Many of you know that I have spent most of my adult years working in some sort of charitable endeavor, first with United Way organizations in several communities and for the last 16 years at the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia.
If I could use one word to reflect on these experiences, it would be grateful; grateful that sometimes I get paid to do things that others do as volunteers and grateful that my work and investment often has a direct benefit to the world in which we live.
A couple of weeks ago I had an experience that both reinforced my gratitude and strengthened my hope that the charitable and giving spirit upon which I have based my professional career is still alive and well.
The event, which was coordinated by the United Way of Northwest Georgia and hosted by Georgia Northwestern Technical College, was billed as a "Career Exploration Experience" for fifth-graders from the Dalton Public Schools. I believe this is the third year that this program has been presented, but the first at Georgia Northwestern.
The goal was to introduce the young learners to some real world examples of job and career opportunities.
Now, I will have to admit that the first year I participated, I absolutely bombed! Keep in mind, most of my work involves convincing adults, sometime cantankerous ones, that we should identify issues and needs and then raise money, recruit volunteers and get to work. It’s not always easy or successful, but it almost always involves grown-ups. Over the years, I have become pretty comfortable in this space and enjoy the challenges of getting people and organizations to work together.
Fifth-graders, on the other hand, are a much more challenging and difficult audience.
After my first experience, I knew I had to improve my game, or none of the fifth-graders I was speaking to would listen to me, let alone remember anything about my presentation.
I was pleased to be asked back again, but I knew that I would have to figure a better way of engaging these kids. I spoke to teachers, read articles about teaching kids of this age and I felt pretty sure I would fare better than the previous year.
Instead of a dry lecture, full of words and messages that failed to engage my audience, I asked each one of them to become a philanthropist.
I introduced the idea of charitable giving by asking those in attendance if they had ever met anyone who was hungry, homeless or had a physical disability. Most raised their hands, even more understood that there were people out there that sometimes needed our help. I prepared three buckets, one for each of the aforementioned issues. I gave each child a quarter, telling them that the quarter was theirs to keep.
I also had a couple of children join me at the front of the classroom and ask their classmates for support — again, reminding them that they now had the capacity to give, but it was still their choice.
We passed the proverbial hat and the room erupted with the sound of change being thrown into the buckets. One child asked for additional quarters so she could give some to each cause. Many struggled with choosing which of the three choices needed their support the most.
I expected most to give to one of the three categories and I was not disappointed. Nearly every child donated the money I had given them. I set the buckets aside without really looking too closely at whether one “cause” received greater support than the others. I was just proud that the overwhelming majority of these kids donated.
It was a neat exercise and after it was over, we talked for a minute or two about giving and how it made them feel and what it may mean to the people they were helping. All in all, I was proud that I had found a way to communicate, but prouder that these fifth-graders seemed to understand the basic concepts of philanthropy and charitable giving.
Before we adjourned, I noticed a dollar bill in the bucket labeled hunger. Now remember, I gave each child a quarter. I paused as my brain processed what I was seeing. During our brief and frenetic exercise, one child had taken his own lunch money and “donated” it to help others. The sight of that crumpled dollar in the bottom of the bucket reminded me that even at their young age, many kids can understand the concepts of need, generosity and giving. It was a sobering and emotional discovery.
The fact that one child was willing to make this offering, knowing that he may have to skip lunch that day, was a gracious revelation. It reminded me of the story of the Little Drummer Boy, a folktale in which the protagonist has nothing to give the newly born Christ child but his ability to play the drum.
We all have something to give.
On this day, it was reassuring to be reminded that the spirit of giving is, indeed, alive and well, and our willingness to share still stands at the very heart of our humanity.
I am grateful to the United Way for giving me this chance to give and to reaffirm my belief in the spirit of charitable giving. I am proud of each of these young givers, as they understand the meaning of helping one another.
Further, I hope that this holiday season is full of many such quiet and simple acts of charity, as I believe they are a reflection of our highest angels.
... and a little child shall lead them all.
David Aft is president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia.