As one of the many volunteers in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program and as a strong supporter of the overnight/outreach program Helping Hands-Safe Haven, I was asked to write the following.
By Arthur H. Gunther III
It is 1940, and the Great Depression is persisting after 11 years. At Maud Gunther’s Spring Valley, N.Y., home, not far from the downtown railroad tracks where the homeless slept even then, my grandmother is on her back porch, handing out sandwiches to hobos and other hungry people, made from the meager scraps she, her husband and son must share. But Arthur Sr. has a job. Many do not. Maud does her bit, as do quite a few Valleyites in that sad national time.
At night on any of those dark days, my grandparents sit in the dining room and listen to the radio, that after Arthur Sr. has read The Rockland Journal-News, the New York Journal-American and the Daily News. Each of those information sources offer the same stories about unique, even groundbreaking relief efforts by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration as well as continuing political opposition in Congress and elsewhere. The poor, the down and out, the homeless are always grist for the political mill. Full bellies pontificate over the hungry.
Radio news says the opposition holds fast to its belief that lesser government involvement is best, that people can pull themselves up if only the economy is rebuilt — an old argument that never gets settled because greed intervenes. People still go without. In Spring Valley. In the nation.
One 1940 presidential contender, Robert Taft, states: “Let no one say that a sound fiscal policy is too hardboiled toward the more unfortunate among our people. It is the poor who will be cared for by a solvent government. …”
America has always had “solvent” government, but the poor, the needy, remain underserved and continue to be part of a false news, “welfare-queen” debate that is really ignorance perpetuated by the judgmental and the greedy. So, even in the best of times, the poor and others in need have been put on a meager budget line. Criticism of the unfortunate, ignorance as to circumstance and outright refusal to accept that any of us could fall into sad situations are as firmly set in the national fabric as are the often heroic kindness and charity of so many. The needy are always an abstraction, always blamed for their misfortune. They are made sinners for that.
I wish those who contend that free will, gumption and grit alone make you thrive would serve meals any week day of the year, holidays included, in the Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program at United Church in Spring Valley. Or assist with the Helping Hands-Safe Haven seasonal overnight offering. Then they would witness the debilitating effects of joblessness, depression, substance abuse, domestic abuse and health issues. And just plain bad luck.
RIBP served 18,633 breakfasts in 2016; Helping Hands provided 5,260 meals and overnight accommodations. None of these efforts would have been possible without volunteers, some 3,000 hours given. And not one of us, beyond normal individual human prejudice, openly judged anyone. We were not part of the historical debate between “gumption” and charity, one that continues even in a county as affluent as Rockland.
I am now Maud Gunther, deliberately serving the needy for 15 years in her village, my hometown, my father’s childhood community, the neighborhood of my friends, teachers, mentors. Like all the volunteers, I am paying my own good fortune forward. Privileged to do so.
On Tuesday mornings in the RIBP, we can rustle up a breakfast of sausage better prepared than in some upscale restaurants, slow-cooked for three hours in apple juice, brown sugar, honey and spices. Pancakes are made with eggs, brown sugar, honey and a bit of strong coffee. Chicken soup is simmered for two hours with my Irish mother’s recipe of black pepper and parsley. Total cost? About $2 a serving. In a restaurant, $16, at least.
I am no exception. There are better cooks, including professionals, who work free and offer chicken and other dishes that would pull in $20 a serving in an ordinary eatery.
Lunches, free to all, include freshly made sandwiches, fruit, a treat or two. Juice and coffee, cereal, oatmeal are available at breakfast. All prepared by volunteers.
And the volunteers do more than ready food, serve it and clean up. They bring in donated clothing. They buy clothing. Volunteers purchase food now and then, and kitchen items. If an individual client has a certain need, they are assisted out of pocket.
All this in the RIBP program. Then there is the Helping Hands-Safe Haven volunteer effort that besides all-year counseling and social services, offers seasonal overnight protection from the cold and bad weather, with space long donated by various religious institutions. (Rockland will soon partner on an overnight warming center and other services, thanks to recognition of the great need by the county Legislature and County Executive Ed Day.)
Again, we do not argue whether individuals deserve what we do. Nor do we pat ourselves on the back. We are just people filling a need as best we can. Some of us also do it for the churches and synagogues and mosques we belong to. Others offer service for the religion that is called humanity.
Society has an obligation to attend to the needy, perhaps asking questions later. But only later. We sometimes see babies and other young children at breakfast, and you can ask nothing of them.
I hope whoever reads this, most especially anyone who continues the forever debate between requiring individuals to tough it out or asking society to meet obvious need, will take away two important points:
* RIBP, Helping Hands-Safe Haven and the other giving groups in Rockland do not ask questions. We do not vet the needy. We serve the needy, as religious belief and human decency command.
* We are cost-effective, probably spending at least one-quarter what government or private services would require.
Finally, we have many volunteers, but we need more. We operate on a shoestring budget, and while Helping Hands and RIBP are uber-efficient, we still require funding to cover such unglamorous expenses as rent, insurance, salaries for our tiny non-volunteer staff and supplies.
Consider becoming part of the Helping Hands family through the donation of your time, your talent or your treasure.
(You can contact Helping Hands Director Ya’el Williams: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The writer is a retired newspaperman. email@example.com