Beginning with the Fire of Memories

Like living bones, much of what could be examined here will remain invisible. But the fire of some memories will be extinguished in these posts. These memories spring from charity, not philanthropy. 

Charity is up-close and personal; it seeks to meet the needs of others by first trying to understand their suffering. Philanthropy is the big-picture cousin of charity, the difference between Andrew Carnegie and Mother Teresa. 

My journey began by combining direct service with fundraising while working directly with the founders of Covenant House and then AmeriCares during the early years of each of these organizations. 

Returning quickly from a crisis to a donor’s home or a CEO’s office made for unscripted, insistent fundraising.  

We didn't even call it fundraising; it was as straightforward as our cause (the faces of people we just left) needing money and unabashedly going after it. 

Only by risking going too far did we ever discover how far we could go to bring help and hope. If your cause is "small," you know the feeling.

We pushed hard and went far. No one ever thought to take credit, to keep score. Meeting the budget was everyone's responsibility. It was all for one, one for all -- and all for the benefit of the people we were trying to help.

Here are a few among many memories through the years that still haunt. If I am a bit too forceful in my commentary here and in comment streams elsewhere such as Nonprofit Quarterly, it's because the work we do is personal and the stakes are often very high.  

I was in Times Square in 1981, where Covenant House initially cared for homeless youth during the days when pimps and drug dealers ruled those streets. Then it was a few years later in the Khyber Pass, that oldest of mountain passes connecting Afghanistan, Pakistan and India that through the ages saw so much bloodshed, eventually by the Russians, which is when AmeriCares delivered doctors and humanitarian supplies to Afghan refugees. Then it was off to Sudan to bring relief to the displaced victims of the 1985 Ethiopian famine -- and then on to many more wars, famines and natural and man-made disasters.

Stories speed understanding and these stories for me are as fiercely remembered as a tattooist's needle and as hued as the inks that stain the body. It's the chance encounter and silent exchange that brings forth the full tide and fever of memory.

I was new and earnest as I watched Times Square waking up for another Saturday. I was looking for a kid in trouble. There to encourage homeless youngsters to leave the streets, the 16-year-old Pascale I was looking for instead chose to help me. He left Covenant House after only one night of shelter. When I found him, he generously stepped over an invisible threshold where his troubles, though they were many and had not gone away, stopped and waited.  "I am not going back. This block is my home. But look, man, you need to watch yourself and everyone else. You're in another world here. Don't stare. Be cool," Pascale said. "Look up and ahead, never down. Keep your hands out of your pockets." People with quick eyes and dark clothes passed us. We stood there, apart and together. "Three star, three star," a man said hawking cocaine. "Methadone 60, 80," said another, advertising synthetic heroin. A man in a doorway as dark as a crypt with his hair in dreadlocks silently held out two hypodermic needles in a wrapper. Hell flew at me in that minute, a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. Grief affirms those we lost. The many people I could not help through those years stand like trees in my memory, scared and burnt. 

Startled, I stopped and stared. The Afghan girl in the field hospital whose right leg was an infected stump stared back at me (the Russians disguised bombs as toys). Hers was not a look of pleading or of even being in pain, but rather of her just saying to me, "There is nothing either one of us can do." I was enclosed in my own voice calling out in that silent moment. She covered me with her light. 

The Ethiopian mother stood with her infant daughter as light as a whisper in her arms who would be dead within hours, if not minutes. I was walking through her refugee camp in Sudan after consigning a planeload of medical supplies to the NGOs at work there. Our eyes met. She was slight as a watercolor, a mere gesture of features. Hers was not a look of blame or anger; but rather of her saying to me, "This is my daughter, I love her infinitely more than myself, but neither one of us can save her."  We sometimes see as if from a great distance and out of time.

There was the Croatian War of Independence. While delivering a planeload of humanitarian supplies to Zagreb in May 1995, sirens sounding an artillery attack compelled my driver to have us duck into the basement of a random apartment house. There we all were, sitting and standing there, young and old, looking at each other wordlessly by candlelight. There is a light that includes darkness. 

These and so many charities and fundraising campaigns later, I bring those and many other faces with me to the work, to Charity Spring. These are the faces I see when I am tempted to advertise myself to you as anything other than a co-equal in our journey together to help who, where and whenever we can.