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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 1, 2008

Charity begins at home

We have been described as a nation of givers. The average American household contributes $1,000 annually, far more than in any other developed country.

Many of the charities to which we donate are complex organizations with multi-million dollar budgets, hundreds of employees, and thousands of constituents, according to Charity Navigator, which evaluates and rates charities. A 2007 study by Charity Navigators showed the top leaders of the 5,242 largest charities in America earn an average salary of close to $150,000. Some 14 percent of American charities devote less than 70 percent of their budgets to their programs and services.

We’re partial to small close-to-home charitable efforts. Every week, we run news on our pages of fund-raisers to help those in need here — from a ziti dinner for a family whose home burned to a fund-raiser for a child facing cancer. People who contribute to these causes can see the result of their generosity.

Other close-to-home causes fulfill a community need. The Altamont Free Library is renovating an old train station that will make the historic building once again a vibrant center for the village. The Community Caregivers, week after week, provide volunteer services that allow the elderly among us to stay in their homes and keep our community whole. These volunteers give  something more valuable than money — they give their time and talents, their love and care.

”Charity begins at home“ is a phrase with which we are all familiar, but two stories in this week’s edition have led us to take a closer look at the oft-repeated phrase. It’s a translation from the Latin — Proxumus sum egomet mihi — words penned by the Roman playwright Terence. Literally translated, it means “I myself am closest to myself.” It is from self that the greatest giving comes.

We look at Pauline Williman as a great example of this. She was born on her family’s Ketcham Road farm in Knox over 80 years ago. A decade ago, Pauline put her family’s farm in a land trust — the Patroon Foundation — and ran the farm to produce food for the needy.

“I’ve been privileged to do a lot of things,” Pauline Williman told us seven years ago as she surveyed her “ocean of corn” with satisfaction. Her skin was browned by the sun and glowing with the sweat that comes from hard work. The undulating waves of green, rippling in the breeze, stretched nearly as far as the eye could see. Instead of the cry of seagulls, the thrum of insects filled the air. “This is paying back,” she said. “The Lord told us to feed his people. I’ve had many blessings; I’ll try to feed people in return.”

The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York now runs her farm and volunteers flock to help out there. This summer, in addition to providing food for the hungry, the farm will also grow food for the community. People can support the farm by buying shares, and pick up produce each week. We hope they do. It will allow the operation to become self-sustaining and continue for years to come.

Fourteen-hundred years after Terence, Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, wrote, in Charity’s Eight Degrees, “Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist  the reduced fellowman, either by a considerable gift, or a sum of money, or by teaching him a trade, or by putting him in the way of business, so that he may earn an honest livelihood, and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and the summit of charity’s golden ladder.”

While Williman has set into motion a process to help those in our midst who are in need, we are writing this week, too, about a young Guilderland woman who is helping orphans on the other side of the world.

Jessica Breitenbach works, without pay, in Namibia, feeding and caring for children left alone in a country ravaged by AIDS. A small church in Maryland has funded an orphanage there that is making a difference, one child at a time.

“I see the real face of AIDS,” Jessica said of working in a country where half of the people are dead from the disease, leaving the elderly and young to fend for themselves. “These are real children, really suffering; they have nobody left.”

Jessica is home now, raising funds to return. We hope our readers will contribute to her cause. She wants to raise enough to buy a vehicle that she will use to bring food to children in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia. Although there are UNICEF and government programs, she said, “Most of the food is not really getting to the children...and there are just so many children in need.”

Jessica is not overwhelmed by the thought of thousands dying. She has the vision and courage to see that she can make a difference. And she is part of a program that is doing just what Maimonides advised — teaching the children so that they will be able to sustain themselves.

As Jessica described bridging the cultural chasm between herself, an American, and her newfound African friends, she said, “I want to be part of their lives. I don’t want it to be me and them; I want to be all together.”

Proxumus sum egomet mihi. We are, each of us, closest to ourselves. But we are part of a larger world, too. If we grasp that, we will, like Pauline Williman and Jessica Breitenbach, want to keep our fellowman from having to hold out his hand for charity; we will want to help others reach the highest step, that of self-sufficiency, the summit of charity’s golden ladder.

— Melissa Hale Spencer, editor

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