Busted Halo

Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.

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November 14th, 2013

Do No Harm When Giving

Young people hold signs asking for help after Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines. (CNS photo/Charlie Saceda, Reuters)

Young people hold signs asking for help after Typhoon Haiyan hits the Philippines. (CNS photo/Charlie Saceda, Reuters)

I used to work for a non-profit that would give out food on a regular basis. We would get donations from the local Food Bank plus any other donations people would drop off at our doorstep. The first time I helped to prepare the food, I was taken aback. There were tables of cakes and pies and cookies and sweet breads, and any other sugary treat you could think of. I stared in awe thinking how happy some little kid was going to be when his grandma came home with a big Elmo cake.

It wasn’t until I worked there a little longer that I learned how this mountain of baked goods arrived at our door like clockwork. One day a woman was at the grocery store and saw all these bakery items getting tossed into the trash. She was horrified at the waste of food and endeavored to get a group of her friends together to go around to several grocery stores to pick up all the leftover bakery goods and bring them to us.

Wow, I marveled. This group of women saw a need (people that need food), a solution (grocery stores throw out baked goods too old to sell), and took action. Good for them. Another person I worked with at the time who had a master’s in public health grimaced as I said that last statement and then proceeded to patiently walk me through why I was wrong. Not wrong that I was proud of those women for stepping up and helping, but wrong in my assessment that their solution was a good one.

Most of the people who received the donated food were at risk of diabetes, had diabetes, ranged from overweight to obese, had high blood pressure, etc. And every week they came to us and we would hand them a ticking time bomb with sprinkles on top. Not all food is created equal. Was there a better solution to finding leftover food? Yes. Many grocery stores also allow people to pick up leftover produce that no one will buy. He then proceeded to tell me that he sought out this group of women to explain to them the health issues we see in the people we serve and when he offered them some alternatives to bringing cakes and cookies, they were very offended. They stopped coming for months. And then one day, as if nothing had happened, they started bringing all the bakery goods again.

I was reminded of this incident as I read through this article about what we should send to help people in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. It is a beautiful thing to see an outpouring of compassion during a crisis. God’s call to love thy neighbor touches some people so deeply that it spurs them to action. This is great and we want to encourage this type of response. But it is important for us first to consider whether what we want to do will cause more harm than good. It is important to distinguish between doing good because we truly want to help and doing good because it makes us feel good. We must believe and put trust in organizations on the ground working with these people in need. We must have faith that what these organizations are telling us they need is what they actually need. Just because what they usually need is money should not make us suspect of their intentions. Money is the quickest way to help people in a crisis.

While I would love to imagine the teddy bear that Olivia no longer plays with sleeping in the sweet embrace of a child who has lost everything to the typhoon, really what that kid needs is a tarp to sleep under or a water kit to purify his water. Please consider a donation to Catholic Relief Services or another non-profir relief agency to help those who so desperately need aid in the Philippines.

The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and five daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Monica Peterson Benninghoff

    Our culture has lost touch with what “basic human needs” are because affluence is perceived as “normal.” Cell phones, cable TV, air conditioning, tattoos, body piercings, alcohol/drugs/tobacco are perceived as “necessary.” Among the poorest of the poor in our country, many have cell phones, at least one (color) TV, eat at fast-food restaurants, and have a roof over their head and clothes on their back.
    I am one of those people who object to the proliferation of sweets at church functions. Cakes and cookies and donuts need to be replaced by fresh fruit and cheese, vegetable relish trays, and sensible appetizers that don’t make a person’s blood sugar skyrocket or pack the pounds on each week. “Do no harm” needs to start at home and then by extension our brothers and sisters around the world.

  • susan34

    Thanks for this article. Another down side to giving things that aren’t needed is that it often costs the very victims you are trying to help. My family in New Orleans tells me that they are STILL trying to figure out how to deal with trailers of clothes, books, etc. that they can’t use. Even sorting through them and picking out things that can be passed on to others and throwing out things that are no good costs time and money they don’t have. When people have the burden, emotional and financial, from a disaster, they don’t need extra things to deal with.

  • Emily

    I see your point and agree that you do want to give people what they need, however it is also important to remember that a lot of the people you are helping can’t ever afford luxuries like birthday cakes for their children or teddy bears for comfort, so it’s nice to give those things too. Things that would never be considered “necessary” are some of the best gifts.

  • disqus_FzUg9mUORE

    I though this was a fantastic article and an important point to remember when giving. Every week at church I see the collection basket piled with mac and cheese and rice a roni. Man cannot live on noodles and processed cheese alone. If we really want to help we have to remember that we don’t always know best and be open to the ideas of those who do.

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