FOR YEARS, I PARTICIPATED IN SUB-FOR-SANTA. I was always happy to be a part of this tradition and looked forward to it each year. Until a few years ago.
My church group was given the name of a needy family and a list of suggested gift items. One evening in early December, my group met at Shopko. An hour later we had filled four carts with with food, candy, staples and toys. We returned to the church where we wrapped the items and had an enjoyable evening chatting with other groups doing the same.
A couple of days before Christmas, we parked in front of the family's home. As we unloaded the gifts, I looked around. The neighborhood was humble, but clean. Christmas lights adorned most of the homes. There were two cars parked in the driveway, including a pickup truck. As we trundled our gifts toward the house, I recognized the kind of truck it was from my experience as a contractor: the father of this household was a carpet installer. A niggling question arose in my mind as we congregated at the front door. Carpet layers work hard. Very hard. But they also make a good living: around $300 a day. That's over $70,000 a year. The bag of gifts in my hand suddenly grew heavier.
The door opened and a Hispanic woman greeted us. Several children stood behind her, gawking. She spoke little English, but motioned for us to enter. As we did, I noticed the expensive marble tile on the entry floor and the well-furnished living room, complete with a large Christmas tree, already surrounded by presents. Since I speak Spanish, I told her who we were.
"Ya lo se!" she said. I know! Curious, I asked her how. "We signed up for this," she said brightly.
"Signed up?" I asked. "Where?"
"At the community center. They had a list for people who wanted Christmas and I signed up. I told them what gifts we wanted and now here you are!"
I grimaced a smile. Here was a prosperous immigrant family with their own home and two cars. There was no sign of dysfunction, trouble, or poverty here. Dad made a good living. And we were giving them Christmas because Mom had signed up for it.
I didn't say anything; my friends were not privy to my conversation with the woman. After singing a couple of carols and leaving, we bid each other goodnight. I saw the glow of happiness on the face of my friends and I was glad for them. But in the rearview mirror of my own car, I saw my face. I was angry. Angry because some feckless government bureaucrat, eager to be "of help" during the season, had institutionalized and ruined what should have been a personal, highly private charitable act, where someone sees someone in need and quietly answers that need. Instead, a sign-up sheet and a gift list was given to church groups around Salt Lake and we spent our money and time awarding someone the Christmas lottery.
Now, before you call me Scrooge, hear me out. Historically, Santa Claus did not give gifts. He kept a list of naughty and nice children and rewarded them according to their behavior. Good kids got nice gifts; bad kids got a lump of coal. Both were earned. But Santa now represents the getting of something for nothing. Giving someone a gift doesn't reinforce good behavior (being "nice") and may indeed reward bad behavior (teaching people to expect no-strings charity).
May I offer an alternative? Instead of hand-outs, let's give hand-ups. And I know some folks who do just that: OPPORTUNITY INTERNATIONAL (http://www.opportunity.org/). For over thirty-five years, OI has made small loans to help people start their own businesses. Most loans are just $60 and 98% are repaid. The money is then lent to another worthy entrepreneur. Loan recipients form "trust groups," which bring together 10 to 30 entrepreneurs who elect leaders, receive training and pledge to guarantee each other’s loans. Because the group guarantee replaces the need for collateral, credit becomes available to those previously locked out from formal financial services.When clients build businesses this way, they set monumental changes in motion. Family income rises. Children are fed and go to school. Homes are improved. Lives are changed.
How many times have you wondered when you gave the panhandler a dollar what they were going to spend it on? With OI, you direct your loan to someone who not only values it, but will repay it and that money will then bless the lives of others.
I joined OPPORTUNITY INTERNATIONAL and I urge you to do the same. For as little as $25, you can change someone's life, and then that money, once repaid, will go to work again, changing someone else's life. You can make a one-time donation or choose a regular contribution schedule. And since OI has been at it, scandal-free, for decades, you know your investment -- for that's what it is -- is actually reaching the people who need your help. You're not teaching a man to fish and then taking your tackle home with you. You're loaning him the money to buy his own fishing pole, which he will repay. And then that money will help another man buy a fishing pole for his family. And generations of families will be affected.
Originally, Santa Clause had it right. Good behavior should be rewarded. This Christmas, I urge you to fill someone's stocking with a loan; give them a gift they will in turn give to another. Truly, a gift that keeps giving.
St. Nick will be proud. No coal for you!