With so many people struggling financially, it may seem overwhelming to think of how to help. There are people who are in financial trouble who have never struggled in the past and others who have experienced poverty all their lives. What is the best way to give so you can make a real difference?
There are two types of needs people have when they are struggling financially. The first is to develop long-term skills that will help them leave poverty and succeed in the future. The other is to get through right now until those long-term plans begin to work.
The short term is often centered around immediate survival–food, clothing, and shelter. In addition, there is usually a call for spiritual and emotional support, particularly if poverty is new for the person experiencing it. Becoming poor after a life-time of being comfortable, particularly if you were always sure it couldn’t possibly happen to you, or even if you looked down on those who have struggled previously and now find yourself in that position, is hard on one’s self-esteem.
Immediate needs can be met fairly simply by those who care. A bag of food dropped off at the house, some cash quietly handed to someone, a bill paid for them, or an offer of childcare while parents work out solutions or go on job interviews provide both assistance and the feeling that others care. Of course, some people are embarrassed to have others aware of the need, and in these cases it often works best to have the service given discreetfully or tactfully. For instance, a family can be invited for dinner and sent home with left-overs the host family “won’t have a chance to use up because we’ll be away during dinner over the next few days.” A woman who buys a large bag of apples can drop a few off at a friend’s home, insisting they were a great deal, but there were too many in the bag for her family. During a particularly difficult time, I left my purse on a pew at church and went to another part of the building for a few minutes. That night, I found a large amount of money tucked away inside it. We frequently found groceries on our porch after an unexpected knock at the door by someone who knocked and ran during that time. On New Year’s Eve, someone left all the supplies for a party on our porch. Those moments made me feel someone cared and wasn’t judging our situation.
Long-term help usually requires more commitment. Often it’s done through a church or community organization, but individuals can also offer help to someone they know.
Often education is a problem. It’s very difficult to find work without an education. If you know someone facing this challenge, you may be able to help. The first step is to find out why they weren’t educated and what school was like for them when (and if) they went to it for a while. Often, people who have had little education can’t read well enough to survive in the workforce. It doesn’t require a degree to help someone learn to read. Mormons can turn to the Relief Society’s literacy program for help. Others can go onto the internet or to the library and learn how to teach someone to read.
Others need help learning to speak English, use a computer, improve their grammar, or search for work. Some might be best-served by creating a home-based business, and a person who knows how to do this can offer to mentor a neighbor through the process.
Another long-term help is to show the newly poor how to save money and still be comfortable. Because I’m not very domestic, I find the need to cook from scratch every single day during hard times to be very stressful. When someone offers to show me an easier way to do something, I’m always very grateful.
The most important service is to help without judgment or without presuming the newly unemployed person has nothing to do. During our unemployment, we both spent ten hours a day at least, searching for a job for my husband. I scoured the Internet for jobs and he wrote personalized cover letters and resumes. Because of the internet, job hunting is now a full-time job. When those ten hours ended, there were still all the regular duties of everyday life-volunteer work, family time, homeschooling, housework, and my writing. The homemaking took longer as I had to do everything without conveniences. Presume your newly unemployed friends are busier than ever and don’t impose on their time or make comments about how nice it must be to have a little vacation.
Listening can be a wonderful service. Both the unemployed person and his spouse-as well as the children-are faced with daily fear and stress. A non-judgmental and sympathetic listener can make all the difference, and during the listening, you might well figure out what it is they really need.
Little things matter and will be remembered long after the crisis ends. Small acts of kindness I remember include:
–A friend who took me out to lunch often because treats lift the spirit
–Someone who casually mentioned that Thanksgiving is a bit complicated during hard times and she was curious to see how we were adapting our menu and what we were cutting out. I mentioned cutting out pie because, never having mastered pie crust, I didn’t own a pie pan. She promptly went into her kitchen and gave me pie pans.
–Someone who decided to start driving my children with hers to church activities so I could save gas.
Look for the little things when deciding how to help, but at the same time, this is an excellent time to take on some long-term volunteer work to help those who haven’t been as fortunate as you have been. We never really know when we’ll be on the receiving end, and when we’ve been giving, it’s easier to receive.
About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.