The holiday season in America is traditionally a time of gift-giving among family and friends. But it is also an occasion for many Americans to spend their time and money helping others who are less fortunate than themselves. One such charitable effort has been helping New Yorkers help other New Yorkers since 1912.
Along with the scent of roasted chestnuts on Fifth Avenue, and the sound of hand-bells rung by the scores of Santa Claus look-alikes outside the bustling Big Apple department stores, the re-appearance of the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund is another way New Yorkers know the holiday season is here.
Every day between November first and the end of January, the New York Times newspaper prominently profiles the plight of about 90 people way down on their luck, but who could be helped through readers’ generosity. "I think the unifying spirit here is one of civic conscience," says Jack Rosenthal, who administers the Neediest Cases Fund for the New York Times Foundation. He says the fund was conceived on Christmas Day 1911, when the newspaper’s publisher, Alfred S. Ochs went for a walk after a big turkey dinner and was approached by a hungry man asking for money for food. Mr. Ochs gave it to him….
"And the following Christmas, he asked the staff of the newspaper to go out and find the one hundred neediest cases in New York and to write stories about them, secure in the knowledge that New Yorkers, presented with this information, would respond. That remains the animating spirit of this fund," says Mr. Rosenthal. The fund has received over 200 million dollars in its 93-year history from donors large and small and as diverse as New York itself.
Virginia Miles, who is Jewish, has given every year since 1928, when she was 12 and sent in a dime. "There is a saying in Hebrew – ‘Tikkun Olam’ ‘Repair the world.’ It’s what Jews are supposed to do. And my way of repairing the world was to give to people who were less fortunate," says Virginia Miles. "I felt by giving a helping hand through the New York Times, we could get these people back on their feet and they could support themselves again and have dignity and courage," says Ms Miles.
Dignity and courage are natural traits to Boubacar Traore, a West African who lost his leg to gangrene after being tortured in a West African jail. In Central Park, New York, most joggers run without a care. Mr. Traore has taught himself to run competitively with an artificial leg. He made it to America and was granted asylum in 2003, then received money from the Neediest Cases Fund to help pay his rent and transportation for three months. Still, he hopes that the ‘Times’’ publicity will help him find a sponsor who will help him go to university and realize his American dream.
"Boubacar is poor. Generally, I don’t like people [to] know about my life, what is my problem. But I said [to] myself ‘maybe if the journalists explain about this moment, maybe it’s good because it enables… people to know my situation now," says Mr. Traore.
Most of the Times Neediest Cases are native New Yorkers who have had a hard life. Before she was arrested for selling drugs six years ago, Michelle Riddle was a homeless, drug- addicted prostitute with HIV AIDS. "I remember being on the street. I weighed about 88 pounds [40 kilos] soaking wet," says Ms Riddle. "I had completely stopped taking care of myself in terms of hygiene, eating, bathing, all that. I was just miserable. I wasn’t living. I was just existing. It took prison to straighten me out."
When Ms. Riddle was released, she was admitted to a Catholic Charities program that combined group fellowship with job skills instruction for people like her. She learned word processing, and otherwise thrived in the program. Later the Neediest Cases Fund gave Ms. Riddle a stipend allowing her to volunteer with the program to help others. Still, she had no computer of her own, a fact she happened to mention during her interview with the Times, and weeks later, while being interviewed for this story, he program director appeared at the door carrying one.
"Oh my goodness! Look at this…! Because of the article… Excuse me. I need some tissue. You know, I heard bits and pieces, and I was like ‘Yeah, yeah. [doubtful]’ But look! It’s actually a computer here in front of me! My God! I’m so happy! You know how awesome that is? God opens doors. This is my Christmas," exclaims Ms Riddle.
That’s exactly the kind of joy the New York Times Neediest Cases program was intended ed to produce. And it’s a program very much in keeping with a deep-rooted tradition of charity in the United States. Last year, Americans gave over 240 billion dollars in charitable contributions.