I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

I once tried to donate money to my dad’s office. My dad is a pediatrician in a small town, and I had a vague understanding that there were a lot of sick people who couldn’t really afford medical care. I knew that some of them were terribly sick, and it was all very tragic. I must have learned some of this from that St. Jude’s Hospital fundraiser my school did every year. Who the hell thought of the Math-athon, anyway? So, I collected a few bucks somehow — some change I dug up from the couch or stole from my brother’s dresser, and maybe something I earned at the lemonade stand I set up with the boy from down the street: 1 Card Table + 1 Pitcher of Crystal Light Lemonade (from that delicious powder!) = Mad Profits. So I gave my measly few bucks to my dad for his office or maybe for the local hospital, but he said it didn’t really work like that. He probably tried to explain insurance and Medicaid to me, but I zoned out.

My church was always collecting money for God knows what — for poor people, I guessed. Almost everyone at my church was reasonably well off financially, so it made sense for us to all be pitching in for people who didn’t have everything we had. So, I put some change in an envelope and wrote on it:

For: the poor

We love you.

Like it was a tag on a Christmas present. I probably wrote it in highlighter because I never seemed able to find a proper writing implement, and it was probably adorably misspelled.

The priest somehow knew I was the one who put that money in the collection basket. Maybe I signed my name; I didn’t really grasp anonymity. After Mass, during coffee and donuts time in the fellowship hall, one of my parents was having a conversation with the priest in which he said how sweet the gesture was and asked if I would like my money back. He may have explained that the collection that week was not for the poor, but perhaps to pay off the loan from constructing the fellowship hall. I said I did not want my money back, which wasn’t a great long term investment considering my current relationship with the church, but at the time I was hoping they would do the right thing and give the damned money to the poor.

You may be seeing a pattern here. I always wanted to do good things but always felt a bit thwarted. I understood the needs of the world, I thought, but I apparently had no grasp for the mechanics involved, and I’m afraid I still don’t.

There was one time that I was a little bit successful, although not in the way I wanted to be.

You remember Sally Struthers, right? Well, she was always telling you to adopt a kid from a very poor country, and that you could make that child’s life so much better with education and food and shelter. There were probably other organizations that did this, too, but I just remember Sally. Anyway, my parents did this at one point, and we adopted a girl, and she wrote us letters, and I wrote back to her. The time it took to send the letters was interminable. I think someone had to translate them, so they made multiple stops, and we only exchanged letters a few times in all the years that my parents continued to sponsor her. She seemed like a really nice girl, and I hope she’s doing well now. She should be about 30 …

But I digress. I decided my third grade class should adopt someone as well. I suggested it to my religion teacher, and she thought it was a great idea. I brought in a giant water cooler bottle, and throughout the school year, my classmates and I dropped a bit of spare change in it now and then. I got a little award for it. They used to make a “Student of the Week” announcement to recognize kids in the school for good things, and I got a certificate. They announced, “The student of the week award goes to Mary Richert for her concern for people in 3rd world countries.” I didn’t know what “third world” meant. It sounded very sci-fi to me.

At the end of the year, my teacher poured out the change, and we sat on the floor and counted it up, and put it into rolls. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much money we raised, but more importantly, I have NO IDEA where the money went. I’m pretty sure it didn’t go to any starving children in third world countries. I sure as hell hope they didn’t give it to the church to pay off the “activities building” they put up next to the fellowship hall. My third grade religion teacher was a lovely lady, though, (still is, I’m sure) and she most likely donated that money somewhere. She might have even told me where it would go, but I probably zoned out again.

So here I am again, another 20 years down the line, still doing the same basic shuffle, trying to do a good thing, not really understanding what’s involved, then feeling sortof thwarted and clumsy about it all. Then I try again. Tomorrow, I’ll try something new, perhaps. And the day after that, who knows? I’m just glad to realize that the little girl in me who always wanted to save the world hasn’t been completely smothered by adulthood and reality. But maybe I could get her to be a touch more practical.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

19 responses to “Confessions of a Misfit Do-Gooder”

  1. Mat says:

    This is often my problem with giving to charitable aid organizations: you get no real accountability for how the money is used. If the Susan G. Komen foundation (the breast cancer awareness group with the pink ribbons) holds a fundraiser, roughly 80% of the funds raised go to pay the overhead costs if the fundraiser itself. That’s a staggeringly inefficient use of the money gathered, and makes me think that it would be better to donate my money directly to a lab performing actual cancer research.

    It seems there are very few noble acts that can’t be thwarted by the interjection of a bureaucracy.

    • Mary Richert says:

      I agree about charitable aid groups. I really can’t make heads or tails of them, but I think volunteer work is a good way to go. Also, I support giving money to groups that generally improve the quality of life for everyone — like NPR. Ok, it’s not feeding starving children, but it’s helping more Americans be better informed about the world, and that counts for a lot. I also thing donating directly to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter can be valuable, but doing so through a big production of a fundraiser may not be the best way. I worked at a nonprofit for a while in college, and they had a massive fundraiser, and Suze Orman was the main speaker — it was all about teaching young people to be financially responsible and independent, which is a great idea — but it was the same as the Komen walk. Most of the money went to the fundraiser itself. They would’ve been better off hiring Suze to speak directly to the kids, maybe give them a short lesson on college funds and saving accounts. Instead, she mostly talked about how she had a new book coming out. Once again, I thought I would be saving the world by working for that organization, but it felt like a great big waste of time and money.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Will the Nobel Peace prize be yours?
    Will you win the humane race?
    Your karma needs no GPS
    With your heart in the proper place.

  3. Mat says:

    Nice article, I like the idea of staying in touch with the young naïve person within us all, yet applying SOME “grown up” logic to the decision making. I completely agree. I just want to mention a cause I believe will help change the world. Educating women and children in countries ruled by organizations such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If anyone is interested please visit http://www.gregmortenson.com/. He is the author of an amazing book titled “Three Cups of Tea”. It is a great read and I am sure you will be inspired.

    – Your old friend,

  4. Mary Richert says:

    Mat, thanks so much for the comment. You’re such a sweetheart! I haven’t read “Three Cups of Tea” yet, but I’m a big fan of books about women in modern Islamic societies. So far, my favorite is “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi. It’s also an incredible book with some beautiful writing. It’s a different idea than Mortenson’s book, but if you’re interested in Middle Eastern Culture and literature, it’s just about the best there is.

  5. kristen says:

    Ah, I agree–hell of a book, the Reading Lolita one. I sorta borrowed it from a loaner(?) shelf in my old therapist’s apartment building. Grabbed it only because I happened to not have reading material on me for the commute home that night.

    A fortuitous thing, as that book delivered a real emotional and educational jolt.

    Enjoyed this account of yours and agree wholeheartedly w/ Uche’s sentiment…

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, Kristen! I’m glad you also enjoyed Nafisi’s book. She teaches here in Baltimore, and I’ve toyed with the idea of going to hear her speak some time — maybe see if I can audit one of her lectures? What I love about that book is that it’s both historically rich (I learned SO much about Iran’s history reading it… and yeah, I had to make extensive use of Wikipedia to grasp the whole story, but it was worth it) and also exquisitely written. It’s everything a book is supposed to be!

  6. On the other hand you have the opposite problem – if you just give money straight to someone on the street, nothing gets done to fight the systemic problem.

    What a hard yard it is you have to hoe, Mary Richert!

    Maybe do some legwork. Find out which agencies have the best track records of implementing change (and not absorbing giant percentages of the profits…)

    • Mary says:

      Thanks, Simon. I definitely need to do some research on this. There are web sites that specifically list this kind of information. Granted, I didn’t have access to such a thing in the 3rd grade, but that’s no reason not to check it out now! Also, the truth is, I don’t have it hard at all. I am just exceptional at whining. 😀

  7. I rack up my do-gooder points by volunteering for arts organizations that need creative writing teachers/mentors/volunteers. I would suck balls building a house in Guatemala, but I’m confident teaching poetry to pregnant and parenting teen girls, screenwriting to military vets, and coming up soon dramatic writing to the visually-impaired. I know it’s not saving starving children, but it’s the kind of something we writery people can give to others that want to write but don’t have the knowledge/structure/ support system/ etc to do it by themselves. Not to get all after school specially in this comment section, it’s just this kind of work has meant so much to me over the past few years and if the idea can be any help to you at all, wanted to pass along.

    Also I really enjoyed your piece, great work!

    • Mary says:

      Hey, thank you! I really appreciate your comment. I think you’re onto something as far as volunteering to do the things we already love and are pretty good at. Maybe through doing those things, we can inspire more capable people to do the other things, like build houses and solve our oil dependency issues.

      How did you find the opportunities to do this volunteer work? I think this would be worth a try for me!

  8. Gloria says:

    I agree with Uche, Mary. If your heart’s in the right place, you’re on the right track.

    I think young you and young me would’ve been fast friends – back when idealism and bleeding heart-ness (?) wasn’t laughed at at perceived as foolish.

    Very sweet piece.

  9. When I was nine I was at sleep away camp with vaguely religious overtones…. or perhaps I should say non-commital religious overtones. There was an outdoor rustic chapel and we were required to attend “services” once a week where we played folk songs and talked about helping the poor children of the world. There were several children who attended camp but did not have extra spending money to use at the camp store for penny candy or stationary or stamps to send letters home, I’m not clear how we knew this — but we did. Having come from a family where money was slipped into envelopes and allocated for different needs (church, hospital, relatives who needed a boost) I thought the best thing to do was to take my allowance money and put it into the pink flower power envelopes I used to send letters home and hand it to the neediest of the children. I must have spread the envelopes out on my cot, I don’t remember telling anyone, however, a counselor, having gotten wind of my plan, took me aside at the last minute and said that I would embarrass them by giving them money, that the camp had provided for them and I would only make them feel worse. So when I saw this in your piece:

    For: the poor

    We love you.

    I laughed out loud. How well I remember the intent to do good, however wrong I went about it.

    This was a great piece, Mary.

    • Mary Richert says:

      One of the most awkward memories of my childhood is of the time we bought Christmas gifts for a poor family, and for some reason (whose idea was this?!?) my family actually went to this family’s house and brought them gifts and placed them under the tree. The whole family was home. The kids were watching us walk in an put down the gifts. I felt like we were supposed to say something very sad and solemn while delivering our gifts. It was awful. I’m 90% sure this happened, but it might’ve been a weird dream I had after some sort of holiday gift drive. I’ll have to call my sister and confirm later.

  10. Richard Cox says:

    Your mentioning Sally Struthers and the third world child you guys adopted made me think of Starvin’ Marvin on South Park. And how Sally was stealing all the food people had sent. Hahaha.

    On a serious note, like everyone else has mentioned, if you’re thinking about this you’re already ahead of the game. It’s nice to know your concern hasn’t been smothered by adulthood and reality. But next time, maybe you should spend your time writing something more important, like a self-important, hyperbolic letter hoping to out TNB’s advice columnist. :-p

  11. dwoz says:

    Last week the guy that owns the store where I buy my horse supplies came home to find that his house was a pile of smouldering ashes.

    Separating the ashes of his three dogs from the ashes of the couch and the ashes of the kitchen counter will not be possible, except perhaps in a symbolic way.

    They had a bake sale yesterday to help raise money to live on for a while. I bought a chocolate chip cookie for $100. I also bought a bunch of stuff at his store that I couldn’t really afford.

    I don’t know how that compares to putting a bowl of white rice into the hands of a kid in Sudan that has a distended belly, but it felt like I couldn’t imagine any better use for the Benjamin than that.

    • Mary Richert says:

      I think you’re right. We do what we can where we can. And your approach was certainly more direct than passing the money through so many strange hands before it reaches the person who needs it.

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