It’s been a tough couple of weeks. Lots of stress and angst and anger. Lots of looking for ways to help and be of service. I know some of you are planning to take your kids and volunteer to serve food at shelters and other places for Thanksgiving, especially this year, of all the years, when we need to feel connected and like we are doing something, anything to make the world better. Holiday volunteering is not the answer.
Don’t. Just freaking DON’T. DO NOT go to a shelter to serve dinner. DO NOT go to a shelter to “help.”
And listen to me when I tell you why it’s a lousy, selfish thing to do. It’s all about you, and not about them. I’ve told people this privately before and stunned them into shock. Maybe it’s time I do that for more people.
I know that you are well-intentioned, kind-hearted and giving. And everyone thinks that this is wonderful, right? Take your kids and teach them to be grateful and to help others and show them that they are lucky and help them not be entitled, spoiled brats. I get it. I totally do. And you totally don’t if this is your holiday plan.
When you take your kids to volunteer to serve meals at homeless shelters on holidays, it’s the equivalent of taking them to the zoo to visit other humans who are not like them and to see them as different and feed them and observe them and learn lessons from their plight. No matter what you tell them. No matter how you explain it. No matter what context you try to give it. It’s visiting humans who are different from you in their environment. And it totally sucks.
I know that deep in your hearts, you are trying to do the right thing. You want to teach your kids to be kind and good and charitable. You want them to realize that “there but for the grace of God go I” and that what they have shouldn’t be taken for granted. You want to ingrain the idea of service in them. You want them to be decent humans. Kudos. You get it. We need decent humans, now more than ever, I think.
Serving food at shelters on holidays is NOT the way to do that.
I’ve been on the side of giving and receiving. I’m actually grateful for both experiences, though the receiving is certainly humbling. And let me tell you that the people who staff shelters and food pantries and other places like them – both volunteers and the paid staff – are truly special humans. The people they serve and help get to know them and relationships develop. They treat the people in need with respect and dignity and humor and compassion, and that develops over time. They know what they are doing (for the most part, but for a few, and the story of utter selfishness that is the woman at one church who closed her food program this week because she didn’t feel like doing it is one for another day). To intrude on that on a holiday is just self-serving and unkind of you. It’s like showing up at someone else’s family dinner. It’s like crashing a wedding. Truly. This time of year is tough enough on the folks who are financially and emotionally stable, as we all know. Family drama, the stress of making the holidays meaningful, the angst of what to do with and for kids, financial strain…it’s enough to make most of us want to hibernate until January 2nd.
Those who are struggling do not need you and your kids to come visit them in their despair and stare and be grateful that you are not in their shoes. Believe me, they will not be thankful to see you. They’ll be embarrassed and humiliated, and they’ll feel “less than.” Leave this time to those with whom they want to break bread, to those with whom they have relationships and feel comfortable. They don’t need you there.
I know, that’s harsh when you’re only trying to help. But it’s also true, and the people who are struggling deserve our respect and compassion, and showing up to serve them dinner before going home to your elegant, bountiful feast is not the way give them that.
How about instead of serving a meal you commit to doing something in 2017 that you really care about for a few hours every month? Pick a cause that moves you. If it’s food insecurity, then prepare meals and hold food drives and find ways to be involved over time so that next year, if you want to serve a meal, they’ll want you there. If you care about animal welfare, there are so many ways to donate your time and energy that you’ll have trouble choosing. Is it the environment? There are seventy million ways you can get involved. Politics? I suspect both sides are going to have plenty to do. But take your kids and do that instead of serving meals. Teach them young to find something important to them and then to spend their time with it. Teach them HOW to make a difference in the world, not for a few meaningless hours but over the course of their lives. Don’t just show up on a holiday to serve some turkey or ham to make yourself feel better, and perhaps less guilty, about your own good fortune.
My son has done all kinds of volunteer activities with me. So have many of my friends’ kids with them. They do it because we do it, and they understand that it’s a commitment over time, outside of what we do for work. It’s something we care about. It’s our way of contributing to our community. They see how things work behind the scenes and learn to organize, plan and act; they see things come to fruition, and they see things fail and they learn that you keep on working. They understand the idea that it takes time to make a difference, change things and chart a new course.
Really, if you are thinking about going to serve a meal on Thursday, stop. Think. Other humans are not zoo animals to feed and watch and use to make us feel better, and that is exactly what you are doing with one and done visits to serve a holiday meal. Don’t send another message to our kids and our country that others are different. Send money or donations to the local food pantry if want to help that way. Collect items to donate. And find a cause that means something to your family, and commit to doing something for it every month.