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OP/ED: Food bank offers food for thought on when NOT to support a charity

 My son did a really neat thing this week – a neat thing that served to underline some ugly truths of our modern world.

Let's start the story with my shameless bragging: my 12-year-old son, upon hearing me discuss the food bank's current crisis, took it upon himself (with no prompting from me), to answer the call.
He gathered up his little circle of friends in our 'hood (all of whom were delighted to pitch in – you gotta love “kids these days”, no?) and a wagon. A neighbourhood mom even volunteered to pull the wagon and keep an eye on the kids to make sure they were safe.
The group of them then went door-to-door collecting non-perishable food items to donate to the Community Harvest Food Bank (my car is now crammed with cans and boxes of quality food that will ultimately end up in some of the more-than-300 hampers the food bank distributes each month).
How cool is THAT?
Sadly, it's less cool than one might think – through no fault of this spectacular group of caring, altruistic young people.
“It's wonderful to see kids care about their community and want to get involved,” said food bank director Deb McIntosh. “And for them to take the initiative like that is remarkable.”
She said encouraging this kind of engagement will pay huge dividends for the entire community now and down the road – but it's not without its drawbacks.
Drawbacks?, I thought. What possible down side could there be to children digging in and working hard for the greater good?
(Between you and me, I figured the media had finally driven Deb right 'round the bend.)
I was soon to be embarrassed, as a journalist, by my stunning naivete.
I know as well as anyone why we see fewer and fewer door-to-door solicitations for charity - I've written the stories myself, in larger centres like Calgary. It just never occurred to me the concept would apply here in Castlegar, too.
“I've had people tell me they already donated to the person who came to their door, which is great – except I never sent anyone to their door,” McIntosh said, explaining a tiny handful of people are willing to solicit “donations” door-to-door, then keep the cash for themselves. “The Community Harvest Food Bank never, ever, ever sends people door-to-door for cash donations.”
Of course, this doesn't mean you should stop donating, or the kids should stop trying to help – what it means is, we all need to be more circumspect in how we donate and to whom.
McIntosh said a simple phone call, if someone shows up at your door, to ensure your donations will end up in food bank coffers, is well worth the effort (250-365-6440 or 250-608-1047).
She also said kids like my son are welcome – in fact, encouraged – to help out when the spirit moves them ... but they should call her first, so she knows the endeavour is on the up-an-up and can reassure any would-be donours who call her that the proceeds will, indeed, reach the food bank intact.
The principle applies to all charities and donations, as well.
In retrospect, I'm simply floored I didn't twig to the issue beforehand – I know better, for crying out loud – but this is exactly how con artists and other less-savoury elements are able to take advantage. They find the area in which we're complacent and trusting ..and they exploit it.
I truly believe such people are the exception, not the rule – that only a teeny-tiny percentage of our society would ever do such things – but they're out there, and we need to protect ourselves and each other from them.
It's bad enough the donations don't reach the charities – the real heartbreaker is that honest, well-meaning people get burned and, as a result, their trust in the system and the charities that support it is violated. Some simply no longer want to participate.
We can't let that happen.
I cannot state strongly enough the critical role charities play in our community, both here in Castlegar and in the broader world – without them, governments would collapse under the fiscal and man-power burdens currently borne by non-profit organizations. We literally can't live without them. The United Nations, for one, would crumble. (Another tiny example, compared to the big picture – our rough calculations say that as many as one in nine Castlegar residents has received help from the Community Harvest Food Bank. One in nine. Think about that.)
In turn, charities can't live without our donations – not just of money, but of time, of food, or of simple good will.
So I'm going to fall on my sword here – any angst created by my son's impromptu food drive was my fault, as I was the one person of all those involved who should have forseen the potential pitfalls of an unauthorized door-to-door campaign.
For those who donated, you may rest assured, I will personally see every last can and box delivered into McIntosh's hands. I think most people trust that, or they probably wouldn't have donated in the first place – this is a pretty low-risk situation – but I shudder to think what might've happened in a case where the stakes were higher.
I learned a critical lesson here, thanks to my sweet boy: good intentions don't make the world go 'round. Thoughtful good intentions do.
Wading in and helping willy-nilly (without determining beforehand whether said help might not be all that helpful, or might even make matters worse) is far less productive and more problematic than taking a moment to really think things through and consider where and how your good intentions will best serve your chosen cause.
I'm not suggesting we make a federal case out of every random act of kindness, but maybe a moment's thought or even a quick phone call will help ensure that our help, when we offer it, actually does help.