Generosity Day: What surprised, inspired and moved me

Esteemed colleague in the philanthropy arena, Sasha Dichter, Acumen Fund, with the help of Katya Andresen, Network for Good, Scott Case, Malaria No More, and Ellen McGirt, Fast Company, decided to reboot Valentines’ Day to Generosity Day. From Sasha’s blog  “….Generosity Day: one day of sharing love with everyone, of being generous to everyone, to see how it feels and to practice saying ‘Yes.’  Let’s make the day about love, action and human connection….The goal is to spend Valentine’s Day being more generous, giving more money, sharing of yourself, being of service.  All acts of generosity, small and big alike, count….”

This was the perfect time for me to fulfill a missed opportunity from a few weeks back: at the COF Family Foundations Conference in NYC, I decided, in the interest of networking, to join one of the “Dine Arounds” instead of a volunteering to serve food to homeless people. So, I called NY’s Coalition for the Homeless and offered my services to their Grand Central Food Program, which delivers food to homeless people by van at multiple locations in Manhattan and the Bronx every night.

(Photos: Our team – Kathryn, me, Connie, Isaac and Graham.)

On Tuesday, Feb 15, I bundled up to fulfill my service commitment on a cold night. In the style of my dear friend, Jennifer McCrea, who writes the Exponential Fundraising blog, I would like to share with you what 1) surprised, 2) inspired, and 3) moved me.

WHAT SURPRISED ME?

  • There were people in line for food that did not “look” like homeless people. We, as volunteers, are not able to ask what their situations were, and perhaps, a few may have not even been homeless but it was clear that there were hungry people in NYC who needed help and it may not be obvious to us by the “look” of them. They waited for this van religiously.
  • Some homeless people are looking for a little connection from us. As the van pulled up, I could see them approaching us with a smile. They would engage in a short conversation, some seeking eye contact as if they were looking for a little acknowledgement from me: “I see you.” Almost everyone said “thank you” to us; even if that was the only time they looked up as we gave out food.
  • And the cookies! We only had one box of almond crescent cookies (veteran volunteer Isaac had brought it with him). So we handed one to each person until we ran out. How delighted people were to receive this tiny bit of decadence! A smile would come over their face when they realized we were giving them a cookie. Ah, love of cookies….universal.

WHAT INSPIRED ME?

At the very first stop, there was an old lady with cane bundled with a crocheted shawl. I thought “Oh my God, please don’t tell me this lady is homeless.” She smiled as she approached me and I saw the sparkly neon green shoelaces on her shoes and I said “I like your shoelaces!” She said to me “I’ll give them to you!” It always surprises me when those who seem to have so little, offer to give you something they have. I thought I was the one who was supposed to be generous today.

WHAT MOVED ME?

One of our last stops was just inside Central Park – just two people. There was a man who only took oranges and cartons of milk – as many as he could fit into his jacket. When he stuffed his jacket full, he disappeared into the park. It was cold and dark. Where could you possibly stay in the park?!!!

It occurred to me how much courage it must take every day to be homeless. I can’t imagine the inner fortitude it would take to keep moving forward day to day, having no place to go, hoping you might be able to eat today.

These insights are what is so compelling about “in-the-field” experiences. It informs your decision-making process – especially in philanthropy – and gives you the opportunity to exercise compassion like nothing else.

The final conclusion is that I’m looking forward to continuing to volunteer with Coalition for the Homeless. I hope I see some of the same faces I saw the other night. And even though, as I rush through the crowded streets, I can’t look at every homeless person in the eyes  to let them know that “I see you,” I know that one evening a week, I can dedicate a little time to making that connection.

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~ by Maryann Fernandez on February 21, 2011.

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