Saturday, March 17, 2007

"Free"...Is it breaking down "community"?

What is the best way to "help?"

Most people I meet who aren't in destitute situations are compassionate (so are those in destitute situations, but that isn't the focus of this blog). Compassionate people want to help. Non-profits want and need their help. I have often been told that I need to look for people who are willing to offer services for free because we don't have the money to pay someone to come in and offer those services. These services can be wonderful! Because of compassionate people and the services they offer, we have chess, golf, art, photography, and many other non-traditional after school classes that allow kids to learn and develop.

But when my friend, Peaches, called the other day, it made me recall something I've thought about before...Is "free" always good?

My friend, Peaches, used to own a restaurant in South Dallas. She couldn't make it in that business (despite the good food!) so she closed and now does anything from cleaning house to cooking at one of the city buildings. She has a dream to market and sell her hot water cornbread. (Personally, I would love for her to get that on the market! :) ). She still caters, but she just doesn't get enough events so she has to work other jobs.

She asked me if we had anything available.

I explained to her that our food was all donated so there was little opportunity for us to use her catering business.

In other words, because people, funders, foundations, give free food...and because we try to spend as little as possible to keep our overall costs down, we are unable to support people/businesses in the South Dallas community where we live and work.

Could that be part of the reason the economy is worse in South Dallas than in other parts of the city?

If everything from your meals to your clothes to your children's school supplies are given to you, what is left to buy? If a person doesn't need to buy anything (or needs to buy very little), what is the reason to have businesses in your community? (...because those businesses won't be able to sustain themselves anyway!) If there are no businesses in the community, where do people go to get a job or buy the things they do need? And who do the children see around them working (besides those of us who are in the community to "help")? If people choose to take the 2-3 hour trek on the bus to the suburbs to work, how are they able to spend time with their family or supervise their kids? If people aren't able to supervise their kids in those crucial after-school hours, what do we expect to happen?

With all of this break down, non-profits, churches, and individuals come in and offer free services to their children, offer free food, clothes, and supplies to the parents (instead of working with the community toward long-term solutions of creating a viable economy), and the cycle continues.

Free services more than likely come from outside the community. People outside of the community are the ones more likely to have enough time and money to give extra.

It seems to me that if we tapped into the talents of people who are in the community and helped them develop those talents and use them within the community and then invested in people and businesses owned and run by people in the community, the community and its residents would 1) have more time to focus on giving back to their own community because they wouldn't be spending their time running all over the city from job to job outside of the community, and 2) their money would, in turn, be spent in their own community, building the economy and structure of our urban communities.

So is "free" really the best way to help our low-income communities?

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