Guest Column: Reframe the questions asked about helping

Published 9:58 pm Friday, December 13, 2019

Live United by Erin Haag

Erin Haag


Before I get into the topic that’s weighing on my mind this week, I have a disclaimer. This article is not a response to the recent cuts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. There’s plenty of media coverage on that. It’s also not a commentary on any one specific event, but rather a series of them.

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Basic needs is what’s on my heart this week. Basic needs — the elemental needs of food, water,  clothing, shelter and safety.

Let’s say Jane has never had all of these things. Food is scarce. Often Jane is cold, because she doesn’t have enough clothing. Jane lives in a war zone, so even when she has food, water and shelter, she doesn’t feel safe. She knows that at any moment, these things might be taken away from her.

Time moves on and the war is over now. Jane doesn’t have much, but she’s safe. She has water, food and shelter. Whenever Jane has the opportunity, she will collect things. Jane might take the most useless of things, because she never knows when she might need it. This might make people angry, because they see her taking advantage. It’s seen as taking away from other people.

I recently had conversations with some of my mom friends. The women in my circle had all had traumatic beginnings to motherhood, preemie babies who required NICU stays or serious illnesses that required hospital stays. My son was born with a rare disease. He’s gone through numerous surgeries. There was a period of about nine months where we were rushing to the ER every couple of weeks for life threatening complications. These preemie babies are growing big and strong now. My son, while he’ll always have this disease, has made huge strides in the past year in his health. Yet, there are certain days and situations that give my sweet friends and I some serious flashbacks.

The difference between my mom friends and Jane is that when we explain, we receive quite a bit of understanding and grace. Many can identify with the loss of a child, the trauma of a serious illness, or the stress of weeks spent in a NICU room.

There’s not as much grace or compassion for someone like Jane.

Many of our community members ask, “Is it our responsibility to provide these basic needs? Shouldn’t they help themselves?” They wonder if the programs and services that exist are enabling people to stay trapped in a cycle of poverty. Many feel that community members asking for help should accept what they’ve been given, and show the proper gratitude. 

These are important questions to ask. We should always examine our local programs and services to see how we can break the cycle, rather than just slapping a band-aid on the issue. However, I would urge our community to reframe the questions.

“Am I willing to risk a child going hungry?” “Am I willing to risk a person being cold?” “Am I willing to let someone not have shelter because they might not have worked as hard as I think they should to earn it.”   

I recently helped a lady at our coat drive. The first coat I showed her was warm, in excellent condition, would fit her perfectly — and it was purple. I caught the expression on her face, and I told her, “There are other choices.” She hesitated, but finally said, “Purple’s not my color. I was wondering, could I try that one on?” She obviously didn’t want to seem ungrateful. We handed her the plain black, serviceable coat she had inquired her about. She put the coat on, and she just lit up. She couldn’t stop smiling. She started talking about how nice the coat was, how warm it would be, how it would repel water, but it was still nice enough to wear for job interviews.

A plain black coat gave her joy. She would have taken the purple coat and been warm and stylish. But when we gave her a choice, she chose what she felt she needed and was empowered.

I urge you to reframe the questions this week. Sometimes we need to provide a basic need. Sometimes, the world needs a Band-Aid to help heal, even when we know it’s not going to solve the bigger problem. We might even need the super awesome Frozen and Paw Patrol Band-Aids because everybody knows that the cool bandaids help heal faster than the boring beige ones.

The boxes from our coat drive are being taken down this week. I can assure you, it’s not too late. United Way will still accept coats at our office. We have a few specific families that could use assistance, and we just learned that a huge need at one of our local schools is tennis shoes for elementary-aged kids.

There’s plenty of opportunity to give this season. If you have any questions or ideas, please don’t hesitate to call our office to find out how and where to help. We’d love to connect you. 507-373-8670. 

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.