From the archives: Aim of charity workers on Thanksgiving

From the Monitor's November 25, 1908 edition, a story that explores the difficulties of charitable giving.

In dealing with the problems of modern life, poverty, sickness and crime, a notable change has been made in methods of healing and reform. Where a few years ago it seemed that the public could satisfy its conscience by occasionally, as on such a day as Thanksgiving, putting out a liberal donation from its treasury to the miserable and unfortunate, it is now generally felt that discretion should leaven generously and intelligent persons are unwilling to give blindly for the sake of salving then uneasiness as to the sake of others.

That promiscuous giving failed to reach the desired ends of relief to the needy is shown by the investigations of such highly organized social machinery as the associated charities in the great cities of the country. Usually the associated charities are, as in Boston, not relief organizations but information and distributive bureaus for the relief work in churches and philanthropies of wealthy societies and also for the state and of funds set aside for the unfortunate.

Miss Alice L. Higgins, general secretary for the Associated Charities of Boston tells the writer that it is an interesting story in the records of the society and not merely an story but an actual fact that not long ago an old woman who lived alone in the North End with no companion but a cat received as a Thanksgiving donation from various sources all ignorant of one another's kindly deed, seven turkeys with the accessories of a dinner. Thus charity of cheated of its object and made farcical and wasteful.

"The Associated Charities of Boston" says Miss Higgins, "as an organization and as individual members, does think of this day with peculiar interest and sentiment.

"It is so much more than a feast day, Thanksgiving rightly conceived, it is so much more than just a chance for the poor to be greedy and the wealthy to put out indulgences to that greed, that to so interpret the day, or to allow the poor and uneducated to think was so interpreted is to miss a great opportunity for enlightening the new comers into America, the poor immigrants and the newcomers into the civic or national consciousness...

"We of the Associated Charities do not like to think of the individual as the social unit, but rather of the family as such. The family is the natural nucleus around which all happiness and permanent success must cluster. If a man gets away from family, he is pretty sure to become a vagrant, and vagrancy (illegible) of the great problems to be dealt with in America.

"I speak of vagrancy," said Miss Higgins "because it is one of the great problems of social life, and also because this very sprit of Thanksgiving may help to perpetuate it, if not rightly diverted. What right have we we to bring great concourses of the poor together to eat in some great hall and then go into the galleries and stare at them through opera glasses which they eat at the expense of the public?

"To whom shall such beneficiaries be grateful? Will the eating of a banquet spread for them in such a spirit make them at all undersatnd the meaning of the harvest home of the nation and its day of thanks. If the personnel of the company of diners at such feasts in public halls today were analyzed it would be found that many of the men are vagrants, and probably have already been given money for drink by charitably minded on the streets. These will go out from the dinner penniless and without work but they have served to make a festiva spectacle to gratify the charitable. What of their needs for tomorrow – have the charitable no further duty?

"It seems as though the real need of the vagrant who eats at a public Thanksgiving dinner should be more vitally understood on such a day as this when busy persons stop to think of others. The poor man alone in the world needs a little more study, he should be investigated. If he has a family in Dakota or Texas, he should be returned to that family, even though that will cost a great deal more than giving him a dinner.

"Therefore I feel that the methods of the Associated Charities in Boston and other large cities vindicate themselves for the quite unobtrusive way in which they meet this great festival. It should not be thought that we in Boston are not interested in Thanksgiving because we do not spread a public dinner for thousands. The Associated Charities of Boston have 16 sections that cover the city. There are 16 salaried district secretaries. Besides this organized force, there are 800 volunteer workers in the city, each of whom has an average of four families to visit. Not all of these families are in actual need, but many are temporarily in need of guidance and assistance from a more intelligent and perhaps wealthy friend..."

"It is difficult to aid others by wholesale," concluded Miss Higgins. "It is almost an impossibility to arouse any interest or love in that way. Similarly, it is difficult to help the isolated person. Such should be restored to the family relation. In family groups the greatest happiness is experienced and the healthiest ambition and truest national pride aroused. For that reason we hope that the gatherings around the family tables today all over the country will result in an all-the-year-round benefit to all who partake of the feast."

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