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When You Donate Food, Don't Just Give the Cans You Can't Stomach

12/18/2013 12:25 EST | Updated 02/17/2014 05:59 EST

This post comes from a good friend of mine, Ani Perrault. She wrote it years ago, and I read it then. I reread it every year. Why? It is, quite simply, the best thing I've ever seen on the Internet.

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Once upon a time there was a 22-year-old, recently separated mother of two children ages 13 months and three years respectively -- me. I had left my husband six months prior and was having trouble getting on my feet. My girls and I shared a very small one bedroom apartment, we had a very tight budget, I had no skills and an ex who didn't pay support, and really I had no idea how I was going to take care of us. So because I needed all of the support I could get I had joined a church a few months before I moved out on my own and had grown quite close to some of the people I attended "small group" (bible study group held Friday night) with.

There was this lovely woman, whom for the sake of this story I will call "E," who had three sons ranging from ages 13 to five and all of them were going to a very prestigious private Christian school. Their father was a former minister who now taught at a school and "E" herself was a teacher as well. They were a lovely family and did so much to make me feel welcome and supported and included in the church.

I was volunteering in the nursery at the church one Sunday about six weeks before Christmas when a woman comes into to the nursery dressed in her Sunday best with her toddler and drops her off, she chats a few minutes with the other women and then notices the hampers in the back room full of canned goods and she asks quite incredulously "what are those for?" and one of the other women in the room replies they're food hampers for the less fortunate for Christmas. And this woman is completely shocked, she replied "well surely NO ONE at THIS church would be that poor! I mean we don't live in poverty in this country, that only happens in Ethiopia and other places like that."

This dialogue continued for awhile and I tried to hide my combined embarrassment and annoyance with her lack of tact and understanding, I had known plenty of people growing up who'd needed the assistance of a food bank and knew first hand how hard it was to make ends meet, if it hadn't been for credit cards I'd have been lined up at the food bank every week myself at that point (and eventually, they took away my credit cards and I was, but that didn't come until later). Eventually the woman left and I tried to shake off the discomfort her remarks had caused me and put it out of my mind.

About a week before Christmas my dear friend "E" from church called me up and asked if she could stop by for coffee later in the day. Now to say I wasn't exactly at my best with my Charlie Brown falling down Christmas-tree and tiny apartment that had been thoroughly destroyed by two toddlers would have been an understatement, but because I adored "E" and wanted her to like me and somehow approve of me I of course invited her over for coffee. I spent eight consecutive HOURS cleaning my house so that it would be up to her (and moreover, my perception of her) standards.

So at around 8 at night I get a knock on the door and open it to find, much to my surprise that "E" and her three boys have arm fulls of boxes of things for myself and the girls. There is an entire box of wrapped gifts for the girls, and a few things wrapped for me, and three large boxes of canned goods and food bank food. "E" and her boys put the things on my kitchen table and beam proudly she turns to me and says "we were so happy to be able to deliver the Christmas hamper to you and the girls, we felt it was so very much in the spirit of the Church, Merry Christmas Ani!" and they beamed with the satisfaction of having done their good deed for the day, and with that she quickly ushered her boys out of my apartment, without so much as having take off her coat and went home to her perfect clean house in the suburbs with her perfect family for their perfect Christmas, complete with the lesson of helping the less fortunate.

Now, I was completely stunned, I mean I knew I wasn't doing well financially but I certainly wasn't destitute and I'd never thought of myself as "in need of charity assistance" and I most certainly hadn't signed up to receive a Christmas hamper. In fact I'd always been a very proud person and determined to "make it on my own" I really felt that the "surprise gifts" would have been put to better use donated to someone else. But there I was, in the middle of my first Christmas as a single mom, with two very little girls, surrounded by boxes of generic mac' and cheese, apple beverage (not juice, apple beverage, which is 90 per cent water with some high fructose corn syrup and apple flavour) about a dozen tins of wax beans, a box of half mouldy Christmas oranges, two loaves of mouldy bread and about a dozen cans of spam.

I cried. In fact, I wept. For the most part, it was food I couldn't imagine feeding to my children or eating myself, and a good percentage of it was expired (and for the perishables, was spoiled). In general it was not quality food.

Now I am familiar with the phrasing "beggars can't be choosers" and you know that's true and maybe my lack of gratitude was due to the fact that I hadn't asked to receive a Christmas hamper from the Church, and that I was in a difficult place to begin with emotionally that year, I didn't want to feel like someone's "feel good" project or that I was in need of saving, I wanted to be successful, or at least to feel like the people that I thought cared about me had faith in my ability to get through and survive and come out on top.

But my very long end point to this little story is that it's important to be mindful when you give, yes this is a season for giving, and that should extend beyond "what can I buy my loved ones?" into "how can I help or make a difference?" and whether I believe you should do that year round (and I do) isn't so much the point. I suppose my overly-convoluted point here is that in the spirit of giving you also need to be mindful of the gift.

So do me a favour, and next time you attend a function where people ask for a donation for charity don't reach for the minute rice or the wax beans that you know you're not going to eat, don't find the unlabelled can at the back of the cupboard, reach for your favourite tin of soup, or a jug of real juice or some healthy pasta, or the really yummy tomato sauce that you picked up three jars of on sale last week and consider how much MORE receiving that kind of generosity will mean to someone who does need the help, who can't always afford the real Kraft Dinner and who might want to feel that instead of getting a hand out from someone who wants to feel good about themselves, they are receiving a gift in the spirit of kindness and compassion.

And such is my two cents on helping those in need.

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