I was at a charity event the other day where I, along with a lot of other good and concerned people, were being asked for donations. I listened to the request and the description of where the funds were going. Then it hit me. For many years, I was on the receiving end of donations. I was the underprivileged and needy person the fundraisers were talking about.
My mind raced back to the times the nuns at the Don Bosco School and Orphanage for mixed race children in Tanzania, East Africa, told us to pray to St. Don Bosco, patron saint of abandoned children, or sent us to the statue of Martin de Porres, a mixed-race monk from Lima, Peru, to pray ardently for donations.
The Sisters of the Precious Blood were missionaries from Germany, so they received boxes from abroad of donated clothes, purses, shoes and whatever people chose to give. These boxes were our department store, the source of all my clothing except for the rudimentary panties or knickers the nuns sewed for us, and whatever article of clothing a friend might pass on to me.
Going to the room with the boxes and searching through them for a dress that fit or a pair of shoes that I could wear for the coming year was a thrill for me. I had nothing—all my possessions fit into a one-foot-square cubby with room to spare—so receiving charity donations not only made me feel cared for and happy, but literally helped me survive.
Donations built the orphanage and sustained the school for mixed race children. Donations provided our food that supplemented what the nuns cultivated in the orchards and fields, and kept us alive if a grasshopper plague or bad weather destroyed the crops. Although we couldn’t personally thank our benefactors, we always prayed for them.
It was through donations that the school at the orphanage was set up and run. Donations enabled me to attend middle school at an African boarding school for girls for and then go on to a high school run by American Maryknoll nuns.
When I look back at my life, I see the power of giving. The nuns who raised and taught us were essentially volunteers who lived on donations. They made a gift to us of their lives and talents. Their care and teaching enabled me to make a life for myself.
People are generous and like to give, and they do so hoping their gifts will be put to good use. Certainly, there can be some corruption in the chain of giving, and we need to be aware of who we are trusting to pass on our donations. We may lose sight of where our donations go, and we may think giving doesn’t really matter or change things for people. But I say that yes, it does make a difference. It makes a difference to the body, mind, and heart because I received gifts and donations and felt gratitude for them.
At the orphanage, we received gifts hand sewn by the nuns while other gifts came from the donation boxes. The nun in charge of me, Sister Silvestris, found items in those boxes to give me as special presents. One that I will never forget was a beautiful necklace and earring set that she gave me my last year in middle school. The green “jewels” sparkled when I put the necklace on. It made me feel so loved, appreciated, and encouraged as I was growing up. I knew that I finally had in my hands a gift I could give to my very best friend at school to show her how much I loved her and valued her friendship. Paulina had stood by me, defended me, taught me, and had been like family during those tough years at that school. I gave her the necklace and earrings when we said good-bye. It was the last time I saw her.
A donation paid for my flight from Africa to my new home in Minnesota. Through the generosity of an American teacher who volunteered for a year at the Maryknoll high school, I came to the United States and attended college on a full scholarship. All that giving, all those charity donations and volunteer hours are truly meaningful. It’s what supported me as I became who I am. And I will never forget that.
From the receiving end, personally, whenever I received donations of clothing or food, or whenever I was in the presence of volunteers who took time from their lives and families to come to help us, I used to wonder how could people from so far away, who don’t even know us, make such sacrifice? The lesson they left with us was the determination to emulate them and become donors when and if we found ourselves on their end of the charity chain.
From the giving end, if you are able to be present at the time your gift is received by the recipient, you will realize that “the joy of giving” is not a cliché. To see the smiles of appreciation on the faces of the grateful children and adults will give you the satisfaction that you have made a difference in someone’s life. That joy in your heart is the gift to you that will last forever and no money can buy.
What to keep in mind as the holiday giving season comes around…
This time of year, there’s a deluge of “giving opportunities”— endless requests for donations to a zillion causes. It’s easy to be put off by them and end up ignoring all pleas and pitches for donations. But here are a few guidelines from my experience of having been on both the receiving and giving end of charity.
- You will probably never find out how important your donation is to someone, but in most cases, it will be appreciated and, most importantly, needed.
- Choose a few causes or groups that you can identify with. Make sure they are causes that inspire you and that the work done by the charity is something you support.
- Maintain a long-term relationship with the charities you choose. That way you can see that funds are being used for what you believe in and your donations are producing results.
- It may take more work, but choosing a cause or organization that is not already heavily funded and establishing a relationship with it will, in the long run, be more effective. And it could be more satisfying on a personal level.