Monday, June 25, 2007

Deprivation ain't all bad

I had a long conversation with my mom the other day about her childhood. She grew up in rural Croatia in the 50s and 60s, in a small village by the Adriatic sea. I love talking with her about it because it's like something out of a book, complete with drawing water from a well, cooking on a wood burning stovetop, milking goats, and walking to school on a single pair of shoes. My mother and her family didn't starve, but they didn't quite have enough, either. She went to school, her father had work and she lived in a solidly built house. They even had meat, though not a great deal of it. But they were poor, especially in comparison to my typical American lifestyle.

What struck me most in talking with her was how little she really needed. Of course she could have had more, and wanted more. She would have loved six Barbie dolls to play with and a trunk full of clothes to dress them in. I'm sure her brother would have treasured a remote-controlled car that made vrooming noises and popped a wheelie if you spun the joystick backwards. But she never remembers being bored as a child. She played with the other children in the village, explored the mountains, waded in the sea and helped out around the house and in the fields.

Treats for my mom included sharing a soft boiled egg with her mother and brother. An orange in winter. Fresh blood sausages cooked over hot coals when they slaughtered the Christmas pig. Fresh fish if someone caught some.

You'd expect that she would look back on this life from the perspective of her current comfortable existence and cringe. "Thank the Lord I got out of there!" or something similar. She feels nothing of the kind. Obviously, now that she's able to, she buys meat several times a week and cooks varied, healthy meals for her family. She buys new clothes when she wants them and goes out to eat with her friends. But she doesn't consider herself damaged from having to "endure" her childhood. Her general feeling seemed to be that life was what it was. There were hardships and everything required work. Sometimes she was cold. Sometimes she was hot. Sometimes she was hungry.

Well, that's life.

What an alien way to look at things! What a beautiful perspective. Life does not owe me constant comfort and the immediate satisfaction of every desire. That's not life. Life is taking happiness from small moments and cherishing the good times when they come, holding your head up in the bad times, and thanking God for it all. It's no surprise that the more society attempts to pursue pleasure, comfort and excess, the less satisfied we are with what we have.

I contrast my mom's childhood with my life right now, and I am struck by how little I have to complain about. Laundry, for me, is a ten minute process. We have access to fresh vegetables every day of the year. The dishwasher washes my dinner plates for me. I sleep in a really comfortable bed (pillow topped mattress and all.) My children have their own rooms and many stimulating toys and books.

Yet do you know what's consuming my mind right now? The fact that we don't have air conditioning. Our home is sound, roomy and comfortable with windows on every side and soft carpeting underfoot. We have a view of the mountains. Yet there's no A/C, and it's 97 degrees today.

I could use a bit of my mom's attitude right now. After all, I'm fine. I'm not exactly comfortable, but upstairs the windows are open and the fans are on, so I'm pretty sure I'll be able to sleep tonight. We have plenty of water, so I don't need to worry about dehydration. There's plenty of shade, ice in the freezer, and very little humidity. Things could be much, much worse.

It's okay sometimes for life to be a little bit hard. I feel a kinship with my mother now, and with the millions of people throughout the world who are hot in summer and cold in winter. It's a little thing, and perhaps a silly one, but it turns my mind from myself. I think that's reason enough to suffer a little bit right there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Jennifer F. brought up a great point that I've been meaning to post about for a while :

...what is the best source for finding out which charitable organizations are reputable? How did you know, for example, that actually does what they say they do?

This is really important. If we're dedicating ourselves to improving the lot of the poor around the world, then accountability is essential. I want to give to a reputable organization whose purposes are in line with mine. And I want it run by someone innovative and intelligent who listens to the poor and works WITH them to give them what they need. I want to support an organization with a superb track-record and a history of success, as well as one whose finances are cross checked by certifying agencies.

In short, I want my contribution to really do something, not just ease my conscience by assuring me that "At least I tried."

The best way to help the poor, of course, is to give of ourselves by volunteering. Soup kitchens, Goodwill, Meals on Wheels, visiting the sick or elderly or imprisoned...there are countless ways to serve the poor in every neighborhood. has a volunteer page where you can enter your zip and find a list of volunteer opportunities right in your area. No need for accountability here; we know because we perform the acts ourselves.

But the poor aren't just in our own communities. Take the Poor with You really entails thinking about the global community, and many of our decisions have an impact that goes far beyond our immediate area, or even beyond the borders of our nation. Reading the stickers and tags on the goods I bring into my house reveals a diversity of geographical locations. Coffee from Kenya. Cotton from Egypt. Tea from India. Copper from Chile. Plastics from China. If my lifestyle and choices are impacting people all over the world, then I should help people all over the world, too.

And those in other countries are often deprived not only of the material goods we enjoy, but the philosophical blessings we take for granted: freedom, rule of law, education, the possibility of employment, the right to life, the right to worship, etc. I can't help them by myself; it takes a network of trained professionals just to reach the poor, let alone help them.

The good news is that there are many groups serving the world's poorest populations. The US alone has 1.3 million charitable organizations! Going back to Jen's question now: how can we know which ones are reputable? We've all read about organizations that diverted funds earmarked for a disaster to other programs, or worse, charities that turned out to be frauds. Responsible stewardship necessitates being careful about spending, even when we're not spending it on ourselves.

One place to start is with one of the many watchdog groups that rate charities and provide that information to the public. It's important to keep in mind, as this article states, that every watchdog group has its own criteria, and it may or may not be in line with your own. Moreover, the rules governing what a charity must disclose and how it must categorize it aren't hard and fast (with good reason: there are so many different charities and various ways of operating that it's nearly impossible to come up with a black and white set of rules that can apply to everyone.) So ratings change from year to year and watchdog to watchdog. Some of this confusion can be ameliorated by knowing what's most important to you in your charity: is it the source of income? Efficiency in response? Low percentage of administrative costs? Program effectiveness? etc etc.

One of the best watchdog/ratings sites is the American Institute of Philanthropy, which has a "Top Rated" list of organizations broken down into easily searchable categories. Charities must achieve a B+ or better on AIP's criteria to qualify for the list. Their full compilation of charities and ratings is only in print form, but for those of us who are inclined to buy one, a sample copy is only $3.

My favorite site is the American Council for Voluntary International Action (InterAction for short.) I worked there after college and learned to highly respect its efforts and ethics. InterAction aims to coordinate the efforts of US-based non-governmental organizations and advocate for an increase in global humanitarian aid. It ensures minimum standards for every one of their 160 members, many of whom are at the forefront of the humanitarian community. It's my quick-check: if an organization is a member of Interaction, it's legit, responsible and progressive.

InterAction is limited to organizations that focus on global humanitarian aid, but Charity Navigator lists and rates organizations of all kinds. You can search by category, name or rating, and save your favorites in My Charities. Their articles are worth perusing, and I found an interesting study that assessed giving trends by US city. Denver isn't doing so well!

If you prefer to do your own research, start at the Independent Sector, which has complied a list of standards so you can browse through and see exactly what sort of guidelines an organization (such as Catholic Charities) operates under. This site is especially helpful for those of us who care about the specifics of an organization's operations. As a Catholic, it's very important to me that the charity I assist does not act against the moral principles of my faith. In addition, IS's list of publications contains fascinating studies on giving and volunteering as well as recommendations for how charities can serve as more responsible stewards of the public's generosity.

Finally, has detailed financial, administrative and program information on every charitable organization that operates in the US. If you want to see the exact breakdown of a charity's income and expenses, this is the site. It's also enables you to rate charities on your own criteria, giving you access to much of the same information that the watchdog groups use.

Take heart! Despite the bad apples, many charities are responsible and do excellent work. With a little research and a discerning eye, we can feel confident that our money is being well spent.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


This has been a difficult entry for me to write. I'm having trouble sorting out my personal hang-ups on this issue from the way God is using my conscience to guide me. But a bigger part is that I really don't know how you can possibly be responsible to the poor while buying a new car.

I hate cars, in general. They're money suckers that start to hemorrhage value the minute you drive them off the lot. Even the most reliable car still costs money every time you drive it, and between gas, insurance, repairs and parking fees, the entire proposition of car ownership requires a nearly constant payout. Beyond the dollar aspect, I have a natural disdain for things other people look at as status symbols. I'm blessed in this respect. Of all the crosses I bear and vices I struggle with, I'm lucky that at least I don't have to fight a desire to own several sporty, luxury cars and wheel them around town to impress people.

So it's understandable that when my husband first broached the subject of buying a new car, I was less than enthused. Moreover, we already HAD two cars -- a '98 Toyota Camry and an '02 Toyota Solara. I was driving the Camry very happily to the grocery store and my parents' house and the mall and church and school, etc. My two kids easily fit in the back. In fact, my whole family easily fit in the car, as did a week's worth of groceries and a stroller. But my husband couldn't adjust the driver's seat comfortably and still fit my daughter's backward-facing car seat behind him.

This, my friends, is where the breakdown occurred, and where my petty will prevented me from finding a way to make good come out of a bad situation. I didn't want a new car. I wanted to make do with the ones we had, or perhaps to keep the Camry and buy a used hybrid for my husband to drive to and from work. My husband was firmly for buying a bigger car that would give us the flexibility to take longer trips, especially since we now lived an hour away from our nearest relatives and would likely be taking weekend or longer trips in the car.

In a perfect world (and a perfect marriage) we would have discussed the options and come to a mutual conclusion that satisfied all our interests. Instead, I had a few reluctant conversations where I whined about not wanting a new car and my husband insisted that we needed one. In a perfect world, I would have researched and prayed until I found a car that met all my needs and satisfied my husband as well. Instead I crossed my arms and adopted a "Then let it be upon your head!" sort of attitude.

So I didn't get involved with researching and weighing our options. I didn't even speak a single word about it to God, not even to ask that He guide our decision. It's a classic example of my passive-aggressive tendencies. If I didn't get involved, then I could pretend that I didn't really buy a car, even though I was driving it every day. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me, either, but there it is. This is, unfortunately, one of the crosses I bear: the tendency to procrastinate on things I don't want to do.

Had I been doing my research, I would have discovered the following:

1. Cars are useful things that can HELP you take the poor with you. One with ample trunk space enables you to shop garage sales for things like furniture and bicycles so you can buy used instead of wasting money and resources on new household items. One big enough to fit your whole family enables you to drive to Michigan to visit grandparents instead of flying there.

2. Unless you live in a major metropolitan area with excellent public transportation, you need a car. If you have more than two kids under the age of 12, in order to comply with car seat safety laws, you need a big car. On the scale of need to frivolous purchase, a car is firmly on the need side. What KIND of car you get can tip it over into frivolous, so the selection is what matters most.

3. It's not all about price. It's not all about fuel economy either. Obviously, price and size are going to the the primary factors that govern your decision, with fuel economy running close behind. Beyond the basics, there are host of other considerations: emissions, manufacturer's ethics, company philosophy and practices, recyclability of materials, reliability, longevity etc. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a comparison site that lists all makes and models and gives their emissions rating and fuel economy. Keep in mind that there's more to an environmentally sound car than fuel efficiency. If you're interested in taking the poor with you, pay close attention to where and how the car is manufactured, especially considering the poor tend to live and work within breathing distance of factories or in countries that provide many of the raw materials used to make cars.

4. Dealerships will finance a used vehicle, usually one that has been returned at the end of a lease rather than optioned. The manufacturer's website should have a link to "certified used cars" which allows you to search for used vehicles in the make and year you're interested in online. In general, the same financing options that apply for a new car will apply to a used car, allowing you the flexibility to buy a used car without putting tens of thousands of dollars down. If you prefer to lease, there are companies that provide this service for used cars, too. While used is almost always better than new, be sure you find out the fuel economy of the newest model to see whether it has substantially improved and check recalls and safety improvements.

5. The web is a great tool. There are tons of sites where consumers rate the reliability of their cars (used and new!), so you can determine which make will likely last the longest as well as see specific information on the cars you're considering (repair estimates, recalls, problems, etc.) Cars ought to last a long time, long enough to see that toddler you're strapping into a car seat off to college if they're maintained properly and parts replaced when necessary. Google "car comparisons" or "consumer reviews auto" and get comfortable.

6. Keep an open mind. I went into the process DEAD SET AGAINST an SUV. I thought they were the heaviest, most expensive cars on the market. Not so. I thought they were all gas guzzlers with the worst fuel economies on the road. Nope. I thought they all drove like buses and were unsafe, prone to rollovers and catching on fire. Not all.

The outcome of our car search? As you can guess from all the links, we ended up with a 2007 Honda CR-V. It's a great car -- inexpensive, reliable, comfortable, roomy, sensible and everyone who owns one loves it. Including me. Despite my hatred for cars, I can't deny that it drives like a dream, gets great fuel economy for its size (25.7 mpg on the last tank) and (though this probably won't appeal to everyone) has a shelf in the trunk that's perfect for changing a baby's diaper when you're out and about. No need to lug that diaper bag into the store with you! Change in the parking lot before you enter. It's fantastic, though I think the fun will end abruptly come winter.

I've thought about an appropriate gift to the poor as a gesture of appreciation to God for the privilege of my new car. I'm considering giving a llama to a family in South America. Heifer International provides needed livestock to the poor under the charitable philosophy of "teach a man to fish, and you'll feed him for a lifetime. Just be sure you also give him a fishing rod." In addition to wool and milk, llamas provide transportation and can carry goods to market. And a whole llama only costs 0.7% of the car we're financing.

When it comes down to it, I'm not proud of the outcome. We should have gotten a used car, I think. But I can continue to take the poor with me by walking as much as possible (as I did to the library today, dragging a recalcitrant 4 year old along beside me) and combining errands into one trip. Whenever I drive , I can save gas and increase my mileage by following a few simple tips. And most importantly, I can drive my nice, new CR-V into the ground. When my 4 year old wants a car to take with him to Harvard, I can hand him the keys and say "Load it up, Sweets. That shelf in the back nearly doubles the trunk space!"