Lawrence Scanlan, a writer and journalist from Kingston, Ontario, has for many years volunteered his time, his money, and his talents to various charitable and community organisations. But in 2008, he decided to immerse himself in ‘deep volunteering’. He wanted to explore the concepts of the original meaning of philanthropia, which originally meant ‘love for humankind’. He asks, “Are governments right to trust that wealthy benefactors and armies of volunteers will pick up the slack if they step aside?”
He arranged a different volunteer mission for each month of the year. He started off working at Vinnie’s, a St Vincent de Paul centre drop-in centre in Kingston for the homeless and needy. While he served up food to the hungry, he learned the stories of the clients and the other volunteers, and he considered their roles and relationships with each other, struggling to consider all in a larger context. A note is on one of the kitchen cupboards: “There are no unimportant jobs, no unimportant people, no unimportant acts of kindness.” He is reminded of this repeatedly as he cycles through the next twelve months.
He works with advocates for the homeless, in a hospice, an immigrant services help centre, soup kitchen in Costa Rica, and a woman’s radio station in Africa. He spends a month with a John Howard Society group in Kingston (which is home to a number of prisons). It is disheartening to read how in so many ways our society has not advanced beyond its instinctive prejudices and cruelties. One of his opening quotes warns us: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” This was from the first century Greek historian Plutarch. Our present government continues to push further to the right, with ideologies indistinguishable from those of the ruling classes a hundred years ago, incapable of recognising truths articulated two thousand years ago.
But it doesn’t all feel like hopeless windmill tilting. He spends time helping at a therapeutic horse riding place, and during his time with an environmental group he describes a David vs Goliath victory against a giant company which was eventually blocked from a plan to incinerate tires in order to produce energy (and even purify the air, according to the incredible spin of a company engineer who must have been very desperate to hold on to his great pension). He enlists his loveable dog Dusty to provide pet therapy for the disabled at a Kingston resource centre. He is amazed to see that three years after Hurricane Katrina, vast areas of New Orleans have still not been resuscitated and rehabilitated, and he joins in on building a home there with the group Habitat for Humanity. He shares his talents for writing by helping to teach his craft to First Nations students on a Mohawk reservation. Each experience reinforces the idea that this is all about people helping people. “Only a twist of fate separates us.”
Despite this being a book about his different experiences at these various organisations, his presence in the book is only as a facilitator, to show the real stories. He doesn’t let himself get in the way of the stories.
In the epilogue, he says he believes in benevolence, and he he will always continue to actively serve in the volunteer ranks, as he has done for many years. But, he says “the status quo stinks. Volunteers alone, magnanimous philanthropists alone, are not the answer.” This is the best chapter. He criticizes the failure of governments to address the underlying causes that result in the need for these charities. And the model itself is deeply flawed. “The model of charity that has governed North America for centuries, simply put, goes like this: let the rich amass their wealth, unfettered by taxes as much as possible, and let us hope they ‘give back’ before dying.” He agrees with others, who find that this model “is paternalistic and given to self-congratulation.” He quotes Monique Begin, a former cabinet minister over 20 years ago, who said “Canada likes to brag that for seven years in a row the United Nations voted us the best country in the world in which to live. …The truth is that our country is so wealthy that it manages to mask the reality of food-banks in our cities, of unacceptable housing, of young Inuit adults’ very high suicide rates.”
“Inequality is bad for our health, as individuals and as nations.”
When I started the book I wondered if it was going to be a syrupy wide-eyed paean to the selfless heroism of the volunteers. But it isn’t. It’s both a celebration and a lament. He exhorts us: “Marry that individual giving with political engagement. Pressure politicians at every level…join forces with those who advocate for the poor…Be less the avid consumer and more the engaged citizen. Show empathy as a volunteer, show passion as an activist. Get angry, get informed…”