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Sandy Banks

A Season for Generosity, With No Strings Attached

November 20, 2001|Sandy Banks

There is a box of toys in my garage that I've held on to for years. Stuffed animals, wooden blocks, baby dolls, a Barbie in a wedding gown

I've every intention of giving them away. Yet year after year, they sit untouched, while I scout for the perfect cause, the most deserving kids, someone to love them as my children did.

I'm not content merely to pass them on. I don't want them on a thrift store shelf or in a bargain-hunter's shopping bag. I want to imagine a little girl's face light up, as she cuddles the curly haired doll my daughter loved. Or a toddler's fat fingers wrapped around the wooden pieces of our hand-me-down puzzle of Noah's ark. Or a grateful mother settling her fussy child with the dog-eared copy of "Goodnight Moon" that lulled my daughters to sleep each night.

I want the promise that my donation will lift a spirit and brighten a life. So I search for the perfect child--while countless others, no less needy, do without--because I'm giving to validate my own needs. And I am struck, as I study that dust-covered box, by how selfish our unselfishness can be.

There's truth to the adage that giving blesses the giver, as well as the recipient. A chance to do good is a way to feel good, to conquer the helplessness we feel when we're confronted with tragedy. That's why we respond with such passion to the victims of national disasters. Why we pledged millions to help the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Why the recovery fund keeps growing, as the stories of fatherless children and grieving widows roll out.

And we enter the season of thanks and giving already spent, tapped out, exhausted by our generosity. In the weeks since Sept. 11, we've given blood and mailed checks. We've filled our children's pockets with dollar bills to donate to starving Afghan kids, and dropped tens and twenties into firemen's boots to help surviving families. Now we're shifting our worries closer to home, wondering how much belt-tightening it will take to ride out the struggling economy.

Charities are left to twist in the wind. Many shifted their own fund-raising efforts to assist the victims of terrorism. They're approaching this gift-giving season gingerly, worried that their needs will seem puny to a public still reeling from national tragedies.

For nonprofit groups involved in social service--food banks, child-abuse programs, homeless shelters--this season looks especially bleak. The slowing economy threatens their funding, while the ranks of people who rely on them are increasing.

Americans have spoken loudly and clearly, the new Red Cross chief said last week, as he announced plans to funnel all $542 million the agency collected in its Liberty Fund directly to victims' families. Some angry donors had asked for their money back when they learned that the agency had set some aside for victims of future tragedies. We wanted to help the families we read about, the heroes that we saw on TV.

We should be proud of what we've done to ease the suffering of the firefighter's family. But what about the family of the parking attendant at LAX, laid off as a result of the tragedy? Or the hotel maid with three kids and no job, thanks to the downturn in the travel industry?

When we pick and choose who we want to help, how can those victims measure up in the competition for our generosity? Yet their needs are very real and pressing too.

For years, my family's had a Christmas tradition. We'd pick a project to contribute to from the Holiday Wish List our newspaper ran, tallying the needs of local charities. Should we buy toys for abused kids or raincoats for homeless children? Should we donate to the downtown rescue mission or to the local battered women's shelter?

Now, our newspaper is doing something different, and the choice of whom to help is no longer our own. The Times' new holiday campaign is soliciting reader contributions and will dole out the money early next year to social service groups that meet a range of needs: Places like food pantries, homeless shelters, orphanages. Programs that promote parenting skills and early childhood literacy. Groups that fight drug abuse and juvenile crime.

The campaign hopes to collect $500,000, which will be matched at 50 cents on the dollar by the McCormick Tribune Foundation. That's a tall order in a region that's holding its breath to see what will happen with the economy. But it's also an opportunity for us to show that our hearts are big enough to embrace the unheralded victims of the kind of everyday tragedies that trap families in despair and poverty.

And for me, it's a chance to practice giving that serves not mine, but someone else's needs.

The Times Holiday Campaign

Tax deductible donations: Donations (checks or money orders) should be sent to L.A. Times Holiday Campaign, File #56491, Los Angeles, 90074-6491. Please do not send cash. Credit card donations can be made at Contributions of $25 or more will be acknowledged in the Los Angeles Times unless a donor requests otherwise. For more information about the Holiday Campaign, call (800) 528-4637 (LA TIMES), Ext. 75480.


Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays . Her e-mail address is

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