Why Help the Needy When They do not Need Help?

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IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A person’s hands holding a plate of food, being served food at a cafeteria-style counter.

When I was growing up my family loved to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless at a local shelter. At first I did not want to join them because I felt embarrassed. Of course it was not “cool” to serve food to homeless people, but perhaps more than that, I was embarrassed to look those people in the eye, I was embarrassed to say anything to them; after all, what could I say to them? I never fully overcame my embarrassment, in fact, in some ways I would say it has grown. I always become extremely embarrassed when confronted with my own privilege, but have learned to handle that embarrassment in more appropriate ways. However, I still do not go with my family to serve Thanksgiving dinner to homeless people, and I never will.

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular days of the year to volunteer, if not the most popular. If you want to serve dinner at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving Day, you actually have to make reservations to volunteer – just like you would if you wanted to eat at a five-star restaurant on a Saturday night. This is why I refuse to serve Thanksgiving meals to people at homeless shelters. Aside from the very practical reason not to, i.e., the shelter does not actually need the help, I believe social work and service should be about those you are serving. It should be about making your community a better place. It should be about working with people who have not been placed in as privileged a situation as you have been in order to aid in the improvement of their situation. It should be about human decency. It should not be about making yourself feel like you “gave back” enough so you can justify going Black Friday shopping to consume products you do not need made by people who, most likely, are extremely underpaid and forced to work in terrible conditions. Nor should social work be about doing your “Christian duty,” or about making yourself look good, or about gaining satisfaction from “seeing the smiles on their faces.” Social work is not about you. Period. It is about what you are able to do for other human beings and for societyy.

So, please do not serve food to homeless people on Thanksgiving. If you want to serve food to the homeless so badly that you would make reservations weeks in advanced, what is keeping you from doing it every week? Or every month? What is keeping you from serving your community in different throughout the entire year? If your service is about making a difference, as it ought to, it will be other-oriented rather than self-oriented. If your service is about making yourself feel better about your privilege, consumption, greed, ignorance about social issues, and/or anything else that makes you feel guilty, frankly, do not even bother.

~O.K.

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