We've gone through some troubling economic times. There are people you know right at this moment who are about to lose their home. Or their car. Or both. They are good people who have tried to do all the right things, but circumstances have just gotten the better of them. Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it was a death in the family. Maybe it's just an acute clinical depression that has gotten the better of them.
They live next door to you and they look like they are doing fine. The house is decent. They still wave and smile when they come out the door. But they are 30 days away from losing their house. They eat hot dogs and egg sandwiches and beans and rice. They frequently find reasons to decline to go with you when invited places. Once you noticed their electricity was off for the day and you assumed it was a wiring situation. It wasn't. It took them a day to borrow the money to get the electricity turned back on.
People who spend a lot of time being philanthropic work with people who are in horrible crisis---homeless, out in the weather, starving. We need to. We always need to.
But in the meantime there are also people who are on the edge of terrible circumstances that could use some love and caring. They keep their problems hidden because they don't want to call out for help. They think they can fix what is wrong with a little time and some good luck. And they probably can. But in the meantime, they feel like the bottom of the barrel of humanity because they try to look like the rest of us and keep their burdens a secret.
"I broke down one day in a Wal-Mart," said Janie, single mother of two. "My husband wasn't paying child support and I was going to school to get my nursing license so I could get a higher paying job. We were making it, but barely. I'd pay bills just before utilities would get disconnected and we'd cut everything out that was a luxury, things we enjoyed before like going to the matinee on the weekend. I felt frightened all the time because we were one calamity away from losing everything we had.
"There was a mom with two kids standing at the end of the aisle where they put impulse items. The shelves were stocked with little plastic cups with movie characters on them, a buck a piece. She got one for each of her kids and I turned the corner and burst into tears because I couldn't do that. I needed every dollar I had for groceries or gas to get to work."
Living on the line means you get what you must to get by, but nothing else. And when you are surrounded by people who have plenty it's hard not to feel the despair of want. You miss out on the things that make your life easy or comfortable.
A local pastor reported that the necessity of letting things go can contribute to further economical failings. A parishioner was having a mechanical problem with the car that was minor. The man had no money to make the repair which continued to get worse. Eventually it got so bad the car would not work. The man then had trouble getting to his second job which was the only thing standing between them and a full-blown housing crisis. "Fortunately, we were made aware of it by someone else and were able to help him. But he never asked for help. If he had asked, or if we had known sooner we could have helped him. Some people don't want to ask for help."
You get the idea. Part of what makes a money-crisis feel so horrible is that you don't have the fall-back feel-good remedies to ease your stress. Mother, father, kids---they all feel it. They don't have access to the little treats or luxuries that help them escape.
Below is a list of ideas that are "feel good" gifts you can give to families you suspect are in a secret crisis:
Restaurant Gift Card: These people don't eat out. They eat the most basic of food using the cheapest ingredients possible. If they do go out, they are buying bad burgers off the dollar menu. Imagine the joy of taking an hour to eat out at a sit-down restaurant with the family. Get them a gift certificate for the meal and pair it up with a few extra bucks for their tip.
Pay something on a utility: These people don't want you to know they are in a crisis. If you ask they will not admit to it. One thing you can do is pay a few bucks on their utility bill. Pop a $20 toward toward the water bill. If it happens that it's already been paid, then they will have a credit for next month. What a relief to them. They can put that extra money toward something else.
Gas card: An anonymous gas card mailed to someone can relieve their whole week. One less thing to worry about for just a short time.
Movie tickets: Get movie tickets for the whole family. Pair it up with some cash for snacks. Or call and invite them. Say, "hey, we want to take you out to the movies, our treat, because you are awesome friends."
Non-SNAP items: There are things you can't get using a SNAP card such as deoderant, toothpaste, cleaning supplies. Make up a basket or box and deliver it when nobody is home. Because I can't think of some weird excuse to buy cleaning supplies for someone without tipping them off that you know they are in trouble. You'll have to get creative on this.
Toys for the kids: Parents suck it up and go without. It's hard to see the kids do it. Find a family with kids and get each child a little toy or special item. Wrap it and say it's a "just because" gift. Or give the parents a break and take their children out for ice cream. Unless they are strangers. Don't be creepy.
Repair something: This is a great one for senior citizens. Rake a yard or mow a lawn or unclog the gutters. Trim a tree. Do something around the house for someone that they normally would have to pay someone to do. These are things people let go when they are destitute.
Luxury foods: When you have only enough money to put food on the table you buy what you need to get by, nothing else. You use the most horrible toilet paper, the cheapest ingredients, you stop buying cream for your coffee. Actually, you stop buying coffee, too. A basket of luxury items will transport a person for a short time and put a little color into a drab world. Fancy cheeses, meats, crackers. Gourmet coffee. Any kind of food that isn't your basic. Bacon, believe it or not. Meat is very expensive and one of the first things to be cut out of the meal of people who are barely getting by.
Luxury in general: People in survival mode do not pamper themselves. They use awful toilet paper, the cheapest shampoo. They use toothbrushes they should have thrown out months ago. They do not have the luxury of anything of quality. Nor a luxury of services like the salon or getting a treat with the manicurist. Any little reminder that good things can still happen to them is a welcome relief.
Memberships/Entertainment: When all you can do is get food on the table, you don't get to go to the museum. Or the movies. You can't get cable or satellite. Any place that costs money to walk in the door... you don't get to do that. Consider getting someone a gift of a membership to a local museum or a gym or Netflix/Hulu. Entertainment can help you escape for a little while and restore your energy to continue the fight to get back to where you need to be.
A book, craft or hobby item: A lot of people go to work simply because it's a job and they need money, not because it is their joy or passion. Those people use their hobbies as the time to experience their passions or joys. When you have no money you stop doing those things you love. Find out what your desperate person likes to do and treat them to that. I know one person who loves the bookstore. She goes and browses but never buys. She checks her books out at the library, but I know she loves to purchase them when she can. For another person I was able to score a couple huge bags of yarn. Her joy is needle work and her hobby is making hats and sweaters for the children's hospital. She cannot always afford to buy yarn. A new tool for a woodworker, some luxury stationery for someone who has pen pals, some paint for the artist.
Sometimes life is hard. Personally, I think our job as humans is to help each other keep our humanity. We do this by showing compassion and encouraging others to do the same. We love people, make them feel loved and thereby open their capacity to love others and pay it forward. People who are on the brink, just barely surviving, are scared and miserable. They have trouble doing for themselves, so it's hard for them to go beyond themselves and help others. Fight or flight. Neither are great choices.
Let's lift others up when they need it. Who can use your help today? Do you have any other ideas to share?