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Editorial: Offering more than just a handout
Nonprofits examine how to change focus by helping Hall County’s poor help themselves
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“Toxic Charity" author Bob Lupton delivers the keynote address Sept. 7 during the United Way of Hall County annual campaign kickoff at the First Baptist Church banquet hall. Lupton, a Christian community developer and entrepreneur who “brings together communities of resource with communities of need,” also works in inner-city Atlanta. - photo by Scott Rogers

Christmas conjures up images of children excitedly unwrapping gifts, grinning from ear to ear when they see Santa brought them just what they wanted.

Down the road or around the block, the image may be a little different. Children in this home may not have a pile of boxes wrapped in shiny green and red.

Hall County is a charitable place, though, and often our community has made sure families in need have a bicycle, doll or other toys under the tree, and maybe even a meal on the table.

The secret, and sometimes not-so-secret, Santas feel warm and fuzzy inside. But as those parents watch their children unwrap gifts someone else bought them, do they feel as warm and fuzzy?

That may depend on how those gifts were chosen and how they were delivered, among other factors.

Bob Lupton, author of the book “Toxic Charity,” recently spoke at the United Way’s campaign kickoff. He told a story of Christmas gifts being dropped off to children in need, only his story had a twist. As children’s excitement filled the living room, a mother may have seemed thankful. Meanwhile, a father had walked out the back door, ashamed he couldn’t provide Christmas for his family.

In the effort to help, did this charitable giving actually make things worse for the family?

The United Way has put a focus on poverty with its One Hall United Against Poverty push, and part of that push involves rethinking how we address poverty as a community.

There’s no doubt our community is a generous one. But like many others, it’s also one where those with more don’t often associate with those with less. Do the well-off know what others actually need without asking first?

Do they sometimes give blankets to new mothers, when what’s needed is food? Or food to families who can find it elsewhere and instead need diapers? Or gift cards for gas when what’s needed is a drug rehabilitation program?

Perhaps those in need have something to teach them.

Joy Griffin, executive director of the United Way, has spoken about restoring dignity for those in poverty. Allowing the poor to have a role other than receivers of charity can be part of that restoration.

Lupton has created toy shops where gifts are still donated but are then sold at heavily discounted rates. This allows people to help, but parents can choose gifts for their children and watch with anticipation as they open not what someone else gave them but what their parents provided out of love.

Another way Lupton has worked to restore dignity is through a food co-op rather than a pantry. Someone in poverty may show up to a food pantry and receive a box of pre-selected food for free, or they could pay a small fee or volunteer at a co-op and select items their family needs. They become a part of the solution and can take ownership of the process rather than shame for taking charity.

There are times when simple gifts such as blankets, food and gas gift cards can help. But when some depend on charity over months and years, those providing the charity need to re-examine  whether their programs are helping people work to build lives above the poverty line or creating dependency for people who remain below the poverty line.

For charitable efforts that have existed for years and always done things the same way, such rethinking may be tough. It may hurt feelings. It may be messy. But the goal should not be to make the givers feel good but to move those in poverty to more stable and productive lives.

Building that type of program takes a lot of work, both from those experiencing poverty and from those who seek to help.

Among the good examples of this type of program is Family Promise. The nonprofit for homeless families offers the Local Initiative for Family Empowerment program, which is available to the community as well. The L.I.F.E. program teaches job skills, financial management and family development. 

“The classes are small enough to provide open discussion and build relationships between the facilitators and participants,” program coordinator Hannah Merchant said. Other agencies also can refer participants to the program

Donations to these efforts sustain their work but are not simply handed over to those in need. Instead, the recipients are given the skills to build and maintain lives above the poverty line.

Family Promise Executive Director Lindsey McCamy stresses the program she guides continues to evolve as those involved learn how to make it better. 

There are few if any drawbacks in a willingness to step back and evaluate a program from all angles, including seeking honest feedback from those it serves. Poverty is a complex issue affecting almost every facet of a person’s life. Its solutions are likewise complex. 

Efforts like giving toys to children at Christmas can help, but if that family can’t pay the power bill in January or rent in February, have the givers just made themselves feel good? 

How can our community, both rich and poor, work together so that next year, that family can provide Christmas gifts on their own while paying their bills?

The conversation has been started. We have a long way to go.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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