Empathy School

The June 29th, 1999 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article written by Reed Abelson, entitled, “Relief workers fed up with useless lip, hemorrhoid balms.” I cut it out. It’s been in my social ignorance file ever since. Abelson wrote about the emergency supplies sent to the Kosovo refugees, “.. relief workers desperate for syringes, penicillin and insulin found many of the hundreds of boxes instead contained Chap Stick, Preparation H and anti-smoking inhalers – given by U.S. companies that got a tax break for the donations.”

An even bigger problem for aid workers is the receipt of useless medical supplies. This includes the common practice of sending drugs that are either inappropriate or outdated. After the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times reported on February 25, 2007 that 57% of medications received were beyond their shelf life. 150 metric tons had to be disposed at a cost of Rs. 2.6 million (a little over $26,000 U.S. if I did the exchange rate correctly… ) Lest you think that $26k is nothing to write home about, I’ll take you back to Abelson’s article, “In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, possibly as much as half of the roughly 30,000 tons of donated medical supplies were of little or no use, according to an article that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. The cost of destroying those drugs is estimated to be upward of $30 million – $2,000 per ton.”

On a more local level, The Sun Journal of New Bern, North Carolina, December 2, 2008, discussed how this problem impacts local charity centers, “Litterers leave trash instead of donations at Salvation Army.” People routinely dump old broken furniture, rusted out exercise equipment, bags of torn and dirty clothing, filthy toys and whatever else they don’t want. Nancy Fisher, the district operations manager for the Salvation Army said that it gets worse during the holidays, “.. because people start cleaning out and getting ready for the holidays.” In my opinion it could be a sense of perverted generosity.

Back to Abelson’s comments, “The problem arises, critics say, because there are too many incentives for companies to empty out their warehouses, regardless of need, and for charities to ferry the supplies along. What particularly upsets the critics is the belief, especially prevalent among American donors, that any gift is better than none.”

Any gift is better than none. That’s akin to giving the crumbs off your plate to a hungry child. What is generosity? Is it the mere act of giving of your excess, of what you don’t need or want? or should generosity involve thoughtfulness, caring or even self-sacrifice? Here is what the dictionary has to say about generosity, “the quality of being kind or fact of being plentiful or large.” It comes from a Latin word, generosus, meaning magnanimous. That word means, “very generous or forgiving, esp. toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself.”

It is easier to extend generosity when you couple it with empathy. On that note, I’d like to introduce you to Mary Gordon, who runs an organization called, Roots of Empathy. Her website states, “Mary Gordon is recognized internationally as an educator, best-selling author, child advocate and parenting expert who has created programs informed by the power of empathy. In 1996, she founded Roots of Empathy, which now offers programs in Canada, New Zealand, the United States, the Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In 2005, Ms Gordon created the Seeds of Empathy program. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and an Ashoka Fellow.” Her accomplishments go well beyond one paragraph. Here is the link to her website: http://www.rootsofempathy.org/en/who-we-are/mary.html where you can learn more.

My favorite part of her program is “baby professor” where a neighborhood infant and parent visit classrooms to teach emotional literacy. The students are challenged to decipher what the baby is saying and feeling. After a total of 27 visits, the children gain an understanding of infant vulnerability which leads to messages of social inclusion and a culture of caring. The children learn ways to overcome cruelty and injustice.

In these uncertain times, true generosity hinged on a solid sense of empathy can go a long way in resolving conflicts on a local level as well as worldwide. The best place to start is with our children. Why not get a “baby professor” for your local school district?

Maybe in time our national generosity will be upgraded to include empathy and no longer include broken furniture, old toys, cases of hemorrhoid cream and outdated medicine.


About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Empathy, Generosity, Philanthropy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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