Warning: The following may sound as if I am “tooting my own horn.” Please know that that is NOT at all what I mean to do. I want to encourage people with spina bifida, as well as with other conditions, and anyone reading this blog, to look at charity in a different light. I cannot do this properly without disclosing my own background in volunteerism.
In 2004, I was granted a wish from the Central Florida-based organization, New Hope for Kids. This wish coincidentally impacted the rest of my life. All my friends and relatives that knew about it were extremely happy for me, and encouraged me to get the most out of this experience. Someone I know who apparently delights in finding the dark cloud in every silver lining, openly criticized the whole process of having a wish granted, knowing full well that I am a recipient.
Whether directly aimed at me or at people with spina bifida in general, this criticism hurt me deeply. If you read this blog regularly, and are aware of my regular focus on celebrities and entities that give back, this criticism may surprise you.
Therefore, I feel compelled to speak out about what “charity” really means to me, and how we can all benefit from being on the giving– as well as the receiving– end of it. After all, since I was granted that wish, both my mom and I, and occasionally my dad, have been frequent volunteers for various charitable organizations.
It seems to me that when most people think of charity, they imagine humanitarians in faraway, developing countries. Missionaries are sleeping in straw huts and have been vaccinated for malaria in order to provide essential food, water, clothing and medicine to emaciated children.
However, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other neighboring regions back in 2005, the Big Easy, once a popular tourist destination for its carefree, festive atmosphere, found itself at the mercy of do-gooders across the globe.
This scenario just goes to show that any one of us can end up on that receiving end– and many of us do, especially young people. (After all, what the heck are “scholarship programs” if not charities? I’m eternally grateful to such entities as Vocational Rehabilitation and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, both of which provided me with opportunities that enhanced my education.)
But many people, especially people with “disabilities,” (and you know how I loathe the word!) seem to often struggle with the idea of being on the receiving end of a charitable donation or gift. Many blatantly reject it, as if it were an insult to be offered this opportunity.
The point is, I know that there are children and families far more deserving than me to have a wish granted. This is why I chose as my wish something that I figured money could never buy– an opportunity to meet someone who is now my role model, anchorman Bill Hemmer.
And whatever you may think, nearly seven years later, I still don’t take that opportunity lightly. It has entirely shifted my career focus, and I’m confident that, had it not been for that chance meeting, I probably would not be blogging today. It inspired me to be a writer!
Now, I volunteer at New Hope for Kids activities every chance I get– although my hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to participate as often as I wish. To me, this opportunity underscores the idea that charity doesn’t always have to be one-sided. Yes, I received this fabulous wish years ago, but now I try to give back however I can. If there’s something I’ve enjoyed more than my wish, it’s probably volunteering my time at fundraising events for NHFK, so that other children can have their wishes granted. Many times, I am touched and humbled when meeting kids whose conditions are far more severe than my own.
Years ago, when I first became a volunteer, my dad took me to an NHFK picnic for the wish families. A boy with Down’s Syndrome, who was about my age, took a special liking to me, and kept asking me to marry him. I would reply, “I don’t know, I need to get my Dad’s permission for that!” He was very persistent in his offer.
When the event concluded, I said goodbye to my suitor with a kiss on the cheek. As Papi and I walked back to our car, the boy’s family drove by us, and his mom called out to me, “My son has been talking nonstop about that kiss! You really made his day.” Knowing this, it made mine too, and I’ve never forgotten that young man’s proposal.
To me, the idea that charity is exclusively for the “less fortunate” seems hypocritical. In fact, most established religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, seem to emphasize charity and good deeds as either a way to get to Heaven, or critical in getting good karma, or being rewarded in whatever afterlife may come.
There are so many different ways to get involved in giving back. People who have some type of handicap can help, and often they don’t need to move away from their computer to help. People can buy merchandise on Web sites where all or part of the proceeds go toward a good cause. Once, Mami and I spent an afternoon “cleaning soap”– washing partially used bottles of body wash and shampoo donated by hotel chains– to send to Haiti. We were volunteering for Clean the World. It was one of the most unorthodox afternoons I have spent, and one of the best times of my life.
Yes, there are days when I don’t feel like letting someone open the door for me; I want to do it all myself. (Although, it can be argued that, particularly among males, this is not an act of “charity” towards a person in a wheelchair, but rather a chivalrous gesture. Whoever said chivalry was dead?) But when we respond to well-intentioned people or organizations with a “No, I’d rather not” attitude all the time, we are not only depriving ourselves of a possibly positive opportunity; we are also depriving them of a valuable learning opportunity. We can help each other mutually to grow as people. After all, most of us learn charity from the two most selfless people in our lives– our parents.
And who’s to say we can’t turn the tables and be the givers, not the receivers? That would be awesome, if everyone could give back what they have received, or pay it forward, which I strive to do with my blog. But, bear in mind– those who give should be open to receive, as well. If not, then you aren’t truly “walking the walk.”