THEY return each year at this holiday season with absolute regularity - the men and women of the Salvation Army and other religious organizations or charities. No matter how adverse the weather, they can be found standing in front of their collection plates in many parts of North America, seeking donations to help ensure that the Christmas season is a time of goodwill for millions of individuals and families caught up in economic or personal hardship.
Whether Americans are able to give as much as usual in this climate of economic challenge is still uncertain. "We are just a little bit concerned," admits an official of the Salvation Army. Collections were down slightly during the Salvation Army's donation drive for Thanksgiving. But the decline stemmed as much from the fact that Americans donated elsewhere - primarily for hurricane disaster relief - as from an actual drop in the level of charitable contributions.
The good news is that Americans were especially generous in coming to the aid of individuals and families affected by Hurricane Andrew and the other storms that battered parts of the United States, including Florida and Louisiana, in late summer. Case in point: Under the auspices of the American Red Cross, some 90 US corporations set up matching funds with their employees to help hurricane victims. The matching programs were highly successful. Companies have traditionally provided matching gifts for cult ural programs, or for educational purposes. But this summer many companies, for the first time ever, earmarked corporate dollars to help disaster victims. Some of the businesses involved included General Electric, Barnett Banks, Nations Bank, and New York Life.
By mid-November, the American Red Cross had raised more than $153 million for hurricane and disaster relief programs.
President Bush was often gently chided for his emphasis on "a thousand points of light." Yet, Mr. Bush was reminding Americans that as they let their own lives burn bright in helping others, America's deeper ideal of collective good could not help prospering. The hurricane relief efforts of the American Red Cross and some 90 corporations are proof that Americans stand ready to aid their fellow citizens when necessary.
As the holiday period gets under way, it is fitting to remember the many volunteers - such as the 54,000 bell ringers of the Salvation Army - who will be calling on us all to once again do whatever we can to help our neighbors in need.