…panhandling for charity

“I am panhandling!!!”

I don’t think the first person had left me speaking to the air when I realized it... All those years in college, books and articles authored, speeches and conferences in exotic places around the world, a half-decent salary, and here I am, a Full University Professor, asking for shoppers’ spare change! Should I just have sent a check instead of signing up for two hours of “canhandling” (my friends and I actually were using cans, not pans)? “This is going to be much longer than I ever thought,” I said to myself...

And indeed, the first few times I was ignored or rejected by a passerby’s grumble or some other non-verbal show of disgust, I felt that I was wasting my time and embarrassing myself. Of course, a couple of students and colleagues were surprised to see me asking for donations! I was not the only “canhandler” outside one of our local big-box retailers volunteering for our local chapter of “The Arc -Pennsylvania” (the acronym means “Advocacy and Resources for Citizens with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities” and it’s part of a national organization for disabled individuals). But the thought that so many people were behaving toward me like I had undoubtedly behaved toward other fund-raising individuals in the past was not a very comforting one. Even the cute plastic rulers we were giving away made no effect on the shoppers who were too busy to even hear what I had to say!

“Well, if I volunteered to two hours of begging for a worthy cause, I better get some results!” I thought. I started by shortening the “elevator pitch” I first had used. Heck, the attention span I was being given lasted less than an elevator doors closing! “Would you consider making a donation to The Arc, an association of disabled citizens...” evolved into “Can you give some change to help disabled persons?” At last, people started paying attention to what I was saying!

Then I started seeking visual contact with my prospective donors, thanking them for their attention and smiling even if they did not give any money. Some coins, a few bills started trickling into my can. I also started giving away the rulers to shoppers that were entering the store, and quite a few of them would deposit their spare change in my can when they left the store.

I also encountered a few people that were so jaded –or simply were having a bad day; who knows? A few questioned my motives. Did I work for The Arc? (No...) How much was I getting in return for my time? (Zero!) Did I have a job? (Yes, one of the most desirable jobs you can find!) Did I have a disabled family member? (No, but I have seen what a blessing -and a challenge--they can be to families that do.)

Then, other individuals’ generosity truly touched my heart. Some did not mind taking out a larger bill or two, and often they were not the best dressed or best groomed; in fact, several seemed to be in need of money as well. Others told me how The Arc had made such a difference in their lives by providing much needed services to their loved ones. But the one that got my eyes wet was a teenager with an obvious disability who heard my pitch and beat her parents to her own purse, almost falling to the ground in the attempt. I believe that her disability was not so strong that she could not understand and empathize with others; she also realized that she could help others by helping me with her own resources... and she did, happily and earnestly, even putting herself in danger!

Honestly, these persons made me realize what a difference it can make in other people’s lives to just give a few coins or bills. They helped me re-experience first-hand the hope that collective action can provide on behalf of those who need us. I have known this for so long but it had been a long time since I had actually done something that would make me feel it so strongly. I even have students who take my “Business, Society and Corporate Conduct” course choose and report on a Service Learning experience of their own choice! I do this so they get “outside their comfort zones” and better empathize with those whose needs are much greater than ours. This experience helped me realize that there is much more value in this than we can describe with words.

It might go without saying, but serving others through your local chapter of NSHMBA can also be a source of most valuable experiences. There is incredible value in helping those that are earlier in their careers, or in helping those that are transitioning in their careers. Get more involved! You might learn more about yourself than you ever thought!

What do you think? Would you like to share a similar experience? Have you been in touch with organizations like The Arc that benefit others that are disadvantaged? Send me your thoughts or suggestions via email (drolivaslujan_at_gmail.com), facebook, or LinkedIn.

¡Hasta la próxima!