December 8, 2008

Something real

After I ignored his half-serious Blogverbot yesterday, Ralf has weighed in that I should write about something real. And I ask you. Is our child's stuggle to sleep nights without a pacifier not real? Is our insidious dependence on machines and increasing reliance on virtual experience not real?

Although, virtual reality isn't real by definition so maybe that's a bad example.

But anyway, what Ralf would like to see is something to do with the spirit of the Christmas season, such as how we can reach out to those who need help.

About me. In a work situation, where I know my subject, I am confident but drop me down in the middle of a party where people are making small talk and I go hide at the buffet. My charitable actions tend to be anonymous. I sponsor two children, Laura in Bolivia with the Christian Children's Fund and a child whose privacy is protected in Germany through the SOS Kinderdorf. I give the Contra Costa Food Bank $100 at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I make periodic donations to Doctors without Borders and Unicef. But I never actually talk to anyone or engage with them. I don't volunteer at soup kitchens. I don't reach out.

Ralf is different. He likes people. He thinks they are basically good. He is unbiased by appearances. In many ways he is a truly civilized man. And while he is not in the habit of picking strays, and is perfectly capable of walking past someone begging on the street, he is the one who stays behind to exhange a few pleasantries when I drop my change in someone's cup and run off. So maybe between the two of us we add up to one good person. ;-)

One night in Walnut Creek when he was taking the bus home instead of driving in order to avoid putting putting carbon in the atmosphere, he noticed a woman on the bus with a lot of bags. She looked clean but tired and a bit worn and threadbare. When she got off the bus he chatted with the bus driver and discovered that she is homeless. The bus driver is a kind soul that helps her as she can, stores stuff for her, receives her mail, etc. Anyway, this person has been homeless for several years since a physical condition combined with downsizing resulted in her losing her job. Apparently she has no family she can rely on and most of her friends also evaporated when her luck took a downturn.

She is active, however. She is skilled in computers and she volunteers at several organizations, teaching, doing computer work, etc. For this she gets a bit of food and sometimes clothes or something of that kind. She struggles to get enough money to buy food and medication and sleeps outside most nights but somehow manages to stay clean and play an active role in society. The truly ironic thing (besides being unable to find more assistance in a wealthy community like Walnut Creek) is that because she is not a drug addict or a battered wife she is not eligible for most forms of active aid in the East Bay.

It is very different in Germany, where an educated white collar worker can get up to two years of government support as well as re-education in order to help them bridge difficult times and keep them off the street. People take advantge of this, naturally, but in the end this extravagant social net allows them time to get their act together and avoid losing everything, which in the long run is better for the economy.

Anyway, the next day when Ralf saw her on the bus he engaged her in conversation and gave her some money to buy dinner. And since then he has corresponded with her by email and we send her various gift cards on a semi-regular basis - practical ones like Safeway so she can buy food and medicine, and frivolous ones like Starbucks. Each time she thanks us with a loving, effusive email and tells us what a difference it makes to have someone in her life that cares.

Lately something good has happened - the husband of an old friend of hers reached out and asked her to help at Fresh Start, which is a day support center for people in need located in Walnut Creek. I particularly like that they advocate homeless children with the local school boards in order to help them stay in school. As well as offering those daily essentials most of us take for granted, food, a warm place to sit, washer and dryer, bathing facilities, online access and paper.

Fresh Start offers something for all types of charitible impulses - you can donate anonymously or jump in and volunteer. Or you can do something comletely different. Whatever suits your style, 'tis the season to do something that gives someone in need something to be thankful for.

There's nothing more real than that.


  1. This is a very apt post for the festive season! I was so happy when my son's school decided to not have Santa bringing gifts to the children at their Christmas Party. Instead,we were given a childs name who lives in a AIDS Orphanage for whom we could buy a gift which Santa would come and fetch from the children at the school and deliver to those in the orphanage on Christmas morning. My son was delighted that he could make a difference in another little boys life who was not as fortunate as him.

  2. Wow, great post!
    You make a very good point when looking at the social safety net in Germany -- isn't better in the long run to help people not hit rock-bottom -- what does it say about a society that fears abuse of a social system more than trying to help people get back on their feet.
    I do esp. think that mental illness can be a huge factor in homelessness, one that is not addressed adequately in the US -- how can they "pick themselves up" without mental health treatment & medication -- it's a terrible spiral down...
    I recently read the book "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez, about a homeless musician in LA -- very interesting!

  3. Laura, I have similar "anonymous tendencies" myself in my giving but I am finding myself moving in a more activist place these days. There is a similar organization I support in San Mateo called the Shelter Network. What a great story of finding someone to sponsor. That is awesome.


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