DECEMBER 09 Round Robin Essay


(Eagle River, WI Fall, 2009) Since moving to my new home in a small north woods community, I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity. Finally, I thought I’d found it and worked last year in a holiday toy give-away program.

Parents filled out an application that included their children’s wish list. Donations were solicited then the program shopped for the requested presents; toy donations from local programs and businesses were received. Such as, Kohl’s Department Store gave what they’d received from their toy drive. Toys for Tots had an excess that came our way. Kindness for Kids did likewise. The community was very generous.

At the actual event, held at a local church, small groups of parents came in throughout the day and were given points to spend on gifts for their children. After an explanation of the program, a volunteer shopper helped parents choose gifts and they could have them wrapped.

The number of gifts for each child was dependent upon each child’s needs and how many donations were received. The event was a huge success. Over 225 children were shopped for and the parents were ecstatic to be able to give their children hand-picked presents. A real strength was that it put the selection and gift giving into the hands of parents themselves.

The public agency where I worked collected the applications. Anyone could sign up and the program determined who was eligible. Our agency’s past problems with the eligibility issue convinced us we’d found a perfect match. Then I, as a private citizen, donated a full day to the actual event, signing people in and giving them the point coupons as they arrived. The program seemed a win for everyone involved.

Now in the second year, the program leader had sent written materials describing the program’s mission and announced the group would meet the next week. When reading the materials, I became concerned about the new direction the program seemed to be taking.

The program description was “to follow God’s example in giving parents the gift of faith in Jesus which is what will help them in every desperate situation including Christmas pressures.” The mission was described as “a Christian outreach celebrating Jesus as God’s gift to us.”

Public agencies need to be vigilant when making decisions on what programs can be supported. And, how they can be supported. Following a discussion with my Director, we decided I would go to the meeting, find out about the changes and express our concerns. We both agreed we could not be involved in what was put forth in these written materials.

The group leader began the meeting by saying she was sure about the new mission of the program. She explained the importance of spreading the word of God and wanting to return to a “keep Christ in Christmas” theme. The group shook their heads in agreement. She recalled the year before when people were ready to do their shopping, that she had given them what she called her “spiel.” She was excited about doing the same this year.

I had an instant flashback of her “spiel” and was uncomfortable once again. It began as a short welcome to each group, describing the generosity of our community, the program’s goals and then a short synopsis of what to expect when they did their shopping.

But as the day progressed, the “spiel” evolved into a lengthy explanation, including her statement that she had prayed to God and he heard her and how fortunate the parents should feel that God had blessed them. By the end of the day, her “spiel” resembled a sermon at a revival meeting and barely mentioned the process of shopping.

This year they planned to give one toy to each child instead of several as they’d done last year. And they wanted to give each child a Bible. One toy and a Bible. Though the leader was aware that her “spiel” made people uncomfortable, she declared, with a glassy eyed gaze, that she felt compelled to continue her ministry. That was the most important thing. The group agreed wholeheartedly. All but me.

I told the group that our secular agency worked very hard to serve the entire community fairly. I wondered out loud, how non-churchgoers or non-Christians might feel about coming to such an event. In fact, would they? I stated that I’d also noticed a high degree of discomfort while the “spiel” was being delivered last year. It wasn’t clear to me why she felt it imperative to express her religious motivation. Isn’t that a private and personal thing? That seemed to go over everyone’s head.

I didn’t think our agency could participate, I said. My Director and I had discussed this, I said. Silence ensued. She had no answer to my question regarding respecting differences, accommodating all. I left the meeting, knowing this volunteer experience was over for me.

A few days later, the group leader called my Director and he agreed that we would continue to accept applications for the program.   Political correctness reigns. In my view the program has been hijacked by people who are ignoring its goals and promoting their own agenda.

Is this a bait and switch? Let’s say it’s a toy give-away program. That way we get a higher attendance. But our real agenda is to spread the word and bring people into the fold. I did notice on the sign up sheet, in very small print, there was a statement that the program was Christian-based. The group leader said she thought this statement was sufficient as a declaration of their intentions. “Won’t people realize what they’re participating in?” she asked.

My other concern, and equally important, was for the donors. It’s always essential that the wishes of donors be respected and honored. I wondered if donors were being fully informed.

After not attending any other meetings, time approached for the program to kick into high gear. The group leader called unexpectedly, saying she wanted to see me. When she came to my office, she asked “are you with us?” I said no. She didn’t ask for an explanation but she did mention something interesting. The pastor of the church where the event had been held last year was not going to allow the program to take place there. The pastor, she said, was not comfortable with the program’s new mission. So, for that, I felt a bit validated. She went on to say they had already lined up another location and seemed nonplused by the whole thing.

Some may think I’m overreacting. I know this is just one little program in one little town. But it’s all part of a larger issue for me. We live in a society that is increasingly being taken over by religion and faith. I’ve read articles justifying the murder of an abortion doctor. Politicians are being banned from communion for doing their job as legislators. Business meetings often begin with a prayer. Some may say these are extremes and not that common. Or these are small things and that I’m making a big deal about nothing. I just don’t want to ignore or minimize this and then wake up some day living in a restructured version of Iran. There are a few things I know for sure. A really neat program has been hijacked. I did the right thing by taking a stand. And I’m searching for another community volunteer experience.


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