Saturday, February 28, 2009

Giving on the streets of New York

Hi all, I've missed blogging and keeping up with my favorite bloggers the past few weeks!

Soon after I wrote my last entry, I came down with a nasty cold, and then the operational tempo at work dramatically increased. My birthday was last week, and it happened to be the craziest day I have ever experienced at my current job. Thankfully, Michael was able to spirit me away at the end of day for some unbelievably delicious Indian food.

But the upshot of all this is that I have not been progressing towards my goal of finding ways to get involved in a charity locally.

However, I did have a small revelation yesterday that I wanted to share.

Yesterday, there was a hint of spring in the air. It was warm enough to walk around with my coat unbuttoned, so I decided to eat a quick lunch in Bryant Park, which is just around the corner from my office.

As I was starting to eat my sandwich, a scruffy, middle-aged man came up to my little table and asked, "Would you be able to help a combat veteran with some change? Anything would be a blessing."

I made a pained expression. I hate feeling cold hearted; however, panhandling is one of those tricky situations in any city.

First of all, you never know where your money is going to go. Will it be for alcohol or drugs? That's why it's usually better to give to an organization, instead.

Second of all, could this be a professional panhandler? There is a woman that stands at the corner of my building every morning with a "homeless" sign and has done so for the past few years. We're talking Fifth Avenue and lots of foot traffic, so this seems like more of a "job" for her.

Thirdly, pulling your wallet out on the street is never a good idea, safety-wise.

Most of the time when I have been approached, I have just given the person a sad look and said, "I'm sorry." Sometimes a particular situation has prompted me to go home and make a donation to an established charity.

But yesterday, I couldn't look away when the man asked me. There was something in his eyes, and I thought of the economic realities that are more dire than ever for anyone who needs help. The options quickly flashed through my mind: just say "sorry," open my purse and fumble for my wallet...nothing seemed right or a street-safe option. Then I looked down at the table and saw what I hadn't eaten of my lunch.

"Would you like half of my sandwich?" I asked. The man seemed taken aback. He said, "Aww. Really? Are you sure you don't want that?" I said, "No, please take it." He thanked me, took the sandwich, and then disappeared.

And then I was hit by the revelation. It was so simple, really. If you're unsure of giving money, then give food.

On my way back to the office, I thought of how my favorite Nature Valley granola bars have been such a godsend when I have been hungry while traveling, etc. So I bought a few to have in my purse, ready to give out if someone needy approaches me. At least I can give them something.

I know tons of people must have already figured this out, so this is nothing new. But I'm glad that I finally was able to realize a way to not feel paralyzed by the dilemma of giving on the streets of New York.

I want to know: what are your strategies when approached on the street?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Challenges of Volunteering Locally

One of my resolutions for the new year was to get actively involved in a local charity. So far, I have not made much progress on that.

What has been the issue? Well, for one, I've had very little non-work and non-recuperating from work time so far this year. But for the other, I'm a little daunted by the prospect.

Over the past year or so, I have tried to get involved in a handful of different organizations in the New York metro area, and have not had any luck. Usually it was because my emails saying, "I really like your organization, and I'd love to volunteer; what do I need to do to get involved?" never got answered. At least one place flat-out rejected my professional skills after I filled out a lengthy application.

It was very frustrating, to say the least, to search out organizations whose missions seemed up my alley, approach them, wanting to help, and then hear nothing back.

One national organization I did finally get accepted into, after an application, references, and a background check, turned out to be not very user-friendly for new volunteers. They had a website with all sorts of materials, but it was not really clear how exactly to get involved with a local group. And then I found out that there were no hands-on opportunities within my geographic area.

That's why Mayan Families has been such a godsend. With them, it's easy. You sponsor a child; you start getting information about that child; you can send them additional food, a stove, chickens, etc. You find out about all sorts of other needs of the organization, and can get involved in as many as you would like. And you are welcomed with open arms when you come down to Guatemala to visit.

Sisterly Shenanigans' Tricia and me getting ready to distribute toys in San Jorge, Guatemala.

I want to do similar kinds of good here in my local area, but I have found it very difficult to break through. has a clearinghouse of all sorts of volunteer opportunities, and I receive a weekly opportunity notice. Unfortunately, I have tried to get involved in some of these opportunties, but have received no word back.

I'm sure that most of these organizations would like to have the additional volunteer support, but are just so strapped for resources that they can't take advantage of the offers of help. After all, they would need someone to read the email and respond to it, and I'm sure many organizations get hundreds of emails a day.

It's just too bad, as I suspect I am far from the only person who has had this kind of disheartening experience. I wonder how many people have been discouraged from attempting to do something to make a change in their world. Why can it be so difficult to get involved?

But I am ready and willing to give it another try, and I plan to share my journey with you, so as to get more ideas and to pass along anything I learn.

I just found out today from VolunteerMatch about an action day called "Do One Thing." It is taking place next Saturday, Valentine's Day. The objective is for everyone to do one thing on this day to help homeless youth.

A participating organization is the Covenant House in New York, which is just a short distance from where I bus into the city. So the location is easy. What they ask is for donations of clothes and personal care items for the young people who come to them from the streets. Now that's easy, too.

So, I plan to collect some donations, bring them to Covenant House, and find out a little bit more about what they do and how to get involved. Ideally, I'll see if I can interview some people and get a tour, so I can blog about that. Something like this at least allows me to get my foot in the door.

I want to know: how have you gotten involved in volunteering locally? What challenges did you have to overcome, and how did you finally get your foot in the door?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A new friend in Kenya

Hello, Friends. I'm sorry it has been a while since I last posted. As I mentioned in my last entry, work has consumed my life. But it's important to keep things in perspective and not forget about what truly matters.

I'd like to thank one of my readers (you know who you are!), whose kind words tonight reminded me of what I have been trying to do with this blog for the past 11 months. So I am reinvigorated, despite my fatigue, to get back down to business.

I have some news: Michael and I have a new sponsor child. Her name is Mwansiti, and she is an 11-year-old girl from Kenya. We're sponsoring through Christian Foundation for Children and Aging. As I had mentioned at the end of last year, I have really enjoyed their blog, and my mom has been a sponsor for a number of years.

A photo of Mwansiti. The scanner is buried, so I took a picture of the picture.

I thought it would be interesting to have a different kind of sponsor experience in addition to Mayan Families. For one, this is a different country. For another, this is a large, long-running organization. It doesn't offer the immediacy of contact you can have through Mayan Families (for example, getting photos emailed to your inbox of your sponsored kids receiving their school supplies, which is brilliant!). But it does focus on building a lifelong relationship with a person through letter writing.

As a child, I had a number of penpals, and I remember the unique joy of handwriting and sending and then receiving a letter. I fear this art will probably be lost by the time I have any children of penpal age. But CFCA uses this as the basis of the connection between sponsor and sponsored. It's intriguing...and soul-satisfying -- the idea of each getting to know the other as a person and a friend, that that is part and parcel of this relationship.

What's great is that the organization offers mission awareness trips to various countries that have programs. These trips are very reasonably priced, so they make it a very real possibility to visit your sponsored child, even in a place like Kenya. So, someday, Michael and I plan to go there!

But what I like even more is that the organization gives Americans who would never think of traveling to the developing world the opportunity and the motivation to do so. I can think of few things more exciting than that.

So, off we go with this new relationship!

I commissioned a card for my first letter to Mwansiti from a friend of mine who has a shop on Etsy: Lucky Sevens Card Design. Now I just have to write it and get it in the mail!

I want to know: what are some of your favorite sponsorship and/or penpal experiences?