Saturday, February 27, 2010

Help Alleviate Hunger with One Click

About ten years ago, when I was working at NASA, a colleague brought The Hunger Site to my attention. "All you have to do is go there and click, and food will be donated to hungry people," she said.

Now that seemed unrealistic. I was certain that she had misunderstood. However, the name of the site was easy to remember: The Hunger Site. So, I typed in to see what was really the situation, and, sure enough, my colleague was correct! The site is free. All you have to do is take the time to go and clock. (Of course, if you would like to buy something from one or more of the sponsors, then even more food is given to the hungry people of the world, but purchases are not necessary.)

Today, a decade later, the site is still running. To the hunger program have been added additional ones: donations for breast cancer, rain forest, literacy, child health, and animal rescue. All of these donations only require a click!

I try to go there every day. Obviously, I have not remembered -- or found the time -- to go every day for ten years, but I have, indeed, gone often enough to know that much food has been donated as a result of very little effort by me. I encourage all who have wandered onto this page to check out The Hunger Site. Clicking is fast and easy. As the Nike ad says: Just do it!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In a Moscow Tunnel

I related this story some time ago on my main blog, Blest Atheist, but since it has become buried over time and at the same time is pertinent to the H2 Helper theme, I decided to re-relate it here.

The story took place in Moscow, Russia not long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I was providing consultation to the Ministry of Higher Education, and every day during the three weeks or so I spent there I had to pass through the tunnel connecting transfer stations on the metro line I was traveling. In that tunnel, I would pass by a squatting woman, dressed all in black, with her hand held out and her head hung down. Beside her, a little girl of perhaps 3-4 years, was sometimes leaning against her knee, sometimes squatting in a similar posture with her hand also held out, and sometimes twirling around, dancing from tile to tile that lined the metro floor. Mother and daughter, I assumed. Passersby (more frequently than I usually see happening in the USA) would drop some coins or press some paper money into the woman's hand. I never saw anyone speak.

This scene was more remarkable because it was occurring right after raspad (the dissolution of the former Soviet Union); during Soviet Union days beggars were unheard of and, for that matter, not permitted. Panhandlers and beggars were a new-order phenomenon, one with which contemporary Russia would become all too familiar. What put this woman on the streets, I wondered? I, too, was unused to seeing beggars in Russia and certainly not a mother and child.

Although I never handed out any alms to her and cannot say why I did not, I felt uncomfortable each morning and evening that I passed her. The last day I was in Moscow, I was making my final trip back to where I was staying with friends and realized that I had forgotten to change my leftover per diem rubles to dollars. My friends would not be able to do that for me; they did not have dollars -- it was still too early in post-Soviet history for dollars to have appeared in the households of everyday people and too early for the appearance of those exchanges that now appear on every street corner in large cities like Moscow. Further, I was leaving at pre-dawn hours, long before the airport exchange would open, and once I got back to the USA, the money was useless. Rubles are not tied to the gold standard and hence cannot be converted into other currency outside Russia. Moreover, I had more than the amount that visitors were allowed to take out of the country so the money would have been confiscated by Russian customs with the chance of getting in trouble.

Just then, I came across the lady and girl. It was before the great evening hordes would sweep through the tunnels and carry anyone standing still past their preferred stopping points, and so I had a chance to meet these two. I squatted beside the lady and asked her why she was on the street. She told me a little of her story, much of which I have forgotten. It rang true: an abusive alcoholic husband without a job (being on the street was safer than being at home and certainly she did not want to leave her child at home with him when he was drunk) and the vicious cycle of not having money to obtain care for her child (child care had not been a problem in the Soviet days of ever-present yasli, or children's centers) and having a child with her getting in the way of getting a job, plus a depressed and changing economy where many of the traditional jobs were no longer viable. And, of course, there was that problem with lack of knowledge (how to survive in a more capitalistic manner, how to be independent, how to problem-solve) that comes with mother's milk in the USA and had not been required before the raspad in Russia.

In an instant, this mother became for me an archetype. Anyone could have been she, given a similar unfortunate set of circumstances. In fact, there were times that, except for God tossing me some contemporary manna in the most critical moment (only God knows why because while I desperately needed it, I did not particularly deserve it), I could have been she. Talking to her, I realized that I knew how to handle my per diem money. While I could have used those dollars at home for any number of things, they were, in reality, "spare" rubles that I should have spent for per diem but had not needed because friends had seen to it that I was well fed and had a bed to sleep in (although I did share it with the daughter in the family, Russian apartments being miniscule by American standards). I explained my dilemma in converting rubles to dollars to the lady and asked her if she would take them for her child. Giving her that many rubles straight out could have been quite embarrassing even for a panhandler, but for her child, nothing would have been embarrassing. The amount of money would either keep her off the streets for a couple of months or provide her with the means to look for work; I hoped she would choose the latter but have no way of knowing how things turned out. The thought that she would not simply be benefitting herself but would also be helping out a foreigner (whom Russians feel committed to help) let her maintain a sense of self-respect. I suppose the self-respect of a panhandler should not have been important to me, and actually the self-respect of a stranger would not have been. However, thanks to our short conversation, I had now met this woman. She was no longer a stranger. She mumbled something about God bringing us together for mutual help, but at the time I was an atheist and did not understand what she meant. I do now.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tanya's Bombzh

The word in Russian for a homeless person is bombzh. It is an acronym that has come so forcefully into daily language since the raspad (dissolution of the Soviet Union), before which one would never find a homeless person on the streets of any Soviet city, that I cannot remember what the words are that make up the acronym. B likely stands for bezdomnyi (homeless), but the rest of it has simply faded too far from my mind to be recalled.

Years ago, a friend of mine, Tanya, an immigrant to the United States from Moscow (who has since returned to Russia) was living alone in a small apartment in Arlington, Virginia. Each day on her way to work, she passed the Rosslyn metro station. Outside the metro, several homeless men would panhandle passersby. Like me in an earlier period, she began talking to one of them. Each day she would give him a few coins -- she did not have much money herself, being an immigrant, working at a low-paying job. Each day he would share a few words with her. This went on for days, then weeks, then a couple of months.

November arrived and along with it Thanksgiving. This would be Tanya's first Thanksgiving in the USA. She spoke to colleagues and work, watched television, and read. All about Thanksgiving. She wanted to join in the celebration and experience a day of gratitude. She would be alone, however, and while she had celebrated Halloween and before that Labor Day and before that the Fourth of July alone, she wondered how she could best experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that was generally celebrated with family.

It was then that she realized that she did have family. Her "family" was living on the streets of Arlington. It was "my bombzh," as she called him. (I knew him by no other name.) So, the day before Thanksgiving, she walked over to the metro station, which was only a couple of blocks from her house. Sure enough, her bombzh was there. "I am all alone and would like to celebrate Thanksgiving with family," she told him. "Would you be my family?"

He readily agreed. They had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal together. Most of the food was not traditional American Thanksgiving fare, except perhaps the turkey. However, Tanya was a talented Russian cook, and everything she prepares is very tasty. The bombzh had quite a good meal.

And therein started a tradition. First Christmas, then New Year's Day, for every holiday, Tanya invited her bonmbzh to her apartment to celebrate. Over time, he seemed very much like family to her. As for herself, Tanya never had to celebrate a holiday alone again.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

God's Credit Card

note: image copyright Katrin Wegmann (

This is not exactly a new post. I posted it originally on Blest Atheist (some months back, before I had started he H2 Helper). Now it seems that it fits best here. So, here goes.

I imagine the title of this particular posting sounds a bit odd, but perhaps a little explanation will make it seem more reasonable. Several months ago, I blogged about a nagging little concern that I had in the case of people asking for handouts in a post called, "The Art of Panhandling and the Act of Giving." My concern at that time was the thought of giving to people who did not really need the money or to people who were going to use it to make their condition worse (e.g., buying alcohol with it). Over time, both from bloggers' comments to that post and my subsequent reading and discussion with others, I have come to the conclusion that true giving is separated from dictating what a person does with the gift. So, that dilemma for me has been resolved.

There arose another dilemma, though. I do not carry money with me very often because I have so often been mugged and I do not need to because we are a plastic society, pretty much worldwide these days. So, when a panhandler or a person clearly in need has crossed my path, I have often not been able to help (although I would have otherwise been in a position to help). And so, I would ask God to give me another chance to help -- and I would blow it again because once again I would have only plastic with me. And then I would ask for another chance and blow that one and on and on.

On one of those occasions when I was apologizing for losing yet another opportunity to help one of God's people in need and "explaining" (obviously, a superfluous act) that given my plastic-only habit, I am not in much of a position to help anyone, into my head popped the concept that God can use plastic, too. And so I got God a credit card.

It was one of those card offers for a small credit line: $500. One can, with time, increase it as the bank and the customer build a relationship, but $500 seems to be quite an appropriate limit. I never end up putting that much on the card, and with that limit I cannot possibly get in over my head, at least not for long. Not that this could possibly be a worry because God always provides for me in such cases. So, God and I have this deal now. I reserve this card for His purposes. When He puts someone in need in my path, I pay with His card. (Of course, I can use my other cards, too, but they are usually maxed out, so having a card exclusively for God's purposes is very helpful.)

Here are a couple of recent examples of how God has used His card:

(1) I met a man in the parking lot of our local grocery store. He was on his way from Ohio to southern California to move in with his daughter, his luck having run out in Ohio. He was traveling by motorcycle, which requires less gas, and he had enough gas to make it to where he was going, but he had run out of food money the day before and was hungry. He asked for a couple of dollars for a doughnut and coffee. He thought that would carry him through the remaining six hours of his trip. I told him I had no cash but I did have a "special" credit card and if he would pick out what he wanted, not limited to a doughnut and coffee, for lunch and for the road, I would pay for it. So, he did, very judiciously. At the same time, I picked up some strawberries for dessert for dinner for Donnie and me. They were on sale: buy one, get one free. (This kind of surprising sale, just at the right moment, happens so regularly now that I would be surprised if it did not happen.) So, I gave the free strawberries to the hungry man; obviously, the sale was intended for him. As for paying off the credit card bill, the amount was so minor that it was no problem at all; I was able to include it in our food budget for the month without crimping our style, simple as our style tends to be.

(2) A couple of nights ago, about the time that the town was rolling up its sidewalks, I dashed to the grocery store to pick up some supper, our food supplies having become somewhat depleted while I was traveling. There, a young couple came up to me, the girl crying, saying that they were completely out of gas, no one would help them out, and that they were only two hours away from their destination. They looked younger than my kids, and it turns out that they were only 19, traveling across country for the first time to see some childhood friends. They begged for just one gallon of gas, enough to get to a town with more people where they might be able to get more aggregate help. I told them that I had no cash and explained about my special credit card. Asking them to follow me to our only gas station, I used the credit card to fill up their tank. They were ever so grateful -- and extremely relieved. The cost? $36. The next day, one of our church members saw me at daily mass (only when I am in town and can get off work, I go, so it is not all that often, unfortunately). This church member told me that she really needed two copies of my book immediately. (I keep 8-10 books on hand at all times, just in case, and I get them at author's discount.) Once she had paid me for the books and I had ordered the replacements at author's discount, my "profit" was exactly $36, just enough to pay the credit card bill.

So, I ask you: Is there any doubt that God is using "His" credit card?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Simple Things

Chris at Enchanted Oak is raising money for Haiti through blogging. For each person who participates with a list, a poem, or a prose piece about the joy of simple things, her family will donate $2.00 to Heartline Ministries for their medical clinic and other programs in Haiti. The Heartline Ministries blog by John McHoul will tell you more about what they are doing.

Here are the rules:
Post your piece this weekend and include a link to her blog. Then pop in there to say you’ve posted your “Simple Things.” Post by midnight, Pacific time, Sunday, and don’t forget to link with her blog and notify her that you’ve posted. She will allow you to borrow the “Simple Things” photo. If you don’t have a blog, a comment on her blog will count too if you tell her so.

And here is my list of simple things:

1. A whispy breeze on a hot day.
2. A ray of sunshine on a cold day.
3. The smile of a stranger on a sad day.
4. The affectionate face lick of a cat (or dog).
5. A heartfelt hug from just about anyone.
6. Watching someone you have taught achieve an understanding of something new.
7. A sense of God's love.
8. Sharing a meal with someone hungry.
9. Family (under any circumstances).
10. Shared prayer.

Now, please go share yours!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Save a Fish, Save a Person

From Footsteps, the monthly publication of the Juniperro Serra chapter of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO), with thanks to the editor and the Garcias for permission to re-publish:

Save a fish; save a person. That’s what Herman Garcia, founder and President of the nonprofit organization, Coastal Habitat Education & Environmental Restoration (CHEER) in Gilroy, California is doing. Herman, brother of our own Benny Garcia, is a local businessman in Gilroy and an avid outdoorsman. He saw a need to save the steelhead trout in the 1300 square mile Pajaro River Watershed, an area encompassing Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, so set about to do something. In 1997, Coastal California Steelhead were listed as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Because their freshwater habitat is disappearing, the steelhead population in Central California has fallen dramatically. Their numbers are an indicator of the overall health of the watershed, the quality of the water we consume, and the environmental health of Monterey Bay.

But this story is more than about saving fish and preserving the watershed; it’s also about saving people. As part of CHEER’s work, volunteers rescue steelhead from May through October. The remainder of the year they work to restore the streams and creeks where the fish spawn. This restoration includes a large amount of trash removal. Much of this trash, CHEER discovered, was left by a large population of homeless individuals who camp in the watershed.

Instead of looking for ways to eliminate the homeless camps along the creeks and streams, CHEER found a better solution—they engaged and empowered the homeless to be a solution to the problem instead of a cause. Herman believes that the homeless situation in the watershed is a social, political, environmental and public safety issue. Such a multi-dimensional problem requires out-of-the box thinking. So, three to four times a year, Herman and his CHEER volunteers trek into the backcountry of the watershed with food and provisions for the homeless. They provide each homeless volunteer with a hot meal and two weeks of food. In addition each person receives a pair of work gloves, long handled grippers for picking up trash, a supply of garbage bags, and a dose of education about how to care for and restore the habitat. The homeless volunteers later meet with Herman at a designated pickup area where they turn in the full garbage bags in exchange for another two weeks of food provisions. The number of homeless volunteers has grown from 12 to over 70 in just the past six months, taxing the resources of this infant organization to provide the food needed for their mission. Currently all food is purchased with money donated by CHEER volunteers.

CHEER is in need of what Herman calls “car food.” That is food that requires neither refrigeration nor heating. He suggests canned foods such as meats, fruits and beans with pop tops only; peanut butter and jelly; crackers and tortillas. In addition, the homeless have a great need for blankets, sleeping bags and jackets. CHEER will also gladly accept monetary donations to purchase food. CHEER is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit so all donations are tax deductible. Donations may be earmarked for the homeless project.

PO Box 1735
Gilroy, CA 95020

Dorothy Day once said, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” Herman Garcia has started a revolution of the heart in the backcountry of the Pajaro River Watershed. Our father Francis would be pleased.