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SANDY BANKS

Celebrating everyday generosity

The need is great, but people's capacity for giving is equal to the task.

December 25, 2009|Sandy Banks

Maybe you're reading this bleary-eyed after a late night playing Santa for your kids or over breakfast at the deli or while you're waiting for the Lakers' game to begin.

Maybe, like me, you've presided over the gift-opening and are back in bed enjoying your bounty -- like the over-priced, microwaveable heating pad hawked relentlessly in mall kiosks, now warming my shopping-ravaged feet.

Christmas is supposed to be a day to count your blessings, not your bunions or your credit card charges. But it was hard not to notice the smaller gift piles this year, courtesy of our shrinking budgets.

That's why the best gift I received this Christmas may have been the story of Mirna Gonzalez.

Gonzalez lost her Christmas money to a thief; turned for help to MEND, a Pacoima charity; then thanked MEND staffers for their efforts with a home-cooked meal. When I shared her saga in my column, scores of readers wanted to help her family.

On Tuesday, Gonzalez was asked back to MEND to meet with a donor: A burly, balding guy in a Harley Davidson jacket. He sat down at a table and reached into his pocket. Gonzalez watched wide-eyed as he fished a wad of cash from his wallet and thrust it toward her.

"It's for you," he said. She stared for an eternity in silence. Her eyes welled up, her hands slid deeper into her sweat shirt pouch, her feet shifted nervously in her pink cotton flats. But she didn't reach for it.

"It's for you," the man repeated gently, his fist full of bills suspended awkwardly between them.

Finally, Gonzales shook her head, brought one hand to her mouth and, with the other, waved her benefactor off.

"No, no. I can't, I can't," she said. Her 12-year-old son moved closer and put his arm around her shoulders.

The man pressed on. "It's yours . . . to replace the money you had stolen. I don't want anything for it. It's yours."

Take it, I thought, watching from the doorway. Anything else might doom the good deed, ruin the moment.

And sabotage this Christmas Day column.

::

This was supposed to be another in an uplifting series of holiday moments, courtesy of Mirna Gonzalez.

But poverty is a complicated problem, not easily solved by a fistful of cash, an iPod, a Target gift card.

It's the job of journalists to personalize it for you. Readers respond with offers to help because they trust us. This past week that felt to me like both a burden and a blessing.

I felt blessed to see her son's eyes shine as he surveyed his new iPod. But I'd worried all weekend about what I'd launched: Please, God, don't let Mirna roll up to MEND to get her loot in an Escalade, I thought.

It's uncomfortable for me to acknowledge, but I turned her into a commodity. I know that it must embarrass her: a woman who values self-sufficiency transformed into a seasonal emblem of need.

She is grateful for the financial help she received from readers -- enough to fill her refrigerator, pay some bills, stock up on diapers for the baby, buy school clothes and a new pair of Adidas for her 12-year-old.

But she feels uncomfortable in the spotlight and worries about how her good fortune will play out in her neighborhood, where people have begun wondering: Are you the woman in the newspaper?

Her message to me is a measure of her dignity. "Can you put in [the paper] for everybody, thank you so much," she said. "We appreciate it so much, that so many people would care about us.

"But they can focus not only on us, but on the other people who are suffering . . . their neighbors, their friends. And not just at Christmas," she said, "but every single day."

::

Mirna is right. Poverty isn't a Christmas story. It's a year-round struggle. But since this is Christmas Day, I'm going to skip the finger-wagging about doing more. We give for a variety of reasons: from goodness, from guilt, from gratitude. And it's only natural to be drawn to someone whose struggles resonate with you.

I know, because I'm guilty of picky giving. I've driven around for weeks with a bag of my daughters' outgrown clothes, searching for just the right needy child for the barely worn Hollister shirts and the pair of Guess jeans with the price tag still on.

The lesson I've learned from Mirna's story is that although there is no shortage of want, there is, fortunately, a surfeit of generosity. What's needed sometimes is matchmaking.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the ocean of anonymous needs; to feel guilty because you can't do enough, rather than gratified that you have done something.

I felt that way as I shuffled through the "wish lists" of foster kids left by social workers this month on the counter of a neighborhood beauty salon.

Do I take the 5-year-old who wants Transformers, or the 9-year-old who wants a set of X-Men sheets? If I get the jacket for the 11-year-old, who will buy the teenage girl a Rihanna CD?

I plucked four cards from the pile, and tried not to think about the others.

The next day, a schoolteacher followed me through the line at Gelson's market. She recognized me from the column drawing and wanted to donate something to Mirna Gonzalez.

"I've been talking about it with my friends and we want to help," she said. I told her about the stack of cards at the beauty salon. By the time I finished, we both were crying.

On Wednesday, I delivered my presents to the salon. I will not look at those cards, I said, willing myself not to worry about the little boy who asked for a soccer net and ball, the kid who wanted a skateboard and clothes, the teenager who dared to hope someone would buy him a wallet.

But the cards were gone.

"Your friend stopped by," the receptionist told me. She took the cards, led her group on a shopping spree and returned to hand the gifts off to social workers.

My friend. The woman I met in line five days ago at the market.

Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men and all that stuff.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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