Thursday, August 27, 2009

A [Moral] Dilemma

Back in the '80s, my women's Circle at church sponsored a family living in poverty in rural Mississippi through The Box Project. We sent a box each month for several years and developed a warm relationship with the family. When the youngest child became a teenager, and the older children were working, we stopped our sponsorship and moved to local charity projects. A couple of years ago, we decided to support another family through The Box Project.

We paid our fifty dollar membership fee and received the information for a family headed by a young single woman who I'll call Jennifer. At the time we "met" her, Jennifer was in her mid-twenties and had three or four children under five. Members of the Circle took turns pairing up to send her a box valued at about fifty dollars each month. The first month was December and I remember buying pajamas for each member of the family, and someone contributed a copy of Goodnight, Moon.

Each month we receive a brief thank-you note from Jennifer in response to our box. She keeps us up-to-date on things that she needs, on the children's sizes, and every once in a while something that is going on in her life. She told us when she moved to a different home, when she joined a church, and -- to our surprise -- when she was expecting another baby. When that baby arrived, she wrote that she was not going to have any more children, that she was going to get her GED and then enroll in the community college to study early childhood education and try to get a job in a day care center. We were delighted to receive this lengthy communication and hear of this goal, which seemed possibly attainable, and encouraged her, asking how we could help. We anticipated that her mom, who by this time had moved in with her, would provide child care when she went to school. We believed that at last a real relationship was developing.

But a year passed, and there was no further mention of the GED or of her aspirations. And then came the concerning news that she was, once again, expecting.

My Circle sisters and I have a dilemma. There are members who are not eager to continue to support a lifestyle we disapprove. There are members who don't think we have the right to disapprove of a lifestyle. The word "enabling" has been mentioned. So has the word "abandon." No one in the group feels any real sense of connection to Jennifer, the way we did with the family we cared for years ago.

We've now received our annual renewal statement from The Box Project and have a decision to make. The issue will be resolved at our September meeting, and I imagine that each of the Circle members has her own question to answer regarding the Jennifer situation. Mine is this: How important is it that I have a personal feeling of satisfaction from giving? The need is there, whether I have that feeling or not.


Mrs. Goodneedle said...

This is, indeed, a dilemma. Would it be feasible to put it to a vote within your circle group and if the decision is to stop the boxes perhaps send a final box with an explanation to Jennifer that this group project is concluding

To answer your final question, yes the need is there. Any one of us would have to possess a certain satisfaction or connectedness to any specific need to participate in supporting it... there are many needs and we recognize the fact that we can't support them all. Perhaps your Circle group can find a better, or more agreeable to all, cause. I know how this particular dilemma would go over in my own Circle group, I daresay I would hear the word "enable" too.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Very good questions.
At one time, my husband and I were working on a decision: should we or should we not try to financially support a school we had a personal contact with and believed it. At first the decision was mostly to be based on whether or not we trusted the director of the school with the money and whether the money might get stolen before it got to the right hands.

I told my husband, "If we give this money, it is gone from us, whether it gets to the right person or is used wisely or is stolen. It is the same for us, so we should let it go and see what happens." We did. We've been supporting the school ever since, more than 5 years. We've given a lot of money to the school. You can judge that as you wish. Some people think that putting in >$1 in the Sunday collection is a lot. We've been blessed by the connection.

Would we have continued to give without the connection and blessing given back? Probably not, since we really do need to KNOW that the money is being used for the school, and we have verified that in a number of ways.

So, I haven't been helpful, I guess. I would ask, what are you getting from the organization for the fee you pay? What kind of oversight do they provide?

Nancy said...

I think your question is valid. Personally, I think that satisfaction is important.

You said that the "need" is there whether you have the feeling or not. True, but you also have a need - the need of feeling that what you are doing matters to the other person. If you didn't have that need, in this case, you would contribute anonymously.

Other questions to ponder: If you didn't "know" Jennifer would you continue to contribute? If you didn't know where your contribution went, would you continue to support the project?

Sue said...

I also question the $50 annual fee. I understand that an organization has administrative costs. But, after connecting you initially, what does the organization do?

I don't think we should do things for credit. But I also don't think it's wrong to have a need to feel good about giving. You aren't seeking billboards with your names on it. You just want to feel good about what you are doing. Don't feel badly about honoring your own needs and desires.

If you do decide to continue sending boxes to "Jennifer", you might decide to concentrate on the needs of the children. They are not responsible for the decisions of their mother.

If you decide not to continue to contribute to Jennifer's children, you might select another family to help for ONE YEAR only. If, at the end of that year, you decide to continue to send packages to them, you may.

I don't see any reason why you should feel obligated to continue to send packages to Jennifer. We can't give to every charity and we should not feel obligated to give to the same charities each year. Continue if you feel led to do so- not because you feel obligated.

Serena said...

Times are hard for everyone right now. I do not know of one young family who hasn't been hit in some way by the current state of the economy. I have good friends I went to high school and college with who began wonderful careers (engineers, lab technicians, teachers aides) only to be the first cut when times got hard. They are now working minimum wage jobs and struggling to repay school loans. None of the people I know who I would consider struggling would dare to come forward for assistance.

I believe in helping everyone but I also believe there is an obligation placed on anyone who is being helped to also help themselves.

I worked in a non profit organization for a year and saw a lot of money come in, and run out. Not all of it was managed well and it was difficult to watch.

My husbands family is also helped immensely by government funds. I've not seen the money in any way improve their lives or make them more intelligent about money management. I watched them sell their charity gifts (donated by school, church, local charity organizations) so that they could buy expensive gaming systems, three big screen televisions, and a rather alarming amount of unnecessary "fun stuff". We stopped helping them shortly after our daughter was born because it felt ridiculous to limit our family spending so they could have TIVO.

I truly believe in giving, and in helping others but I do think it's the only intelligent course of action to pause and think through where your goodwill is going and if it's a place you feel creates a sense of satisfaction within you and will be most needed by those really in need.

The Calico Cat said...

Is $50 a month enabling?

Just my thought...

I contribute locally & the majority of what I do, I do during the annual Combined Federal Campaign - where they have the administrative percentages in plain type to help you "do the most good."

Anonymous said...

I think I believe that true charity is given without judging and with no strings attached. You've given me real food for thought as always

Nicole said...

The needs of Jennifer's children are the main thing to think about. Every child needs new pajamas, a book to read, something of their own to have. I would continue to give to the children I think.
One year my husband and I adopted a needy family at Christmas. We were given a list of sizes and other things that the family needed. As I recall, Dennis and I had a lovely time shopping and wrapping our gifts for this family. We chose an article of clothing and something "fun" for each family member. The gifts were turned over to the agency, and that was that. We never heard another word. Not a thank you, not even a confirmation that the gifts had been received. At first I was disappointed in the lack of appreciation and response. After some thought, I realized that the reason for the charity shouldn't have anything to do with me. It is all about the giving.

Jan said...

Uhmmmmmm, "food for thought indeed!" First off, God Bless you for what you and your family have already done :) Our world needs more of that kind of generosity :)

I don't really think I could consider the once a month box "enabling," cuz I believe that "Jennifer" will continue to live the life she is living whether that box shows up or not.

I think the bottom line are her kids. As someone said, they are not responsible for their Mother's actions; and I imagine that those once a month boxes bring them a great amount of joy ad mist a life that probably doesn't give them much joy at all.

As far as recognition ... well, we're only human, and I imagine that it is something that we would all welcome but unfortunately don't always get. Soooooo perhaps some "self recognition" would work :) Close your eyes and imagine those little one's opening up all the wonderful things you send :)

I wish you well as you contemplate on how to handle the situation :)

Judi said...

Nancy, once again your blog has given me something to think about! I can understand some members of your group feeling that they are helping to support a lifestyle they don't approve of, but in reality your lovely boxed don't encourage Jennifer to make the choices she does.

In fact, I would suggest the reverse - that your kindness and encouragement just might provide an example for her that she hasn't had before. Sooner or later perhaps she will see the light.

It's so much easier to be charitable to the cute and the worthy, because it makes us feel good - so much harder to take the stoney path!

As others have suggested, I'd continue to provide a little practical help for the children - and some moral (!) support for Jennifer.

Micki said...

I think that the hard times has hit a lot of people, and if someone is in true need, than it is wonderful to help them.It is up to your group to determine if there is a real need here, and then decide as a group.

kimquiltz said...

Wow, so many good answers. I don't have an answer to contribute, no wise words. I'm grateful for the food for thought, though, I'll be chewing on this one this evening...

Anonymous said...

This is definitely a difficult decision. I would ask several questions - where are the fathers of these 6 or 7 children? Is her life and what she is teaching those children that it is okay to take and not give and having more brothers and sisters allows her to be a stay-at-home mom? We would have all loved that but chose to be productive citizens. Is your group and the system allowing her to take advantage and her children become the pawns? Will she ever be a productive citizen or always taking advantage of welfare in some form or another? Who checks and confirms that this person is worthy (not the best choice of words)eligible, meets a certain criteria of this contribution that you are making? She needs to be taught how to "get out of the system". Are her children being supported by other support systems and therefore your money could go to help someone else? It APPEARS that Jennifer is not helping herself but rather taking!! I see no moral compass. You might want to put forth that you not give up the project, but be put in touch with someone else that needs your help and support. My church group supports the local homeless and those in need but we are face to face with them. We see their struggle first hand and do what we can to alleviate it and get them back on their feet. Most want to be in charge of their future. You have to ask, "does she"? Please let us know the decision.

LizA. said...

What a difficult decision. I would be curious to know what qualifications(?) The Box Project uses to pick individuals in need. Once a family is included in the project, is there any follow up from the organization? Would it be beneficial to speak with somebody from The Box Project about your dilemma and why many of you don't want to continue with this particular family?

Judi said...

I've previosuly commented on this post when I was short of time. It stayed with me (as Nancy's moral dilemmas often do) and I came back to follow the link to the Box Project.

I note that their principle emphasis is on encouraging people to better themselves. I quote "we seek families who want to better themselves by getting an education or better job skills".

Sadly, I have no doubt that there are many other families who fit this description much more than Jennifer does.

Please let us know what your group decides to do.

carole ann said...

I can see your dilemma, but as I live in an area where there are many "Jennifer's" I would take a hard line and seek another family. As stated by someone the Box Project's objective is to help people to help themselves and this person is not helping anyone. But do you take away from the children? That is the part that bothers me so I do not envy you your decision. I will be praying for and thinking of you.

suz said...

You guys do have a dilemma. I read through the comments and one good one was to connect with the people at Project Box and get their feedback. I have a project I do at Christmas with my office that helps unwed moms - we do gifts for them (they are all teenagers). The program helps them finish high school or get a GID, find a job or continue their education and find an apartment. It also teaches them parenting skills - they all come from highly disfunctional families. I have them send a wish list that normally includes appliances, picture frames, that sort of thing and I try to give each of them a gift card to buy something personal. Will they fall into the problems their parents had? possibly. But for a short time they know someone cared and maybe that will help. Contact the project first...

StitchinByTheLake said...

Though I can see the difficulty in making this decision I also believe I would continue the giving. I give because Jesus demanded it. He didn't qualify; he simply said take care of the poor. I know people who won't give to the homeless on the street for fear they will spend it on drugs. I will only be judged on what I do...not on what they do. But when it's a group it can be a really sticky situation. Focus on the children...always focus on the children. blessings, marlene

Guenveur in Kent said...

The fact that there are children involved increasese the dilemma, doesn't it? There are so mnay thoughtful responses to this post that I can't add anything useful, except to reflect that the Victorian term "the worthy poor" doesn't seem to fit these days. And one who contributes to better the lives of those in material need does hope that the effect is positive for the one in receipt of the giving.Should charity (what an old fashioned term that it, too) be unconditional? Oy weh!

Tanya said...

Yes, and we have had such a dilemma in our church. It pulls both ways and there seems to be no answer that satisfies everyone. But yes, once the money is given I believe there should be no strings attached. Perhaps the problem is the group-thinking. If you personally feel the need is worthy despite the lifestyle then that is what God is saying to you. Giving is a show of love. Tough love is also a show of love.