Politics & Policy

It’s in The Details

Principled giving to help Katrina's victims.

We often feel immobilized by extreme crises. The devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina can make a lone individual response seem small, even insignificant. But there is proverbial wisdom in sayings like “the longest journey begins with one small step.” Every individual in this country can help the victims of hurricane Katrina and can do so by observing some simple principles of effective compassion.

The first thing to remember is the principle of subsidiarity. The idea is common sense: Nothing should be done by larger and more complex organizations which can be done as well by smaller, simpler organizations closer to the need. In other words, leave the complex problems to the complex organizations; let the simpler groups take care of the more basic needs.

The challenges of Katrina are complex: destroyed levees, hundreds of people who need rescued from their attics, rebuilding the infrastructure of an entire city. These are complex problems for complex organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard, the U.S. Navy, and swift water-rescue teams. These are needs that ordinary Americans cannot address effectively. And if they tried, they’d just get in the way.

But now consider the simpler–no less important–needs Katrina has introduced: food, clothes, water, a place to sleep, hope. These are things easily provided by individuals, families, religious congregations, and community centers. Families are helping families and friends, of course. And generous people daily expand the definition of family, crowding the displaced into their homes, meeting overwhelming needs.

Local charities have been meeting local needs for decades. The ABC Pregnancy Resource Center in Lake Charles, La., delivered baby formula and baby clothes from their own program to a community center that is housing 2,500 Katrina refugees, with as many as 4,000 more expected this week. This community charity had the resources on hand and simply transferred them to the place of need. “I don’t even have to ask my board,” said director Nete Mire.

But the ABC Pregnancy Center in Lake Charles (email: abcpregnancycenter@copper.net, 866-434-2797) needs more formula, diapers, baby wipes, and baby bath products. They are trying to help serve 116 children under age 2 at the community center. The nonprofit Tutwiler Clinic in Tutwiler, Miss. would immediately use financial donations for prescription drugs for refugees. Dr. Anne Brooks says such donations would also help them replace household items for those in their community who lost homes. Both these programs are listed in the Samaritan Guide, www.samaritanguide.com, a reporting site for privately funded charities that serve individuals.

The Lake Charles Catholic Diocese is accepting donations for Katrina refugee assistance specifically in that community.

The principle of subsidiarity not only offers a more efficient means for relief of basic needs, it offers a component that no bureaucracy could provide, one that only individuals can provide: a human connection. Only an individual can provide the hope and encouragement that is as necessary to the well being of these refugees.

So when we give, we ought to also consider those organizations close to individual needs, to smaller, simpler agencies that can address those millions of seemingly little needs.

Effective compassion also weighs long-term needs. Consider groups with a strong track record of self-sufficiency: groups that will be working in the long-term to address the many future effects of Katrina. Job placement is going to be critical. Christian Help in Castleberry, Fla. is linked to 124 area employers. Next week is the Florida governor’s job fair, part of Workforce Development Week. Circumstances will drive increased frequency, and local organizations are key to helping so many displaced people obtain work.

Remember, too, that individuals are to be responsible stewards of their resources. Give responsibly by making sure that the recipients of your gifts will use them responsibly. Ask tough questions. Reputable charities will answer questions about their mission, their accountability, and their finances. Reluctance to answer such questions is a big red flag. Organizations like International Aid not only detail specific needs, but financial statements are easily accessible on their website.

Be aware of donation scams–already operating. Check out your state attorney general’s website for tips to avoid Internet schemes and to verify the good standing of local nonprofit charities.

When we give, we are demonstrating that each of us bears the image of God. Even the smallest, simplest act is of great value.

Karen Woods is director of the Center for Effective Compassion at the Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, Mich.


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