Redefining Giving for Our Family

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How Can Giving Become Personal and Meaningful?

Several weeks ago, my husband, son and I were zipping to the mailbox to drop in a few letters before going downtown to a symphony concert. My husband pulled up and I hopped out of the car to mail the letters. As I approached the mailbox, I noticed a woman nearby in a wheelchair. I looked at her and she beckoned to me. I walked over knowing my family was waiting in the car. She merely asked for my prayers. “I don’t want your money, dear.” she said. “Will you just pray for me?” “I will.” I responded somewhat shaken by her simple request.

Just around the corner, the local grocery store had an outdoor booth selling hot food. Motioning to my family I would need a moment, I bought her a hot dog, some chips and a bottle of water. I brought the food to her and she began crying. I noticed a child’s book sitting on her lap and asked her about it. “My Granddaughter lives down the street.” she said. “I like to go and read to her.” “My name is Katie.” she said. And I offered her my hand and introduced myself.

I couldn’t help becoming emotional too. It felt as if, in that brief interaction, we had made a lasting connection that is still palpable to me. I got back in the car with my family. And we began asking questions trying to understand. “What was her story?” “What was her relationship with her family living just down the road?” “What did she do in her life? What jobs? What loves?” “How did she end up in the wheelchair?” “And how did she become homeless?” Through our brief meeting, she opened the door to our curiosity about a full life lived. With that connection made, we knew that we had only seen tiny clues hinting at a deeper, richer story.

After exhausting our questions, we made up possible answers. “Maybe she was born requiring a wheelchair.” “Maybe her grown children don’t have the money to support her.” And we won’t know. We’ve looked for her and haven’t seen her since. But she gave such a gift to our family that day and it was the best of kind of gift, one that was deeply felt, a raised awareness about our giving. We gained access to her gentle nature, her desire for connection and her humble request.

It gave rise to a larger dialogue with my son about giving. “How come you give to some people on the street and not to others?” my son wanted to know. Yes, how come? Long ago living in an urban environment, my husband and I had agreed on how to handle people asking for money on the street. We were going to give to organizations to help those in need in a more strategic way which, in theory, sounds very practical. But our decision was sterile and this encounter and our son’s question shone a light on our giving practice. We would give to organizations through a payroll deduction and we only need consider it once per year. And though both my husband and I are in service, mission-driven careers, there remained a distance with our monetary giving. 

Here are some simple ideas for giving that can make the experience more personal and meaningful for you and your family.

Discuss when you give. If you write an check to an organization, make sure that it’s not a solitary event. Talk about it with your family members. Learn about the services provided by the organization. Ask questions. Most importantly, consider the stories of the individuals who may be helped by your donation.

Give where you live. My Mom has made a practice of lining up envelopes in her purse with twenty dollar bills. When someone is kind to her in a service role such as a waiter, a cashier or a garbage collector, she gives them an envelope. She always has her donations at the ready and she gives them to the people she encounters in her everyday existence. The reaction is often one of shock and also sincere appreciation. On occasion, she has heard later that it went toward paying the rent or buying a holiday gift. But mostly she walks away and never hears about how it has impacted a life. But she knows she is using her money to directly impact her community. This holiday season, we have connected with a neighborhood organization through which we will deliver gifts to local families and visit with home-bound seniors. Find out what opportunities exist for you close to home.

Replace what you use. My Dad has purchased tree seedlings over the years, thousands of them. He’s a writer. And he knows that the paper he has used could fell a forest. So he is replacing what he’s used. You could fund a well and help replace your water consumption. Asking the question, “What resources do we use in our daily lives and how can we replace them?” can lead you on a meaningful path for giving.

Katie had changed our thinking. Now we had to answer the question, “How could we make our giving more meaningful, more personal?” Since the encounter, we have taken steps in that direction such as giving our dollars in person and offering our hands and energies in addition to our funds. And it’s already brought real individuals into our lives who expose our son to diverse perspectives and lifestyles – the opportunity to build authentic empathy. But we keep that question at the fore when considering our giving. How can we continue to make giving more personal, more meaningful? For us, it’s a work in progress. The hot meal hardly compensated Katie for the gifts she gave our family, that continue to enrich our lives with new questions to help us become wiser and more deeply connected to our community.

4 Comments on “Redefining Giving for Our Family”

  1. Thanks for the reminder of what is really important during this season of giving. Last year a friend and her daughter “paid if forward” in many different ways in their community during the month of December. Some acts were large, donating to a food bank, some were small, buying coffee for person behind you at the drive through. Hearing their stories was gift in itself…they would conspire each day to come up with an idea…sometimes exercise stealth behavior to execute the act unanimously…and then laughing/smiling together afterwards knowing they paid it forward. I think I will take their lead this year and try some random acts of kindness. Plan to get the kids involved to come up with ideas!

    • Oh I love how they made random acts of kindness a family conspiracy! So much more exciting for kids. That’s a brilliant idea – one I think I’ll try! I also love your thought of having the kids come up with the ideas for the family to follow through on. Great, Susie! Thanks! And happy holiday season to you!

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