This holiday season give from the front of your closet

Being charitable means more when we remember the humanity and dignity of those who receive

Published on: November 24, 2022 6:00 AM EST

A row of shoes is arranged neatly in a corner for guests of Paul's Place to choose from.

Give from the front of your closet, not the back.

It’s a concept I first heard in 2019 when I interviewed Joi Gordon, the then-worldwide CEO of Dress for Success, for the Palm Beach Post.

“Some people might think, ‘She should be grateful for what she gets.’ But no,” Gordon said of Dress For Success’ clientele, women reentering the workforce and in need of employment counseling, advice and clothing for interviews. “We want these women to do a victory lap around the room because you went into your closet and gave her your best.”

That’s been on my mind as we hurtle into the warm, jolly season of giving back. The way I see it, giving your best is about more than the newness and niceness of the clothes, housewares and electronics we donate to those who need them. It’s also about giving our best efforts, with the best attitude towards our neighbors, because we see them as humans and not as boxes to check off to edify our egos.

Because they deserve that.

I shared these sentiments with the folks at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, Inc., whose mission is putting people to work, largely from the proceeds of its popular retail thrift stores, and to Paul’s Place, which provides food, health, employment, recovery and other support for people and families in Southwest Baltimore.

Paul’s Place Executive Director Tim Regan said that remembering the dignity of the people he serves is at the forefront of the organization’s mission.

I remember something that Robert Egger, who founded the nonprofit DC Central Kitchen said: that the challenge with charity is that too often it’s about the redemption of the giver. “We really are thinking about the people we help as guests, not as clients or patients. It’s an approach of hospitality.”

The humanity of those who would be helped is clearer when “we think about the bravery it takes to ask for help,” added Meghan Culbertson, Paul’s Place’s director of development and communications. “It’s not about, ‘What did they do to get here?’ but about the barriers out there in place that keep them there. Why aren’t we trying to interrogate those things and solve them?”

Goodwill has a similar mission to remove obstacles to self-sufficiency by giving a hand up and not a handout, said Lisa Rusyniak, the organization’s president and CEO.

That hand up includes The Excel Center, a tuition-free adult high school opening in 2023 in Goodwill’s former downtown Baltimore headquarters that will include transportation and day care.

The organization, with a $50 million budget, spends $500,000 disposing of unusable junk people give that isn’t in good enough condition to sell in its retail stores.

Rusyniak doesn’t want to discourage donations. “We will try to find a way to sell them in our stores. We’d like to have the best quality, but we’d take anything that has a useful life,” she says. But wouldn’t it be better if that half a million could be used trying to get people to work?

Paul’s Place started 40 years ago as a Pigtown soup kitchen and now has expanded to laundry services, showers, vocational training (in the culinary program at their nearby restaurant, Groundwork Kitchen) as well as health and wellness and recovery services. It’s $3 million operating budget “all comes from philanthropy,” Regan said, including donations of money and materials.

This, again, is where the intention of people’s gifts comes in. Paul’s Place, for instance, needs computers for its computer lab, which are crucial for helping access job applications. “We all have laptops that we want to get rid of. We don’t want those,” Culbertson said. Up-to-date, Wi-Fi-capable equipment that’s ready to use is necessary.

The organization also gives away clothes to those it serves, who make appointments to visit a bright, orderly room where options sit neatly by size and category like in a store — not a box to pick through.

I’m not trying to scold. We’re teetering on the edge of a recession and times are tough for all of us, so giving can be a big deal. But how and why people give really is important. And I have to remember that sometimes, too.

When we moved back to Baltimore two years ago, I struck up a friendship with an unhoused man I passed on my runs, and I’m grateful for it. I once saw him on the way to a coffee shop and asked if he wanted anything. He respectfully declined, because he doesn’t care for their coffee.

In my head I wondered why he’d turn down free coffee. And then I thought, “Shut up Leslie. He’s a human being who doesn’t have to drink coffee he doesn’t want just so I feel good about myself.”

Like many organizations that help people, both Goodwill and Paul’s Place found donations dropped during the pandemic. Things are rebounding, but it’s a constant battle to respond to the unpredictability of life. For instance, the Price Rite supermarket at South Carey and West Pratt streets near Paul’s Place is closing, leaving people without a place to get food.

“Things aren’t getting any easier,” Regan said.

And that’s year-round. Look, it’s great to give at this time of the year, but the need doesn’t end when the calendar changes.

“All that giving is really great, but January and February are tough. That’s when we need people,” Regan said. “It’s like people almost don’t think, ‘Those people at Paul’s Place are there on January 2.’ Come back and stay with us. The work is still there.”

And we need to give it, cheerfully, from the front.