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Rethinking Charity This Holiday Season

It’s the time of year for helping others --  donating to toy drives or food pantries. But, as Mallory Noe-Payne reports, this holiday season might be a good time to re-think what we mean, when we say charity.

Walk around Virginia’s capital city, and you will see people begging on street corners, or sleeping on park benches. And this time of year, says Kelly King Horne, people hone in on it. Horne is in charge of Homeward, Richmond’s planning office for homeless services.

“On some days we get calls from people who are like ‘Oh well nobody is helping these homeless people,” Horne said. "I saw a person on the street and no one is doing anything about it.’”

That, says Horne, couldn’t be further from the truth. She heads up a robust network of people and organizations that have helped Richmond reduce homelessness by almost a third since the peak years of the recession.

But people don’t know that, so they try to to do something. They start a drive at school for warm jackets, or serve food from their church basement. Horne says, sometimes, that can actually make her job more difficult.

“We find people under bridges and they’re like ‘No man, I’m good. Because I get my basic needs met.’ And we don’t ever want someone to not have their needs met, but we want them to know that there’s a next step,” said Horne.

That next step is connecting to the system that Horne is in charge of, a system that will help people find permanent housing, continue their education, or get a job.

Horne isn’t saying she doesn’t want people to help. She’ll be the first to admit that donations and volunteers are really important. Instead, she’s saying that this holiday season, people should think about charity that goes beyond basic needs.

“We do something to feel good. And that interaction is more about meeting our own personal needs than meeting the needs of the community,” Horne said. "Because honestly meeting the needs of the community is hard, it requires long term commitment, dedication, building a relationship with someone who’s not like you, dealing with some difficult truths.”

To better understand, I visited an organization that Horne says is taking on that long-term commitment, called Change the World RVA.  They work with homeless youth. Natalie May is the founder ofChange the World.

“We have students who are what we call unaccompanied youth, so they don’t have any family,” May said. "They’re usually staying with friends, relatives, shelters.”

I met May and five of the kids she works with -- ages 14-19. Three of the kids I met live in motels, one just moved out after living there for five years.

The day I visited they were making cookies for a bake sale at May’s church. They’re going to use the money to buy each other Christmas gifts.

Leo is a junior in high school. On his wish list are some new clothes, maybe a Wal- Mart gift card. Things he says he would have trouble accepting from just anyone.

“Everything has more to it. You can’t get a thing without having there be more to it. Even if it’s something you need, even if it’s something essential, it’s not just given,” Leo said. "I was taught that if you let people help you then it’s kind of like a burden to them. And you kind of just have to know what to do yourself.”

Today, Leo is sporting a new pair of glasses. He went out shopping for them yesterday with one of the Change the World volunteers. I asked him why it wasn’t hard to accept that gift.

“They do it with smiling faces. They are just really kind and it’s just really fun,” he said. "It’s nothing like having it be attached to something else. I think that’s why”

He also says it helps that he knows the people who are helping him personally.

So how best can you help? Don’t stop giving, says Kelly King Horne of Homeward, but do start connecting.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.