Friday, November 6, 2009

Need and hunger never take a holiday

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November/December, 2009

About this time of year, when the daytime air smells of fall and winter fog rolls in at night, children are distracted from the approaching darkness with the great promise of free candy.

The giddy fun of dress-up is an annual rite on Halloween. Some schools encourage children to attend class in costume, desks occupied by ghosts and witches and princesses and little wizards. The ringing of the end-of-the-day bell means they are mere hours from beginning the happy ritual of shaking down the neighbours for sweets.

Before they leave for the eve’s fun, they receive a chunk of cardboard pressed flat. Little hands fold and bend the cardboard into a little box with a coin slop in the top, to be worn on string around the neck, or carried in a free hand.

“Trick or treat for Unicef!” was a cry heard at the door, eager voices calling for candy for themselves and coppers for the world’s poorest children.

The campaign began in 1955, a genius idea in which greedy goblins learned the joy of helping others (without the suffering of sharing the extorted treats). Over a half-century, some $96 million was raised by Canadians for projects supervised by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund.

The charity stopped handing out the boxes three years ago, the labour needed to roll pennies — and the costs of shipping such heavy packages — too prohibitive. Now, children take part in a classroom program called Schools for Africa, for which money is raised in school and on the streets for students in Malawi and Rwanda.

This is the season when Victoria’s charities do the bulk of their fundraising. We will be inundated with pitches and appeals, asked to reflect on our good fortune even as we contemplate the heartbreaking circumstances of others.

As if anyone walking downtown could ever forget the many in need who surround us. We would do well to heed the little voices in our lives, because they see even when we turn our heads.

Children are great ones for charity. If not natural philanthropists, they have the right instincts.

The girls in my neighbourhood, who jokingly call themselves The Famous Five, as though they were a rock band, or a band of girl detectives, once spent a summer week selling lemonade to passersby. They set a table with chairs for themselves and for customers, taped up handprinted signs, ransacked their parents’ homes for cups and pitchers and sugar and lemons.

They spent hours in the sun, proudly showing at the end of the day a tinkling jar of coins and a small wad of crumpled bills.

They money, they insisted, go to Royal Jubilee Hospital. They were rightly proud of themselves, but not nearly so proud as were their parents.

My daughter has a friend with a birthday near Christmas, her annual party one in which her friends contributed small gifts to be placed in packages for children at the Cridge Centre for the Family, cake and ice cream served after all helped to organize the gift baskets.

The desperate circumstances of others can be jarring. Those of us in middle-age can remember the wrestler Whipper Billy Watson promoting the annual March of Dimes campaign, perched on his shoulder, or being carried in his massive arm some poor child with leg encased in an Eiffel Tower of metal braces and leather straps. Who wouldn’t give up on buying a pack or two of hockey cards for that kid? (Beside, we feared Whipper Billy might lay a smacking on us if we didn’t.)

Not so long ago, the major charity in every city was the United Way and maybe a Christmas fund sponsored by the local daily newspaper. The business of charity has become more sophisticated with heart-wrenching direct-mail appeals and easy online donations. As well, hardly a summer weekend slips past without a runathon, bikeathon, or, in the Inner Harbour, paddlethon, all exertions for a worthy cause. We buy Girl Guide cookies at the door and at the office; sign up to sponsor laps and kilometres; donate clothes to Big Brothers Big Sisters, or to Canadian Diabetes, or to Goodwill, the goods to be left at the front door, clearly labelled, before 8 a.m.

Not to forget bottle drives.

Or Cops for Cancer.

Often, the charitable impulse is sparked by a personal connection. We lose a friend or family member to cancer, or to heart disease.

I’m not immune to those appeals, but the ones that get me in the gut are the ones that aim for the gut.

That’s why I’m a fan of Gordy Dodd and his cornball furniture commercials. He and his family play host to an annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the homeless, 600 hungry folks served butterballs by a happy goofball.

Down in Trounce Alley, the Tapa Bar has been celebrating its tenth anniversary all year long. For every pizza they’ve sold this year, they’ve sent $2 to the Our Place Society, which provides meals, showers and other assistance to the homeless.

Over at the Mustard Seed at Queens Avenue, the lineup for groceries at the food bank starts hours before the doors open in the morning. It is cold on the sidewalk at that dark hour.

Once, this sprawling building was used as a marine garage. Now, volunteers offer coffee and snacks, distribute clothes and food.

“In the midst of it all I stood — a little transfixed — by the lives touched by poverty, brokenness and pain,” Rev. Chris Riddell wrote in a recent newsletter.

“A child in a stroller, unaware of their circumstance, just making due with whatever mom gives her; an addict asleep at the table amid the surrounding hustle bustle and a dear elderly man gathering bread from the abundant supply for friends back home at the complex, too frail to venture out for themselves.”

For every dollar the charity receives this year, 70 cents will be donated in these few weeks at year’s end.

On my last visit to the Mustard Seed, I watched a waif in a thin pink dress, the edges ragged from wear, reach for a heavy box filled with milk cartons. She was gently shooed away, lest the box land on her noggin. With her big eyes and thinness, she looked to me like Cindy Lou Who, the little girl in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” who knows the spirit of the season is found not in glittering gifts but in sharing.

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