Small Charities

Like packages, they're often the best

Charity isn't always about money.

Years ago, when we had a farm, I sold produce at the local farmers' market. We set up in a parking lot in an urban area, near the factories and low-income apartments which housed many elderly and close-to-homeless people.

The factory workers would shop after 4 pm, but the apartment folks would wander in all day. They might buy one or two items, go home, then return in the afternoon. It was a social activity for them. For my children, who often accompanied me, it was a chance to interact with a cross-section of people they would otherwise never meet.

One lady in particular fascinated me. She usually wore gypsy-style skirts and a printed scarf over her long gray hair. Large gold hoop earrings framed her wrinkled face. After several visits and some small talk, she began to share stories of her life in the foreign service in Europe during WWII.

At first, I was dubious, but her details and knowledge of history were so precise, that I was awed by the intricate web of tales. I looked forward to Nellie's visits each week when she would reveal another chapter in the saga of her life.

Each day, as we neared closing, unsold produce was offered to the residents of the apartments at low or no cost. But Nellie would never take a handout. One hot afternoon, she came to me and asked if she could get some vegetables in exchange for her earrings. She had removed them from her ears and was attempting to place them in my hand. I said, "Why don't you just take what you want. You can pay me when you have the money." She refused and walked off. My son stood by and listened.

About two hours later, Nellie reappeared and spilled several hundred pennies onto our plywood table. I knew she had begged them from the workers leaving the factories and thought how difficult it must have been for her.

It's about dignity

On a cool autumn day years later, while visiting my daughter in Boston, we walked through one of the grassy common areas. Like many Boston greens, this one was surrounded with a black wrought iron fence, about four feet high, with small spires at the top, an endless succession of cathedrals.

On the fence hung dozens of articles of clothing, including matched pairs of shoes and gloves. My daughter told me the students left their unneeded clothes for the homeless, who would go to the green at dark and take whatever they wished, with dignity.

Sometimes very small amounts of money can make a big difference. Years ago, while traveling with my two younger sons, we made a stop at a welcome center somewhere in Virginia. Jason went to the restroom and didn't return for quite awhile. When he did, he said, "Mom, see that guy over there with the motorcycle? He's trying to get to Pennsylvania to see his son, and he wanted to know if I would buy his tools, because he needs money for gas. His tank is empty."

I said, "What am I going to do with motorcycle tools? How much would he need to get there?"

"Well, he probably can get fifty miles to the gallon, and he has another three hundred miles to go. Can we just give him the money? He'll need those tools if he should break down."

I gave him a handful of singles and sent him back to the biker. The man was very grateful. I felt pretty good myself, and I know Jason did. A couple years later, Jason made a cross-country trip by motorcycle himself. He carried very little and depended upon the kindnesses of those he met to give him work and aid.

One day, after his trip was over, we sat down, and he told me stories of help he had received, about the farm woman who saw his tent pitched in her field and invited him in for supper and the campers who shared their food and fire. Charity has a way of spreading itself around.

The other day, as I stood at the checkout counter in the supermarket, the young woman in front of me, holding a baby on her hip, with two other small children in tow, was dumping change from her purse, unable to make the total for her groceries. She needed 18 cents. She was embarrassed and trying to decide which of the items she could have the clerk return to the shelves. She had let the children buy one candy bar, and now she was handing it back.

I said to her, "Would you mind if I bought it for them? I don't have little ones to treat anymore and would really enjoy it." She accepted my offer with a shy smile.

We have all needed help at some time. It may have been money, but it also may have been time or an outstretched hand. When you see a chance to help, you have the choice of whether to take the risk or play it safe and look the other way. Personally, I'm glad the choice is mine to make.

Sheila Velazquez is an award-winning, self-syndicated newspaper columnist and freelance writer, mother of four and grandmother of five. Her articles also appear in parenting and women's magazines. Sheila posts columns at her modest website.