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November 4, 2002

EmoryGives: What if we all did?

Marion Dearing is executive assistant to the president of the University.

Once when I was 8 or 9, shopping at the neighborhood grocery with my mother, I was suddenly seized by a strong larcenous urge to swipe a five-cent tube of Tom’s salted peanuts.

After impulsively stuffing the little bag deep down in my shorts pocket, I was instantly gripped by guilt and panic and consumed by the desire to replay the past few crime-laden moments and emerge peanut-less into the sunshine of childish innocence. Thus I was almost relieved when Sue, the trusty and no-nonsense checkout clerk, called me sternly to her judgment counter, Mother at my side. Swirling amid the shame of doing wrong in front of a pair of respected adult witnesses were Sue’s concluding words as she chastised me: “What if everyone did that?”

I wish I could claim with all true honor that I never again strayed from the rosy path of righteousness; what I can say with honesty is that I have heard the echo many times of Sue’s gentle and probing question: “What if everyone did that?” It is a question with universal application: littering, petty white collar crime, bursts of road rage, the ringing of cell phones in theaters.

Years passed. I blew out birthday candles in ever-increasing numbers, went to college to learn how much I didn’t know (on the heels of thinking I knew most everything when I was a teenager), got married, had children, then spent the next decade trying to remember why I ever thought I knew anything at all. When the children were little and I was spending time volunteering in pre-school, elementary and beyond, Sue’s question from my childhood again popped into my head, but this time the flip side landed up. Why not apply it to doing good? Making brownies for the bake sale, painting a wall in the kindergarten room, participating in a PTA project, tutoring inner-city primary students, taking groceries to a hungry family––what if everyone did that?

More years sped by. My children gradually assumed the behavior patterns and common characteristics of human beings; my marriage proved a happy place to be; my job was (and still is) a joy. But life has a habit of throwing the bad in with the good, and I found myself in a hellish personal place where my daddy was dead and my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I moved her from Knoxville (the scene of my childhood mini-crime spree) to Budd Terrace at Wesley Woods, where she died seven months later in the heartless grasp of increasing dementia, taken quickly by lung cancer. She received excellent care from the skilled and patient staff members and volunteers at Budd Terrace, and from me.

As I went to see Mother every day, it was sad to see residents who had no visitors. I included them in my conversations with Mother. One lady wanted to go home with me every evening. (She didn’t know I had teenagers.)

After Mother died, I had the idea that I wanted to return to Budd Terrace and visit with residents on the Alzheimer’s floor, but it was a long time before I could bring myself to go back. The prospect loomed before me with prohibitive sadness. Finally I ventured over to Wesley Woods and started spending time each week with a variety of sometimes pleasant, often cantankerous, always dear, elderly folks who wander in a cognitive wilderness.

Everyone I speak to is glad to see me every week, and, as far as they know, each of my visits is the first. One lady is frequently concerned about dinner, certain that she chairs the committee in charge of the arrangements. I tell her she’s done a wonderful job and that everything is in place. Another tells me every week that her mother raised five little girls and goes through a litany of numbers––biscuits baked, dresses ironed, chores accomplished. I’m duly and newly impressed with these statistics every time.

Some people don’t talk at all. One woman who rarely spoke or responded to conversation suddenly belted out every word of a dozen old standards as she watched a sing-along video. She has since died. A gentleman who hadn’t said a word during my hour-long visit looked directly at me at long last and asked in a challenging tone, “Exactly what is your function here?” When I told him I was a volunteer, he responded that, by golly, he’d like to volunteer some things that were wrong with that place.

I go after work once a week, and sometimes a task or phone call at the office delays my arrival enough that I miss out on helping with the supper trays. The staff members are familiar enough with me that one supervising nurse fusses at me only half-jokingly when I’m late (“Where have you been?”), to which I respond that I suppose she can dock my pay.

I’ve learned a basic life lesson in a dramatic way from these residents: All we have is this moment, right now, to make the most of, to be with others, to enjoy life.

After a while I began to expand my range of visitation, talking with residents on other floors at Budd Terrace who have sharp minds but suffer physical challenges, several of whom appear in the EmoryGives video. From these friends, I learn about patience, wisdom gained, the values of faith and humor. I appreciate their spending time with me, and I always thank them before I leave. My childhood was filled with elderly relatives, all of whom are gone now, and I’m grateful to have these folks in my life.

And so the question comes to me once again in considering my visits to Budd Terrace: What if everyone did that? It arises again when I think about the hour I spend each week as a mentor to a struggling student in a City of Atlanta elementary school. The query can be applied as well to my customary practice of giving through payroll deduction at Emory to charitable causes, originally through the United Way, recently expanded to EmoryGives. What if everyone did that?

Hours given don’t need to be burdensome, nor does the amount of money donated need to be impressive. With a gentle shove of motivation from a source close to one’s heart, anybody can find a worthwhile direction for giving time and resources, no matter the amount. Within the impressive roster of charitable causes under the EmoryGives umbrella, everyone at the University can find a way that is personally appealing to help make the world safer, smarter, friendlier or cleaner.

Visit someone who’s lonely; tutor someone who’s behind; laugh with someone who’s sad. Plant a tree; fix a meal; read aloud; give of yourself. Share your heart. Find an hour some evening, an occasional Saturday morning, or part of a Sunday afternoon. You’ll be glad to meet others who help, and blessed to know the people you’re helping.

Try donating to charitable funds the monetary equivalent of three mocha lattés per week, or a weekly evening movie ticket with popcorn and Coke, or lunch once a week at a moderately priced restaurant, and you’ll find yourself giving upwards of $500 a year.

I’m no saint, and, despite the name of the giving category in which I find myself, goodness knows I’m no angel. But I give hours here and dollars there for three reasons, one pragmatic, one philanthropic and one selfish. First, it needs to be done–– that’s pragmatic. Second, acts of kindness and dollars of generosity truly help people in need––that’s philanthropic. And the selfish reason? It makes me feel good to do good.

What if everyone did that?