Consumerist Giving: When Your Donations Cause Problems

Eye of the Storm Image from Outer Space

In light of the major hurricanes that recently did immense damage to Texas, islands in the Caribbean, and Florida, and also the earthquake in Mexico, it’s time to talk about how to help in real tangible ways, and about a huge donation/giving snafu to avoid.

I stumbled upon this article the other day from CBS, and I can confirm that this is a real problem from personal experience. I did a lot of volunteering in college and happened to volunteer in areas of the east coast affected by Hurricane Sandy, so I’ve seen some of this firsthand, though not on the scale that the writer describes. TLDR: Charity can be very good, but not all charitable donations are helpful.

As the article explains,

“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful,” said Juanita Rilling, former director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C. “And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”

The article goes on to describe huge piles of clothing donations blocking airport runways during hurricane disaster relief – runways that were needed to land planes full of actual life-saving supplies. It talks about a huge influx of teddy bears-thousands-donated to Sandy Hook after the tragic shooting at the elementary school.

Chris Kelsey, who worked for Newtown at the time, said they had to get a warehouse to hold all the teddy bears….As Kelsey said, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown. At least, that’s the way it felt at the end.”

He makes an excellent point. After disaster strikes, there’s a wonderful human urge to help and to feel like you’ve contributed in some real, tangible way. But we also have our own preconceived notions about what is helpful and what isn’t, and they aren’t always accurate.

I volunteered at a food pantry for a while and was one of the people who helped in the back room bagging groceries. We pretty much only dealt with food items, though occasionally we might get a donation of something like diapers. We were not, and never were intended, to be a clothing donation place.

Then the hurricane hit, and everyone wanted to lend a hand, and also a hand-me-down. This food pantry was completely inundated with clothing donations, I’m talking full trash bags piled to the ceiling, and we didn’t have room for them, or the resources to sort, clean, and distribute them properly. We started giving them away as much as possible, shoving them at people who didn’t want them or need them. I remember one week, because we had started giving away clothing donations, people who had come in for food assistance the week before came back with several boxes and bags of clothing donations. Thinking they were helping. That since we were giving away clothing, we must want more donations.

I thought this was a crazy problem to have. A food pantry inundated with the wrong type of donations, and lots of them. Then I read the aforementioned article about other hurricanes, which talks about people literally burning piles of donations because they were not the things people affected by the disaster actually needed, and these unwanted donations had rotted in a pile from not being handled in a timely, proper manner.

I told a co-worker this story and she was shocked. She said, why couldn’t they just pass the clothes on to someone else? Surely some people affected by the disaster must need clothes.

I told her, not necessarily. Because, as I recall from the hurricane, all the other charities in the area were flooded with donations after the disaster too, and again, not necessarily the things that were needed, or that the particular charity was set up to handle.

All you have to do to avoid contributing to this problem is to listen to the charities you are donating to. If they give a list of items they need, stick to the list. If they ask for a monetary donation or otherwise indicate that they will take one, it is almost always far more helpful to make a monetary donation. I know a lot of people prefer controlling exactly what their money buys, while others may prefer the personal touch of picking out an item to donate, but by giving money to a charity you trust, you grant them the ability to make bulk purchases that help a larger number of people than the four cans you bought plus the 2 nearly expired ones you took out of your pantry.

In case you haven’t seen it, the Adam Ruins Everything video on food drives is 100% accurate in my experience. Seriously, over 95% of what we gave out came from bulk purchases, not food drives. I’ve helped sort that stuff. A lot of what we got from said drives was expired, or just a weird item nobody eats. Rule of thumb: if you’re not sure how to cook it, someone else might not be either. Don’t donate that weird can of secret saucy surprise.

If you know of any charities that are doing good work to help the victims of these recent natural disasters, feel free to share in the comments!

Always donate responsibly.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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Catholic Superstitions and Extreme Prayer Claims

animal, art, backlightSuperstitions exist in many cultures, but I don’t think enough has been said about the very superstitious and bizarre things people do in mainstream religions.

A Catholic relative told me recently about something she’s doing to try to sell her house faster, and it reminded me of the many weird things I used to do as a kid, and that I saw my parents doing.

She said, “I haven’t had any offers yet, but my friend told me when she was selling her house, it helped to take a pot of dirt and get a statue of St. Joseph. You put the statue in the pot upside down, and then you put dirt over it, and he helps you sell your house.”

I’m very proud of myself for not laughing at her in that moment. Apparently, this practice is so widespread that there are “kits” for it, sold at various Catholic websites. Here’s one I found at discountcatholicproducts.com

st joseph kit

There’s even a whole website dedicated to this St. Joseph statue nonsense: https://st-josephstatue.com

My parents’ house is full of similar Catholic paraphernalia, and you can find many of these things in the homes of other devout Catholics too.

Scapulars – most notably the brown Carmelite scapular – may promise special priveledges to those who wear them and devote themselves to certain prayers and practices. This one, in particular, is said by some Catholics to keep a person out of hell.

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Brown scapular

 

Relics – these are some of my personal favorite freaky Catholic artifacts. There are 3 classes of relics. A third class relic is an article that the tomb of a saint has touched. A second class relic is usually an article the saint wore or used. I had a 2nd class one for Blessed Kateri, and it was a minuscule scrap of turquoise fabric, so small it was barely large enough to make out the color, encased in a shiny metal relic-holder. First class relics are usually a tiny bone fragment, supposedly from the saint him or herself.  Apparently, Catholicism does not promote or really allow the buying and selling of relics in most instances, however, it is permitted for a Catholic to buy one to “rescue” it and bring it back to Catholic use. This loophole, when you think about it, creates a market where non-Catholics sell to Catholics. As a result, “relics” may or may not actually come from the saint in question, and need to be vetted. This article on Forbes has more information on the sale of relics. Granted, this is from 2008, but a search online for relics today does list some eBay results, so they are definitely still being bought and sold.

 

Prayer cards and prayer candles are also common Catholic paraphernalia, and people like my parents tend to collect a lot of them over time, as they each pertain to a different saint. In Catholicism, different saints are patrons of different things. For instance, St. Lucy, usually depicted holding eyeballs on a plate, is the patron saint of the blind. So if a family member has vision trouble, prayers to St. Lucy for her intercession (in other words, for Lucy to go talk to God on your behalf) are a very normal behavior. You might bring a relic of St. Lucy to someone getting eye surgery if you should be lucky enough to have one, or you might light a St. Lucy prayer candle for them.

 

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St. Lucy

 

When you read into some of the saints’ stories, you kind of have to wonder how people can believe this stuff. Even the Wikipedia page for St. Lucy currently points out that there are several different versions of her story circulating.

 

Novenas are another type of prayer that sometimes come with extreme claims. When a family friend from church was out of work, my parents prayed a special novena (9-day prayer) that was supposed to help her magically find work. This is a common practice you can see recommended on Catholic forums, with people often completely attributing their success to the prayer.

Then there was a special prayer my family always said to St. Anthony while we looked for lost items. (St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items and lost souls). I can’t write the prayer here because it’s in a lost Italian dialect that’s not a written language, but the only part of it I knew the English translation for was the beginning, where it calls to “St. Anthony, naked.” Not sure why naked is in there, (and who’s supposed to be naked, St. Anthony, or the person praying?) but my family and I would run around the house searching for our cell phone, or missing report card or baseball game tickets, reciting the prayer over and over. When we eventually found it, we’d yell, “Thank you St. Anthony!” As if our searching had nothing to do with it turning up.

Do you have any stories about weird superstitions or religious practices? Feel free to share them.

As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy