My house burned down when I was 10 years old. It was March, and while it burned, I spent a chilly recess discussing with my best friend all our plans for a late birthday slumber party I was planning on pitching to my Mom. My brothers were across the school yard; Dad was at work; Mom was at her best friend’s house with our new puppy. My cat, fish, and all our earthly possessions were trapped inside when the coffee pot shorted, and fire and smoke took away everything my poor, working, 33 year old parents depended on to comfort and care for their three children. The fire devastated the house, wounded a fireman, curled the corners and fused together all our photographs, sent my brothers’ toys careening out into the front yard, and made everything that did survive smell like something that carried with it a story. The event is an important mark in my history that changed my life, and is the beginning of my intense memory recall. My young mind sensed that everything needed to be chronicled, absorbed, and processed. When we were allowed to walk through the house a few days after the fire, I already had trouble remembering how everything was supposed to look, although now I remember it all the way it was, except the smell. All my memories smell like smoke.
We trudged through the downstairs, not allowed to visit the upstairs that had once held our most important possessions: clothes, toys, beds, trinkets. The foundation wasn’t safe, Dad had fallen through the floor during an examination and no one could creep up the stairs. Everything was gone. I had recently moved into a downstairs bedroom and was the luckiest of the three, my room was only water-logged and smokey. Most of my possessions survived with a story to tell; my brothers lost everything. My sweet beta fish boiled in the heat, but a fireman saved my cat, who had used the cat rest my Dad had built for him in my bedroom to escape after the heat burst the windows. The fireman found him curled in a tight ball, pressed against the outside of my bedroom wall, little tufts of fur singed from the heat he escaped. We were only allowed to see the damaged house once; after that it was torn down and my Dad rebuilt the home his father originally built. It became a play house for my brothers and I. As the walls reformed, we would run from room to room, delighted to see our new safe haven take shape. The smell of fresh wood, plaster, carpet, and paint never fully disguised the odor of the one wall that remained, that Dad worked from. It remained, just as every possession that survived remained, with that distinctive scent of smoke and flame. The day we last saw the original house I took with me a photo of Jesus pasted to a rectangle of wood that I had hanging on my wall.
Help came from unexpected sources; help didn’t come from expected sources. The church that my father was raised in did little to help; the school that my brothers and I, and my father attended offered help, then never delivered; of my Dad’s 6 siblings and their spouses, 2 of the families helped. The people who helped most where the poverty riddled men who worked alongside my Dad on construction sites. In my experience, when a person is devastated and tragedy overwhelms their lives, the people who help most are people who know what devastation, poverty, and tragedy feels like. These men would work 16 hour days with my Dad on the weekend, often for free, to help rebuild our home. The charity and kindness infused the home with a sense of comfort that the fire stole. I have those men, and the Salvation Army to thank for my family’s recovery. My 10 year old self may have sought comfort in that lacquered photo of Jesus, but I have been a devout non-theist for decades, and I still support the Salvation Army, and a couple other Christian charity organizations. They aren’t the only charitable organizations Su and I support, but the Salvation Army is one I will vehemently defend, because they contributed directly to saving my family’s life.
It’s difficult to fully comprehend how much you lose when you lose your home. You can sit in your house and look around and imagine what you would save if a fire struck, but your brain won’t allow you to understand what would happen if everything vanished. I can’t fully comprehend it because I was so young when it happened. Now that I’m the age my parents were, I think about all I’ve amassed; all that Su and I would lose if our home was taken from us. That’s just the two of us in a rented apartment with a cat. My parents lost a second generation family home that my father had spent his entire life inside. Ten children total were raised in that home; it was thick with possessions, necessities, and memories. When the fire took it all away, the Salvation Army instantly provided my family with enough food and clothing to completely remove those concerns from the equation. My parents’ already tough life was suddenly compounded with more struggles: the realization that their home owner insurance was shit; that they had no house; that everything they owned was gone; that they could have easily lost their pets, children, or own lives if the coffee pot had defaulted in the evening or on a weekend instead of a Wednesday afternoon. They struggled with all this in addition to their every day struggles: sending three children to school and working thankless jobs. While all this was muddling their young, terrified minds, the Salvation Army came and provided their base needs: food and clothing. Problem solved. It was so much too. There was enough clothing that I was able to go through it and pick and choose what I liked best. I was a vain pre-teen, and losing my clothing was a terrible loss. The day after the fire I had to wear one of my unattractive cousin’s blue and yellow striped sweater, and I still remember how hideous I thought the shade of yellow was. I was exhausted, confused, and stuck inside strange clothing that clung the wrong way, plus I imagine I looked like an advertisement for tragic Scandinavian children, all wide-eyed and confused in patriotic stripes. The Salvation Army gave us so much food that we had cans hiding in corners of our new pantry for years after their necessity or expiration. We were provided with such plenty. As a child I was simply grateful for the distraction – weird new canned vegetables to taste and a pile of gently worn clothing to tear through! As an adult I understand that the Salvation Army removed a terrible burden from my parents, and I’m tremendously grateful.
The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, and because many Christians have issues with homosexuality, there have been incidents of discrimination towards homosexuals needing assistance and seeking employment. This fact should not be ignored; the issue of Christian prejudice against homosexuals should be dealt with proactively through education and patience. What should not be done is a boycott against the organization as a whole. The Salvation Army is notorious for the great amount of help it delivers to the poor and homeless, especially around the holidays. I grew up poor, and when you grow up poor, you grow up around people who are even poorer. I saw entire families supported by the Salvation Army while I was growing up. My brother and sister-in-law are very poor and the Salvation Army provides so much for their family at Christmas that sometimes they’re able to give toys and food to other people in need. That must feel awesome. To accept charity is to acknowledge the full realization and definition of the word humble. You have to admit that you can’t do something that other people can do, and then let someone else do what you can’t. It’s humiliating and demoralizing; what good organizations like the Salvation Army does is remove that humiliation by just giving. That’s all they do, they give.
Those red kettles that hang next to the volunteer every December, thanklessly ringing a bell and wishing you all a Merry Happy while you pull up your collar and rush to your car, the money inside actively goes to help people in need. Your pocket change is the smallest amount of charity you can give. The Salvation Army makes it so easy for you that you have to put forth no effort beyond digging in your wallet for some quarters or a five dollar bill if you’re feeling generous, and you get to walk away knowing you did something to help. Sure you didn’t sort through disgusting donation bins to pull out warm, clean clothing for the addicts who are living on the streets, or make sandwich after sandwich for the homeless who depend on the one meal these organizations provide every evening. Maybe you didn’t donate your clothes when you went through your closet, or make a cash donation online to any number of charitable organizations, but you did put some change in a kettle. That is a good thing. Any bit of charity helps. I know this, because I’ve received it, and it all helps. Every penny. Of course more is better, of course giving as much as you can give is best, but some change clanging in a bucket is great too.
Please don’t allow the poor or homeless, struggling to keep a home, or keep warm without a home this winter to suffer because the Salvation Army is a religious organization who has been known to discriminate against homosexuals. I am an atheist queer making this plea. I promise you, if you give to the Salvation Army, what you give will help. Let’s make helping the gay homeless a whole separate issue that should not be focused directly on the Salvation Army, because there are gay teens out there right now, homeless because they were kicked out of their homes, addicts because they weren’t able to properly deal with the struggles surrounding being gay. There are homosexuals who are in cold weather shelters who are going to be abused. The abuse homosexuals suffer doesn’t stop at the discrimination from the Salvation Army, or Christian organizations, but it is not condoned by giving to the helping faction of these organizations. When I give to the Salvation Army, I know what I give will go to delighting a child the way I was 25 years ago after my family lost everything.
All that being said, if your believe strongly against giving to any organization that is religious, or that has been known for discrimination against homosexuals, don’t let that keep you from donating your time or money to other organizations. While it’s true that most large charity organizations are Christian, there are other options. I will list a few below. Remember time is as generous as money. Donate clothing, toiletries, blankets, toys, food, and time if you can’t afford cash. Spread the word to others who are boycotting the bucket that there are other options. Keep your generous spirit. It feels as good to give as it does to receive.
The organizations listed below are Canadian and British Columbia based since that’s where we live, but they’re all wonderful projects worthy of donation. Charity Village is a great site that lists many charitable organizations. There is a section on the site for LGBTQ charities. Many homeless shelters run blanket drives throughout the winter where they accept warm clothing and blankets for cold-weather shelters, and for homeless on the streets. Schools and stores often do toy drives and canned food drives, as well. Ask at your local grocery store how to donate to your local food bank, or look on your city’s community website for shelters or low-income places seeking assistance. Ratesupermarket.ca offers a list of places to donate here and here. (and also is the source for the adorable image used with this post)
A Loving Spoonful – A Loving Spoonful is a volunteer-driven, non-partisan Society that provides free, nutritious meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Greater Vancouver.
Covenant House – Covenant House provides helps to youth aged 16-24 who have fled physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, those who have been forced from their homes, or those who have aged out of foster care.
Vancouver’s Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter – Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter is committed to advocating for women’s equality.
QMUNITY – QMUNITY is BC’s queer resource centre – the hub for the lesbian, gay, trans*, bi and queer community program, training and advocacy.
Kid’s Help Phone – To reach a Kids Help Phone professional counsellor, kids, teens and young adults, from any community in Canada, can call or go online 24 hours a day, 365 day a year.
The Trevor Project – The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
Lookout Society – Lookout Emergency Aid Society provides housing to the shelterless and homeless, connections to services in the community, support, supervision, direction and aid to anyone whose needs are not addressed by others, and safe surroundings.
Family Services of Greater Vancouver – Family Services of Greater Vancouver is a community-based not-for-profit organization providing crucial social services to children, youth, adults, and families across Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Surrey.