17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Helping the Poor and Needy

April's visiting teaching message was different than it's been in a while. At the end of last year, I felt like we were talking about the benefits of membership in the Relief Society ad nauseum. This year, we've focused on personal testimony, faith, and other individually meaningful aspects of spiritual development. This message, though, was about helping the poor and needy. I glanced at the title and was excited about it. Finally, something about reaching outside my social and church circles, a focus on a major problem in the world.

So, my partner and I went visiting teaching last week. We sat outside on a beautiful spring day--spring is finally here!--and talked with a new sister in our ward who just gave birth to her first child. My partner is a wonderful woman and I see her quite a bit. She lives near me and we often trade kids back and forth. She is always cheerful, despite the demands of a large family.

She started the lesson by recounting a story found in April's New Era. The author writes of her patriarchal blessing, which stated "You may help the needy with your time, effort, and means.” This young teen-ager feels drawn to help the poor in her area, but her first two efforts are unsuccesful. She goes home, depressed. How can she fulfill her calling as described in her blessing? How can she help the needy? She walks into her home, and her younger brother is crying, upset from being teased at school. The words from her patriarchal blessing come back to her, and she concludes that "the poor are just as likely to be in your home as on the streets." My partner then talked about how that message really resonated for her. With 5 young children, she has little time to do other things. I understand this, and can empathize with her. "To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

The deeper implications, though, of the New Era article bother me. If I equate the poor and needy only with my family, then I am not forced to personally confront the poor and needy in the streets and in my community. I have given up my responsibility to help them. I am not required to look beyond my comfort zone to those who may be in need.

On another level, I was upset by this thought. Here is another way that my children can prevent me from having an impact on the world at large. I don't want my influence to be felt only within the walls of my home, no matter how important that work may be. I want to reach beyond my family to help others.

I've been thinking about this all week. I've been wondering what kind of contribution I can make, where I can use my talents, and how I can make a difference. Later, after I was thinking about this experience again, I had a flash of inspiration. I'm the enrichment leader in my ward. The flexible enrichment groups seem like the perfect vehicle to make a regular committment to a local non-profit organization. As beneficial as tying quilts and putting together hygeine kits are, there is something particularly valuable about meeting people face-to-face who need our help, as Chole so eloquently described.

Have you been in wards that have successful at working with a non-profit? What seems to work? What hasn't worked? And what kinds of services--soup kitchen, women's shelter?? Or have you seen a particularly effective one-time service project performed in a ward? And what about in your own lives? Has there been a time when you've been able to devote energy to a cause?


  • Our Ward in Provo didn't have very many opportunities for service outside of the church, because, well, frankly, there wasn't much outside of the church. However --we did try. Here are some things we did:

    1. Writing letters and sending packages to the Military in Iraq
    2. Having a food drive for the Utah food bank
    3. Making blankets for women's shelters (battered women).

    But, to be a little disagreeable, I think you missed the point of the article. Yes, we can help our families and our children and view them as the "needy" --but only when we are unable to help those outside the circle. Our duties are to help our families first; then we can help the world.

    But I can understand your frustration. That's why doing simple things like teaching your kids about donations, or having them help in a homeless shelter (haven't done that one myself, yet, but I should) might be beneficial for those around you and for other in the future who will be touched by your children's compassion.

    I had another thought --maybe just being able to pass on information about what needs help (a 5K benefit for someone with huge medical bills; a fund raiser for families who were struck by physical tragedy) could be, well...helpful, too. Heck, throw a 5K! We're doing it here, although I'm not sure what for...
    posted by Blogger Cheryl at 5/01/2007 10:31:00 AM  

  • In the 5 VT conversations we had about this, my conservative companion did what so frequently happens in the church: she turned the conversation into how we don't really need to worry about the poor and needy. There was the point about instead helping people in our family, helping the spiritually needy (at church), and all the regular cautions about actually serving the actual poor and needy. It was very frustrating.

    And I must admit that I am tiring of the "for everything there is a season." I get it, but I really think it is overused and frequently serves as an excuse. To me, some things are just baseline requirements that must happen in every season: no matter what else is going on, I must get dressed, clean my house, nurture my family, fulfill my church callings, and be as christlike as possible. In my reading of scripture, caring for the poor and needy should be our #1 priority.

    That said, as you have noticed, many times our service projects are either church based (a la hygene kits) or one-shot deals. I think mini enrichment groups might change this if you had, say, one MEG that had a specific commitment to a local institution. For example, we have a local hospice that needs a regular to clean it. I would love to find a group of women in my branch who could alternate cleaning there (and mayeb watch each others kids for the time someone else is cleaning).

    I think your next best bet is attempting to change people's hearts to the extent that they made room in their lives for service. This might be accomplished through an education night about a local organization or a "world dinner" where people are randomly assigned to a 3rd world, 2nd world, or 1st world meal (like rice and beans, pizza, and a gourmet meal, respectively). Most people get the 3rd or 2nd and a very few get the gourmet--this helps people realize the reality of some inequalities. Or maybe do a book club with a book that would open people's eyes (and hearts) to the needs of others.

    Sorry I have gone on and on--this is my pet subject. I have tried to dedicate my life to service and have, actually, succeeded in spending 5 years of it as a fulltime volunteer. I hope I will continue that trend in the future and I would love to inspire others to do the same. We do offer wonderful and irrepalceable service to our families, and there is no reason to stop there.
    posted by Blogger a spectator at 5/01/2007 11:30:00 AM  

  • Michelle,

    I completely agree with your assessment of the article and have the same thoughts when reading similar articles and hearing stories related during Relief
    Society. I mean obviously we need to help those in our family, but to me, it's a given. While it obviously takes effort, it's a natural occurrence. To believe that I can check "helping the poor and needy" off my list by stopping there leaves me feeling underutilized and disconnected from a much larger community.

    Being the enrichment leader in your ward give you a wonderful opportunity to multi-task and fulfill your calling while helping yourself and others look to the community and world to offer service. If you have ward members available, you should think about having a woman called to be a Humanitarian Aid and Service Specialist. That's my calling and I think I've said it before--it's awesome.

    I try to have a service opportunity for the sisters to focus on each month. I have also tried to diversify the types of projects hoping to reach out to all talents, schedules and interests. Some months it will be a "drive" of some sort (these are the most sucessful because in these busy times more people have money to spare on purchasing goods than time). Sometimes the drives are for local community groups and sometimes they are for the church Humanitarian Services. Some months we make things (scarves, hats, blankets, skirts) to be donated to local shelters or Humanitarian Services.

    And then every couple of months I try to plan an activity that connects people. The Relief Society Pres wants them to be something that all the women can come to which is a real challenge because I think the most effective service is done a much smaller scale. These have included making dinner, eating with and doing an activity with the girls at a home for at-risk pregnant women. We also made a Thanksgiving dinner,ate with and played games with the families at a home that helps homeless families get back on their feet. In a couple of weeks we are planning a Visit and Variety show for a low-income nursing home in the area. These last two have been great because in both instances, children could join in the activities.

    In the fall we are working on a Back to School party at a home for troubled kids here in the area. While I feel repetitive volunteer work with organizations and people are far more effective in the end, my hope is with all these activities, members of the ward will be able to connect with these great organizations in the community that do so much good. These organizations are always looking for volunteers who can share specific skills on a regular basis.

    I think your idea of a MEG taking on a regular commitment is a great idea. I have thought about doing this with the home that helps families get back on their feet. They ask for year long commitments for providing a meal once a month. I think we could do it and families could rotate the responsibility.

    I'm sorry this is forever long. I could go on and on about this subject. Here is my final thought. I totally agree with a spectator on helping people find room for service. You could ask to give a lesson in RS on the subject of service before presenting the idea of a service group. It might help it get more commitments.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 5/01/2007 11:46:00 AM  

  • What I like to do is involve my children in service outside our little sphere. That way, I can help them learn by example and experience, and also accomplish something outside our family circle as well. It also helps me remember that there is a world outside the walls of my home while not needing to leave the people within those walls to have an impact elsewhere. My children love service projects!

    I do think it's important, though, to not fool ourselves into thinking that the only real valuable service to the larger community has to be big and impactful. Through small and simple things.... I love when we do service projects through RS, whether it be tying quilts or assembling kits or donating items somewhere.

    I also thought the VT message was balanced...we can help the poor and needy in temporal ways, but we can also help the poor and needy right in our own circles. Are we not all beggars? Do we not all need some help and support once in a while? I wrote on this recently at APoF, in fact. I think it's important not to think that helping the poor and needy has to be something big, or impacting those who are strangers, far away living lives so different from mine. We can and should help such people, but we shouldn't underestimate what our small efforts in our homes and wards and neighborhoods can do, too. And the Church has such amazing programs like the humanitarian and PEF funds that make a HUGE difference in many peoples' lives. We don't HAVE to leave our homes to make a difference, although I understand the need to literally do something different for one's own sake.
    posted by Blogger M&M at 5/01/2007 03:01:00 PM  

  • M&M,

    I understand the ideas in your final paragraph completely, but I feel like this post is not really about underestimating the value of the small things we do everyday, but underestimating our ability (especially as mother's with young children) to reach out to those in need beyond our regular sphere of influence.

    I have no doubt that the efforts I place into my family and ward are very important but I don't think those efforts should (or need to) eclipse what I need to give beyond my little circle.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 5/01/2007 04:18:00 PM  

  • Fair enough. :) I do think, though, that times and seasons are real and if we don't feel we have the wherewithal to do more than our day-to-day, that's ok, too. I realize, though, that you WANT to do more and that's great.
    posted by Blogger M&M at 5/01/2007 04:46:00 PM  

  • Cheryl, I'm not sure I understand what you mean in your third paragraph. I agree, though, that we help our families first. For me, that seems to be ALL I do, and I don't think it has to be that way, or should be that way. For me right now.

    Even when I'm super busy with my family, I always do my church calling (sometimes giving it less time than others), volunteer to make meals for people who need it, and show up to service projects. I personally feel the need to expand who I feel obligated to.

    Spectator, I really like your thoughts. I agree that the time and season can be used too often as an excuse. Just a few weeks ago, someone in my ward said something similar about family history--"I'm just waiting to feel motivated to do it!" There will never be a perfect time to add a regular commitment into our lives.

    Carrie, we don't have anyone called as the Humanitarian Aid and Service Specialist. Is that different that the ward PR person? I've never heard of your calling--it sounds awesome!--but in other wards, the ward PR person seemed to do something similar. I'm amazed at all you are finding for your ward to do. What a great service you are providing! You have done so many things. Is this on top of regular RS meetings? How do you locate organizations that fit with your RS? I am still new in my area, and don't feel like I have a handle on what kinds of organizations there are and what would be a good connection. I'm sure there are internet resources. I need to look into it. But, I really want to find an organization we can make a regular commitment to as a ward relief society.

    M&M, I've also been thinking about ways to get my kids interested and involved in service. I never want to get to the point with them that we are too overscheduled with soccer, dance, piano, etc that I feel like we don't have time to help others. A while ago, on Speaking of Faith on NPR, I heard a great discussion of using experiential philanthropy with children. It was in the context of teaching our children about money and how to use it in a wise and responsible way, but the idea of hands on serving with kids really stuck with me. I often feel like I need to schedule around my children, instead of including them. What kinds of things do you do together as a family? I see that as ideal.

    And to your last point, I'm not looking to change the world, I'm looking to do something on a smallish scale. At this point in my life, I can do that.
    posted by Blogger Michelle at 5/01/2007 05:18:00 PM  

  • While I was watching the PBS documentary on the Church last night, I had a small epiphany about why we as a church are so reluctant to reach out to the greater community but would rather do our "community service" from within (humanitarian aid, etc.)...and it must go back to the early days of the church and how distrustful members were of the outside because of their tight-knit community and dependence on one another, as well as the persecution they faced...and I was just amazed at how these feelings have held on through the years. I think some members are still a little "distrustful" of any organization that isn't directly related to the church.

    Anyways, Michelle, I think your idea is great and that Relief Society really needs to start moving in this direction. I love the new format of Enrichment and agree that it lends itself to an ongoing project like this. I wish I could press the "rewind" button from when I was Enrichment Counselor in Astoria and do something similar instead of the "standard" service projects that we did.

    Besides getting others onboard for such a commitment, another obstacle might be ensuring that there is follow through once you are released. I think that if you "sold" the project to the RS Presidency and spent the time needed to transition the work to the new Enrichment Leader, it shouldn't be a problem...in fact, she would already have pre-planned activities....Just some thoughts...let us know how it goes!
    posted by Blogger Jen at 5/01/2007 07:33:00 PM  

  • p.s. Michelle, I liked the idea of using the activities for RS (non-Enrichment) as ongoing opportunities for service. Great thought.

    In answer to your question, we do simple things. For example, we are encouraging our children to contribute to fast offerings. When I take food to someone in the ward, I try to involve them. Recently, we ordered a pizza that was made wrong, so we got two, and the children participated in helping me decide which family to take it to (we have two children in our ward with cancer right now, so it was a way to serve their friends in need). Little things.

    In addition, when there is a food drive, I try to involve them in helping me get things gathered. We have a charity drive every year in our ward and I like to encourage them to go through clothes and toys to give away. At Christmastime, the goal is to do something service-oriented every week, so that the focus isn't just on "getting" but on giving and remembering that there are some who have so little.

    Again, we don't do a lot that reaches outside our circle, but it does take us out of our usual routines, where we try to make some extra efforts here and there to look outside ourselves. They really seem to enjoy it (although they are still not sure about the fast offering thing....we'll see when and how they catch onto that concept....) :)
    posted by Blogger M&M at 5/01/2007 09:39:00 PM  

  • M&M

    I realize there are women out there who literally cannot handle anymore than their present obligations. And I am glad that they are able to find comfort and meaning through the VT message. Hopefully Michelle's companion was guided by the spirit to share the message in the way she did.

    There are also a lot of women who use time and season as an excuse (as mentioned before) to not extend themselves when they could (me being included in that group at times) or choose to fill their lives with other obligations leaving little or no time to help others (I constantly battle this in my own life).

    Anyway, the truth of the matter is that I would have never become as passionate on the matter of service outside of the home and church if I wasn't compelled to do so by my calling. And for that I will forever be thankful. Hopefully I will be able to continue to make it a priority in my life when I move onto the next calling. And for the record I am all about incorporating small and simple acts of service into our lives - but though my calling I hope to inspire those women in my ward to expand the circle of people who receive these small acts.

    Yes, it is different than a PR person. I am actually a part of the enrichment committee but have service as my focus. I know the other wards in our stake have women with similar callings in their wards too so I think it is a "real" calling. I've never actually seen a job description though, so I just do with it what I want for the most part. I would consider all the service activities "mini classes" because our ward does 4 other big things during the year that aren't service related (I wish I could get them to change that so we could streamline a bit).

    Our ward has worked with some of the organizations in the past and the others I have found through word of mouth and volunteermatch.org. I try to set up a meeting to talk with each organization I am interested in to find out their and brainstorm ideas of what our group could contribute and then I go from there. I also try to assess if there are opportunities there for YM and YW because I often get asked for service ideas from the leaders.

    While we do not have a monthly ongoing commitment to any one organization at the time, we do have yearly commitments to some of them. Like our ward always does a school supply drive every year for an organization in the area who helps families in transition get their kids in school with the proper clothes and supplies.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 5/01/2007 09:58:00 PM  

  • And for the record I am all about incorporating small and simple acts of service into our lives - but though my calling I hope to inspire those women in my ward to expand the circle of people who receive these small acts.

    This is great! I didn't mean to take away from this in any way in my comments. I'm sorry if it came across that way.
    posted by Anonymous m&m at 5/01/2007 10:48:00 PM  

  • "Helping the poor and needy" is a huge phrase, and can feel overwhelming. It obviously doesn't have to be--Daring Young Mom has a great post up about doing something simple to help others. But I think part of the whole "there is a season in all things" excuse (which may or may not be the case--sometimes it's legitimate, sometimes not) stems from being so overwhelmed with just keeping up with daily dose of life. Sometimes serving beyond our family seems like just one more thing we can't do. I think we could serve others better if we broke the rhetoric of "helping the poor and needy" into more manageable, bite-sized, practical realities.
    posted by Blogger Heather O. at 5/02/2007 05:20:00 PM  

  • I made this list a while ago with a few "bite sized" ideas many of which are ideal ways to involve children in service.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 5/02/2007 08:04:00 PM  

  • First off, great post, Michelle. Thanks for bringing up this topic.

    I know some of you read my post a few months back on helping the homeless - it's something I feel strongly about. For the last two years our family has not been part of a ward (ie: we live outside the official boundaries for the ward we attend, but we go anyway - we can't hold callings because our records can't be transferred from the ward we are supposed to attend, yada yada yada). I only mention this because we have realized how much we depended on our callings for opportunities of service in the past. We discovered that if we want to serve, WE need to do some extra work and discover opportunities in our community/around us instead.

    I think that all too often we as a church pat ourselves on the back and say "hey, we're doing a good job because we're fulfilling our callings" and "I serve enough through my calling". Yes...sometimes there is deep service through a calling (ie: bishop, President of RS, YW, YM and EQ) but often we just use our callings as an excuse. "I'm so busy serving in my calling that I don't have time to serve within my community, etc."

    I realize that this may sound trite but I believe that when we sincerely pray for opportunities to serve, whether in our family, our callings, our community we will be given those opportunities. Pray to have your eyes opened to what is going on around you...and you will find opportunities to serve. It doesn't just need to happen in our families or in our callings. It doesn't need to be huge and lifesaving - ALL service is important regardless of who it is rendered to.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 5/02/2007 09:38:00 PM  

  • Jen, I had a very similar epiphany watching that. It made me understand more our clannishness and tendency for self-sufficiency and independence from all outside organizations. And I think you're definitely right about getting the RS presidency behind a committment so that it has some kind of sticking power. I hope to find something we can commit to for a specific period of time, say a year, then we can re-evaluate.

    Thanks for the ideas M&M about serving with family.

    And thanks carrie for the extra details on your calling.

    I've been thinking about how important combining inspiration/prayer with my own disposition and interests are in finding something for me personally to be involved in. Because, helping the poor and needy seems so huge, as you said heather. But, if I can find one thing that I am interested in and that I feel good about, then I can commit to it and follow through.
    posted by Blogger Michelle at 5/03/2007 12:17:00 PM  

  • when I was RS President, my small and struggling ward did not do much but hold itself together. However, I always thought it would be neat if someone was given the calling of finding out what opportunities for community service are available, and then making a newsletter about it.
    posted by Blogger Maren at 5/03/2007 03:08:00 PM  

  • Michelle:

    Thanks for your great discussion on this topic. I thought you might like these three inspirational quotes I have up on the bulletin board above my desk:

    “A Latter-day Saint should abhor poverty and do all in his power to alleviate it.” Marion G. Romney, Gospel Forum, ENSIGN, Jan. 1971, at 16.

    “Today, in lands far away and right here in Salt Lake City, there are those who suffer hunger, who know want and are acquainted with poverty. Ours is the opportunity and the sacred privilege to relieve this hunger, to meet this want, to eliminate this poverty.” Thomas S. Monson, Goal Beyond Victory, ENSIGN, Nov. 1988, at 44.

    “We must reach out beyond the walls of our own Church. In humanitarian work, as in other areas of the gospel, . . . [w]e need not wait for a call or an assignment from a Church leader before we become involved in activities that are best carried out on a community or individual basis.” Glenn L. Pace, A Thousand Times, ENSIGN, Nov. 1990, at 10.
    posted by Blogger Maria at 5/03/2007 07:07:00 PM  

  • This post links to President Beck's first speech given at Women's Conference recently. The part quoted is directly related to our conversation - especially the part about becoming personally involved in relief efforts. I would have loved to hear the rest of her remarks to see if there really was any emphasis on service beyond church and family or if I am going to have to infer what I want from her short statement.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 5/05/2007 09:46:00 AM  

  • Hey, sisters!
    Here's a chance to do some good...a friend from the 'nacle is going to Africa and needs donations -- either stuff or money. You can find out more at http://africa.connorboyack.com/
    posted by Blogger M&M at 5/10/2007 09:07:00 PM  

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