The Gift of Giving

Every Wednesday I make seven packed lunches.  Four go to my own boys and three go to the homeless.  One of our schools runs a program whereby we donate lunches to a homeless shelter once a week, through our kids, so that they have the ritual of bringing in the lunches.  The idea is that they will gain a sense of giving and a consciousness of a greater community.

This morning one of my sons asked me how old the person was that was getting the lunch.  The truth is I assumed it was a child because of my own association with packed lunches.  But I called the school to make sure and quickly discovered that my peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, organic fruit gushers, juice boxes and animal cookies were in fact, going to homeless adults who were out looking for work.  I can only imagine the strange wonderment they must be having by eating various forms of  superhero fruit-rolls.

American people are used to being asked to give and many are quite altruistic by nature.  I have most definitely found that to be true in all aspects of life here.  The schools greatest focus with the parent body is fund-raising.  Apparently the private schools all declare that the cost of tuition doesn’t ever cover the cost of educating each child and therefore they rely heavily on donations to fill the gap.  I do love my schools here but I find the gap hard to stomach when our school has just announced its three step plan to acquiring more real-estate.  The annual giving campaign, along with endowment and capital campaigns, must clearly fill the gap, and then some.  In England, the parent body would be wildly offended at this declaration and wonder how the Head would have the audacity and ignorance to display such bad bookkeeping.  But here, it’s straightforward fund-raising, shameless in its approach, laid bare for you to rescue.

Every dollar raised in the state schools represents the ability to keep art, special needs and music programs, or not.  There is simply as assumption that everyone will give something.  State budgets have been so thrashed in California that teachers work one less week per year and counting.

My 13 year old nephew, Tyler, Viv and Nathan’s son, was recently honored at an event, along with two other honorees, for the American Wheelchair Mission.  This organization gives mobility to those most in need around the world by donating wheel chairs.  Tyler raised $42,000 as his Bar Mitzvah project – again, a fairly new concept but an excellent one where a thirteen year old uses their bar/bat mitzvah experience and focuses on a meaningful charity to them, and donates money, time, or both to that cause.  He was able to help purchase 280 wheelchairs and personally deliver them to victims of terrorism in Israel.

His parents gave him the opportunity to see what it feels like to change someone’s life for the better, through your own hard work.  Priceless lesson.  Some believe that the State should provide; that charities are a reflection of the failures of government and that we shouldn’t be asked to make up the difference.  Some don’t like the tell-all banners associated with giving, it’s slightly obnoxious to name the sums with bells and lights and also it can take away from feeling good about giving, especially if you aren’t able to keep up with the Jones’.

Personally, I think it has to be touchy-feely for my kids to understand it.  Hand deliver the x-mas presents to the orphanage rather than dropping them off anonymously.  Have a lemonade stand and then donate the money raised (or should I say part with the money that you are gripping so tightly in your hand) to a Children’s Hospital or homeless shelter.  No point talking about the kids in Africa not having enough food, when Africa is just another continent far, far away.

However, I did hang a huge canvas filled with the faces of the children and men and women we met whilst in Sierra Leone.  These people were hungry and in need of everything.  Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world and having never been to Africa, I felt like I chose the most difficult trail to walk on. I hung the canvas because these people are beautiful, and I must admit, I use it as a constant reminder to my boys that these kids are out there – for real.

In Africa,  the more uncomfortable I felt, the more I understood about the common ground that links us all.  Isn’t that what it’s all about, really?  Finding the common ground?  Our organization we work with is called ‘Search For Common Ground’ and works all over the world doing just that.  I suppose that’s why charities play on our heart strings; with the hope that we will feel that link, and help.  Most privileged people were born into that comfortable existence without too much of a fight, and need educating, and those that fought hard to be there are usually the most thrifty, and the most generous.

I know a lot of English givers – friends that climb mountains and bike across Europe for a special cause, those that donate endless hours at prisons or find vacation homes for care-givers and handicapped children.  But it doesn’t seem like its part of their cultural traditions, their upbringing, something felt by most.  It seems like only a few share in that journey. When our English school did a fund-raiser for our sister school in Rwanda, I fought hard to hit hard for more donations, more money.  The rest of the committee thought I was being ‘too American’ in my approach and opted for t-shirts that sold for a fiver.

Here, even the poorest give to their school, church and neighborhood.  It’s expected on some level and equally recognized by our government with significant tax benefits.  I’m not sure I feel comfortable getting hit up by my schools, politicians and friends every third email, but I do get a sense of belonging to the greater world by giving back.  And that is what I’m trying to teach my kids.  The gift of giving…surely you’re the one who receives the gift in the end.

About Jennifer

Jennifer is from Beverly Hills and has lived between London and LA since 1994. She's been a writer for over 20 years in the world of film, tv, travel and magazines and has been a class rep eight times and counting...
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