Since the publication of my article “Volunteering in Trenton,” I’ve found a young man, recently home from the army, who needs financial help. He’d like to become an EMT and then go on to college to become a social worker. He was on the way to his goal— had gotten a job near a bus route, saved money, bought a used car, and then found a better-paying job to which he drove fellow workers. But the car broke down one morning on the way to work. He called at 7:15, but my husband and I, cozy in bed, suggested they take a taxi. We weren’t getting up to drive to Hamilton and rescue them. It turned out that he and his fellow workers were fired for failing to show up at work. Without savings to fix the car, he fell into depression, rarely leaving his bedroom in his mother’s house in Trenton. Six weeks later I learned the whole story.
I could have suggested that he buck up, borrow bus fare, and start all over again. But since I’d just told my readers that the “effective help” Trentonians need is money, or at least a ride, I’d have felt like a hypocrite. Besides, depression is a disease. Instead, I suggested to my husband that we get the car fixed and pay the tuition for the EMT course so he could start immediately. He’d be responsible for finding a job that fit with his class schedule, maintaining the car, and getting his financial house in order for the future.
My husband surprised me. He balked. “We don’t have the money.”
“How much do we give to charity?”
“Couldn’t we make him our charity for 2016?”
“Yes, but how do we know he won’t waste it?”
“How do we know for sure that the charities we give to don’t waste it?”
“OK, but what if he doesn’t finish the EMT course, and we lose our investment?”
“I think we can trust him. We’ve known him since he was a little kid.”
“Don’t you remember the Land Rover?”
Ah yes, the Land Rover! Almost twenty years ago, we supported one of my Trenton High students through college and then added his wife and her tuition, a car, and, eventually, their child. Of course, maintaining such a household wasn’t cheap, but it was an excellent investment. They earned degrees, got good jobs, and finally were on their own. Then the first car they bought was a new Land Rover. We were dismayed. Why something so ostentatious? Hadn’t we taught them not to waste money?
But it went deeper. I was reminded of the stereotype of black people and cars and felt a chill. Suddenly the young man who called me “Mom” was not like me: he didn’t share my values. For my husband it was a slap in the face. The person he’d been supporting at my request now drove a more expensive car than he’d ever owned. Given all the money he’d shelled out, the Land Rover should have and could have been his—if he’d wanted one. That Land Rover—synonymous with being taken advantage of.
Now, in our conversation about helping this second young, black man with his car and EMT tuition, my husband uses words like “hand out” and “soft touch.” But is it a hand out or a hand up? Can we just leave someone to drown in depression, perhaps become suicidal? After all, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is physically impossible. You’d give him food—the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is one of our charities. But isn’t it better to teach him to fish? And won’t having a car to get him to class for EMT training be like teaching him to fish?
What about returning to the army? Sure, they’d look after him, but is that his choice? Isn’t the problem that poor people have so little choice? Wasn’t the army his only option when he graduated from Trenton High? How depressing to be back at square one!
What about getting a bang for our charity buck? We just saw a segment on the PBS Newshour comparing the cost effectiveness of vaccinating dozens of children versus delivering one baby in Nepal by C-section. Yes, but didn’t at least one doctor defend everyone’s right to health care? How can anyone say “No” face to face?
I, too, hate to feel used, but we had no contract that said, “You can’t buy a Land Rover with your own money.” Isn’t any investment, whether in people or the stock market, a risk? Is a gift with strings a gift? Is giving about the giver or the recipient?
The young man has told me that he will disappoint himself, as well as us, if he doesn’t complete the EMT course. I want to trust him. I do trust him. And finally, my husband trusts me. We’ll see.