My mailbox is overflowing. Not with cards and gifts from friends. Not even with holiday shopping flyers. The majority of my mail this time of year is in the form of appeals. Charity organizations send me plea after plea for money, food, or clothing to help those less fortunate.
My husband and I do make several donations to charities this time of year, but every year, the list of charities that asks for our help grows longer. I look at all the options and get paralyzed by a memory from college.
I was riding the subway in Chicago. A man got into our car and walked down it handing out little cards. I took one to be polite. It had the alphabet on it, with the gestures used for each letter in the fingerspelling version of American sign language. On the back, I read that the bearer was deaf and would like a contribution. A dollar would be enough.
I was reaching for my wallet when my boyfriend stopped me. “It’s a scam,” he said. “He’ll spend the money on drugs.”
I didn’t know what to do.
It had never occurred to me that someone might pretend to be in need just to make money. The whole process seemed so humiliating for the begger that I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it who wasn’t in real trouble.
I let the man get off the subway car at the next stop with nothing but the card he had originally given to me. To this day, I don’t know what I should have done. I could have given him money, but I was conflicted because I had no way to tell if he really needed it or what he would do with it. I felt bad not giving him anything, but I would have felt just as bad if I had.
The same bind comes up now as I look at the stack of mail the charities have sent us, asking for our help. How much of my money will go to those who really need it, and how much will be spent paying administrators and trying to raise even more money? Just because a charity is well-known doesn’t mean it spends the money well.
I do what I can. I look online for information about how charities spend their money and hope it’s accurate. Then I write checks for those I think are worthwhile.
But there are no websites to tell me if the guy on the corner holding the hand-written sign that reads “Family of 4 Out of Food” is legitimate or not. I drive by, full of shame, wondering if I should have stopped and bought him a meal, knowing that I wouldn’t feel any better even if I had.
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