ahead of you were maybe a rung up -- giving cheerfully, but not enough ('proportionally,' the second rung on the ladder). Your worrying about why you gave shows a heart that's already well along on the journey."

Kindness is infectious
Outside the basement of the church, where the kitchen smell of bacon and eggs pours onto Storrs Avenue, a snowball misses the wall and hits a window.

With her sleeves rolled up from washing dishes, arms dripping wet, Kay Clifton opens the back door to ask the boys about it.

"You threw a snowball and it didn't break a window?" she asks four or five of the boys attending Sunday school at State Avenue Methodist Church. "Then God must've been with you on that throw."

It's Sunday, and the first snow of the season covers these narrow streets in Lower Price Hill. It hasn't stopped 10 to 12 children who have walked to the church for pancakes, bacon, eggs, biscuits and milk and then the service. They're now regulars. They laugh, they mix batter, they flip pancakes and bacon and stir eggs, they wash down small tables and they listen to their Sunday school lesson.

With the church hovering among 50 to 60 members, typically an average of 15 to 20 children and adults come each Sunday.

In the past eight months of Sunday breakfasts, this needed outreach has evolved perfectly, in Clifton's view. As the church's lay leader and former interim pastor, she's concerned their hot meals are few.

Even more than preaching, she watches with affirmation. Clifton is also a scholar and behavioral scientist who thrives on understanding how communities function.

What she sees spring from her church's consistent work with the community affirms her research and writing over the years: When provided pro-active and caring ways to connect, people do respond positively, and perhaps their self-esteem changes for the better.

"It's especially true with those living in poverty," she says. "We want them to see that a community core is strength and knowledge. They need each other in a positive environment, not a negative one."

It might not have reached this point, though, without Carolyn Oshita. She picked up the first frying pan and spatula last spring and began to cook for the children.

She teaches Sunday school. All this Sunday action came after her other endeavors to reach children in Lower Price Hill who, she says, "had absolutely nothing to do, nothing, living just day to day."

When Oshita arrived in Cincinnati from West Virginia three years ago, she had no plan except to find a job. She immediately found a calling.

Over the past years she's mentored, coached, taught, and cooked for no less than 30 children. And in doing so, she says, she has guided them from a "structureless life" to one with meaning.

There has been girls' softball on the streets and then on Oyler Elementary School's playground. A co-ed softball team co-run with Clifton. An Oyler football team, directed by Oyler staff. Oshita's participation in the Coalition for Drug-Free Lower Price Hill.

It's obvious, when I talk to those who know her, that Oshita's spiritual strength is forged with her burning desire to change kids' apathy into optimism.

"A big reason they drop out of school is because they don't feel they have a way of fitting in," she says.

The church's generosity must be paying off. This fall, one boy's girlfriend encouraged him to come. He became loyal kitchen help. One recent Sunday the boy's younger brother followed him into the kitchen and classroom, which led to the boys' cousin taking an interest. Now, Oshita says, it's even to the point where the children are cooking for the attending parents.

Clifton's goal, too, is to involve other Methodist churches in the positive networking happening at the State Avenue church. The idea, she says, is to involve one community as it's happening now, yet extend beyond. Salamon notes in her book that these are steps rising toward the highest rung of charity -- self-sufficiency.

The business of charity
Three miles from State Avenue is the other hemisphere of charity. The bureaucratic and million-dollar hemisphere. It's where Michael Hickerson and Jocile Ehrlich, colleagues at the Better Business Bureau (BBB), monitor, update and assess charitable organizations.

The BBB reports on charities the same as it does with businesses. Anyone seeking information on a charity can call the bureau. In fact, the local BBB Web site (www.cinbbb.org) carries 13 reader-friendly articles on giving to charity, ranging from "Tips for Volunteering" to "Bogus Law Enforcement Groups" to "Guidelines for Business Giving."

Charities increase each year, says Ehrlich, president and CEO of the Cincinnati BBB, and with the increase come both positive and questionable practices. It's not that the BBB clings to one function as a top watchdog for charity scams or abusive fund-raising practices.

Its newly formed Charity Information Network, headed by Hickerson, has become multi-faceted, as opposed to the previous BBB charity division. The network advises new charities, helps clarify personal and corporate giving and keeps the public informed on how and where to give.

Most serious now is the BBB's growing information on the issue of popular "cause-related" marketing items. Many credit cards, for example, fall into that category when credit card companies inquire if the card owner would like to donate a payment figure, such as 1 percent payment, to a favorite charity.

This is common practice and not a problem, Hickerson says, although he recommends that anyone donating a percentage to a charity should investigate that charity.

"If we have a record of that cause or charity, it gives us a clearer understanding of the charity itself," he says. "We want to relay what we know. It's like asking about a business."

Even as charities increase locally, the BBB is strengthening the way it relates to charities. Its "New Standards Guide" for charity is the clearest and most thorough of its charity information yet. The 2004 edition will be the third year for the guide. It will contain information on about 288 charities, an increase of 15 percent from 2003.

When people call the BBB about a charity, Hickerson says, they're extremely decisive.

"They know that who they give to is who they want to give to," he says. "And they don't have to be talked into giving."

From a toothache, great things
"God" hands an Oyler Elementary School credit card to an office assistant. The card, district-issued, will help buy several coats at Wal-Mart or Target for some students today.

It's urgent business on this first, very cold day of winter. A few of Oyler's children have come to school without coats. Perhaps, as in many circumstances in this impoverished school district, some families couldn't afford coats.

Principal Craig Hockenberry's faculty and staff nonchalantly refer to him as "God." I can see why. They say he seems to be everywhere. The mutual respect staff and principal share for each other has trickled down to classrooms, where students aren't surprised when "God" enters their rooms to say hello.

When I visit him at Oyler, we're in his office maybe 10 minutes. His desk is so clear it might have four papers on it.

"Let's go," he says. "I'll show you right now what I'm talking about."

"God" floats in and out of hallways and several classrooms with the gentle focus he uses to empower his teachers to connect with their students.

Many schools need a giving spirit to harness students' myriad distractions these days, and such a spirit pervades Oyler. The school pumps a lifeblood of giving into these students, which extends into the family core of Lower Price Hill, where unemployment and varying degrees of drug and alcohol addiction are running more rampant than previous years.

On any given cold day, school staff will have a box or two of gloves, hats and scarves for students. It's an ordinary reaction to the extraordinary dilemma facing those in need, a dilemma that's ever increasing, according to author Salamon.

A long school building, Oyler sits a few hundred yards from River Road on Hatmaker Street, between a block of warehouses and a street of apartment buildings. Two churches are within a one-minute walk.

The school's student population in 2003-04 totals 638, with 327 white students, 284 African-American students, 18 multi-racial students, five Hispanic students and one Indian student. The male-female ratio is nearly balanced.

But there's more to Oyler that looms unique. Beyond some of the deteriorating buildings and poverty central to much of lower Price Hill, tiers of charity define the school, and they're most passionately evoked in the Helping One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) Program.

The largest elementary school mentoring program in the country, HOSTS consists of 350 individuals from a multitude of experiences who work with one or two second- or third-grade grade students in a large, cozy room across from Hockenberry's office.

More than 65 regional companies sponsor book-buying and learning accessory needs. The sponsor's list is eclectic, with companies as localized as Jack's Glass and Small Hardware to the powerhouses Procter & Gamble and Starbucks Coffee Co. chipping in to Oyler's vision of inspiring students to eventually look beyond their limited backgrounds. Oyler promotes a future with unlimited knowledge.

The mentoring sessions run four days a week, as program coordinator Wanda Neville and an assistant arrange mentor-to-student schedules, learning tools and book orders and devise skill activities.

"We make sure there's never a shortage of mentors," Neville says. "Any student in need is provided for."

Although the one-on-one sessions last 30 minutes each week, the ongoing relationships give a young student a consistent goal and close-knit communication he or she might be missing elsewhere, Neville says.

Take, for example, the model set by arguably the program's premier mentor, Al Hampton, who died just two weeks ago -- and whose presence apparently will be impossible to duplicate. Hampton often showed up four or five days a week to read and talk with students. A quiet man from White Plains, N.Y., he just showed up one day several years ago and implored Hockenberry to let him work with students.

"Al gave so much to his students, and he never talked about himself or why he was so dedicated, what drove him," Hockenberry says.

The strategy at Oyler is to save the child, Hockenberry says, and that can also include financial help. Frequently, mentors will give a check or cash to the school and designate it for a certain student or the student's family, and usually the giver remains anonymous, an act that clearly reflects Maimonides' sixth and seventh rungs of the charity ladder. This rung identifies the giver who provides for someone he or she doesn't know and does so anonymously.

Teachers and staff at Oyler are careful with each student's needs, and they're instilled with the prospect of ruining a student's potential if something detrimental should occur in the classroom.

"With students who live on such a fringe like this, one slip and a student here might be out that door," Hockenberry says. "Only one serious slip will do it."

Oyler's mentoring and pro-active attitude, Salamon says, is likely setting a national example for the way this type of educational charity should be addressed.

How did one principal become this obsessed? Start in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, and a small town below Canton named Malvern from which Hockenberry knew he must escape.

One day he was terrified. He stared at the Colfor factory -- the revenue paradise of Malvern -- and couldn't bear thinking that he could wind up like 98 percent of his graduating senior buddies who yearned to work at the ball-and-hitch capital of the world.

Regardless of the millions of bicycle cranks and trailer hitches Colfor made, Hockenberry was going south to Cincinnati to study and play college football, going as fast as he could mash the accelerator. The ball-and-hitch capital of the world wouldn't miss him.

But first he had to sleep all night in his car in the parking lot at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

This is where charity appeared in his life, too. That next day became a benchmark moment that allowed Hockenberry to understand how charity literally changes ways of thinking and acting. Changes the whole future.

Way too anxious to come south, he arrived at the college a day early for a special all-day meeting with admissions, financial aid, some profs, coaches, counselors and new peers. Hockenberry knew absolutely no one except the head coach who'd recruited him.

It was a cool night in a cramped car. He developed a tooth abscess overnight sleeping in the backseat.

The pain was so severe that a college staff member and a student rushed him to a dentist. Within hours, a couple of teeth were pulled. He still has the gap in the side of his mouth.

"My drive to give attention to these kids had to come from that moment," Hockenberry says. "Letting people down was a real fear after that, because I was so generously helped and not let down. My pain was taken care of. It was a huge deal."

Now "God" is in another hallway at Oyler and soon in another classroom. There's another local treasure these students are privy to -- hundreds and hundreds of books throughout classrooms, all arranged on attractive white shelves.

Each teacher has transformed some of his or her class space into a small library. The idea is to put mini-libraries in classrooms. The shelves contain well-organized rows of books. Clearly labeled are book series or books by prolific authors.

The school has raised nearly $200,000 so far through a combination of grants and donations. Each classroom teacher gets an equitable share of the funds -- usually in the range of $2,000-$3,000 -- to buy books. Hockenberry notifies teachers when his or her library account is set up at a local bookstore.

What Oyler teachers have seen justifies one of the project's goals: Students talk to one another about books they've read and liked, stirring interest in a book or author until, like a spreading fire, they're passing books to each other nonstop.

Young students are becoming self-sufficient readers because acts of giving have laid the foundation.

Julie Salamon agrees. She goes back to the 12th century and Rambam. The ladder is embedded in her vision of the world, and she wants it that way: Rambam's ultimate goal was to achieve righteousness through giving.

"He's interested in a higher level of spirituality," she says. "Generosity is about righting the balance. It's about justice in the highest sense of the word." ©

 
 
 
 

 

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