“Oh, no…” my 10 year-old brother Ward whispered as he opened his gift from our grandmother. It was another necktie much too long for his little body and one that an old man might wear to a funeral. “My turn!” I giggled. Opening gifts from Nana used to disappointment me when I was younger, but now it was a game to see who received the most inappropriate gift. I tore the paper and saw in bold red letters on the box, “Top Records from the 1940 Swing Era of Music!” I didn’t know what the Swing Era was but knew it was from 25 years earlier and music my grandmother loved. Nana never thought to ask what we wanted – she just assumed we liked what she liked.
Many years later, in a very hot, humid country, I was prying open a huge wooden crate with three other women, all excited to see what a German church had sent in “relief aid.” Angela yanked off the brace that held the box together and out exploded a hundred pieces of clothing that a machine had compressed together. We all laughed happily while we began to separate the clothes but our cheer diminished as we pulled out winter coats, heavy boots, one-piece snowmobile outfits, mittens and scarves. We all looked at each other in amazement. “What were those people thinking?!”
Neither story ended in catastrophe. “Nana gifts” were given to elderly neighbors and the clothing was disassembled for its fabric, but the intentions of Nana and the good people who donated clothing to their churches surely weren’t fulfilled.
The ability to offer well-targeted gifts and donations is critical when giving to communities that have few resources and have specific wants and needs to survive. Coming from the United States, I could not have guessed what my South American friends needed because my world was so different. I, too, thought a community might be thankful for clothing. Yet, my neighbors had a specific grave request – first aid kits with instructions for the many people in the community employed at a nearby bread factory. I didn’t know people worked in dangerous sweatshops where no laws protected the workers’ safety and many had died in on-the-job injuries from lack of immediate first aid. Women in the community asked for tools to build a community garden to grow herbal remedies to avoid paying high costs for pharmaceuticals, often outdated and dangerously dumped in poor countries. I never thought of donating cell phones to people living in poverty, but texting is how Deaf people communicated with one another and they needed phones. Others wanted mosquito nets. What were mosquito nets? Others needed small loans to buy chickens to raise and breed. Hmm…all things I would have never thought to send overseas.
Lesson learned? Ask people want they want and need. Imagine how excited your home community will be knowing that they are collecting goods which will be appreciated and used to make a real difference in people’s lives. Don’t send “Nana gifts.” Ask first.