I remember taking trips with my dad to deliver meals for the needy around Thanksgiving. My first memories were of my brothers helping, but eventually I was the only one home and for one long afternoon during the fall, it was up to me. We would pack cardboard boxes full of canned pumpkin, string beans, and Stove Top stuffing into the back of the minivan, lug a few turkeys up from the basement fridge, and head off. The destination was a church nearly an hour drive from our home and suddenly an exit on the Long Island Expressway gained new meaning. The whole experience was enough to interrupt whatever NFL games I had planned to watch that day, but I’m not sure I was personally giving more than a few hours of time.
I’ve since realized that much of what we gave came through helping families around town, people we knew who were going through a tough stretch at one time or another. The strength of the community came from people who would do extra carpooling or donate athletic equipment across town. Somehow, being the youngest of four, I was simultaneously the giver and recipient. It was a good lesson for me, I expected rides from my friends’ moms so when it was our time to help out I was never too bothered.
It wasn’t frequent, but the public school system managed to get me to donate my time as I grew up. I faintly remember working a day at a nearby soup kitchen, probably during middle school to complete a requirement. The half day was a bother, but it was a right of passage to go help out in a soup kitchen. One of those things the older kids talk about and you’re almost excited for. We all felt like we’d given a lot more than we actually did. In high school, I completed a grueling one third of a triathlon to raise money for families of September 11th victims. It was all to hang out with a girl, though, as evidenced by my post swim vomiting.
Many other students were huge advocates for various causes and several appear to be continuing. More than a decade after high school, they often fight alone at times, and I’m glad to know such dedicated people.
Clearly, my experience with charity was somewhat limited. I didn’t give much away, other than some hours here and there, and it was mostly forced by school or family. Importantly, I rarely chose what to give and to whom. I followed others. That said, through more than 11,000 days, I still remember those hours I sacrificed for a cause outside of myself. I may have been pushed into the situation, but being with others who were happily donating their time had an effect on me.
I’m consistently impressed by the charity of the wealthiest, most famous people in the world. Jack Ma, the richest man in the world’s biggest country, recently announced he would step down from his job and become a full time philanthropist. He must be concerned that that his money is put to work effectively, but he could just as easily keep pushing his business forward or attempt to dominate in another industry. Bill Gates has been dedicating all of himself to these causes for decades. Athletes and movies stars frequently spend off days with the sick and needy. John Cena, the professional wrestler, has granted more than 500 wishes through the Make-a-Wish foundation. Bieber has volunteered in over 250 himself. Cristiano Ronaldo, probably the world’s most famous athlete, has given millions of dollars and auctioned multiple trophies to help people around the world he has never met.
It’s no surprise these athletes can set up charitable foundations with injections of millions of dollars from their gigantic salaries. What are they really sacrificing? What is $1 million to someone with 300? It’s not just cash though, it’s time. We’re all given the same amount, from A-List stars to the middle income families. I imagine the joy that a kid feels when Johnny Depp walks into the hospital in a full Jack Sparrow outfit is beyond words. And Johnny Depp has the means to do whatever he wants, be wherever he wants to be. He’s may be feeling less joy than the kid he’s amusing, reciting lines he’s done hundreds of times throughout the years, but he still makes a choice for others.
Having grown up, getting to a point where I have control over almost all of my own time, I began asking myself what I have to give, and how I can be the most useful and impactful. In an effort to give while living in California, I spent a few hours each week with a local, somewhat rambunctious kid in a big brother-little brother type relationship. He and I would have a few snacks and chat before working through a tech focused project that he presented at the end of it all. Honestly, it occured during work hours on Tuesday afternoons and, while I had to make up for lost time, it wasn’t much of a hassle. The project was an idea he had for a website, showing users what the view was like from different seats at a baseball stadium. The irony is, we needed to go to an already existing website just to get the pictures for our site. But the purpose was to work through a project, for him to understand how to map things out and think strategically about a large piece of work.
I could go on and say that I got more out of this relationship than he did. That while I thought I’d be teaching him, it was really I who was the student. Not the case, at least according to his mom the day he presented his project at school. Apparently, while not showing it much, he seemed to be getting as much from me about building a project as he did about baseball and being part of a team. See, we’d spend a lot of time just talking about the normal stuff he did throughout the day, but it so frequently came back to his time on the baseball field. In one conversation, I remember him talking about being in the middle of the season and struggling to stay focused while running the bases. One of the other players, someone he clearly admired, never made those sort of mistakes, so I did my best to pass on a few tricks. Keep watching the ball, of course, and don’t be afraid to remember how frustrating it was to get out for a stupid mistake. It was nothing revolutionary but just a few simple words of advice which he seemed to take to heart. I entered thinking I could encourage this little dude to become a tech nerd, to get involved with software at a young age, which I wish I’d done myself. The biggest impact was just talking sports. It’s amazing to figure out how impactful you can be just by sitting down and chatting, even if it’s an 8 year old.
I’ve talked about this with friends, and there’s definitely a space for us to use our skills most effectively to help others. I know more than the average guy about computers, and maybe it would be best if I could just build websites for nonprofits. But in my experience, whether it be the sick, the poor, or the unknowing, it’s the skills that everyone possess that are most in need. We want to choose where we have the most impact, but it’s a certainty that everyone could use a little bit more time, your time, my time, anyone’s time. Listening, for one, is in short supply. As I write and record this, I myself am adding to the overload of content fighting for people’s attention. But who’s listening? Somehow, it seems, we only want to begin listening, giving our time to others, after we’ve gotten enough for ourselves. Once we’re satisfied, that’s when we’ll give back. But why wait when we’re so capable right now?