Just before Thanksgiving I volunteered on a nonprofit farm near Princeton, chopping beets to donate to local families in need. While we worked, I started chatting with one of the workers. He appeared to enjoy his work, and seemed like a nice guy – until we got on the subject of the people we were helping.

Poor people, especially those on welfare, are “lazy,” he said. “They” sit on their stoops in Trenton in the middle of the day, “when they should be out looking for work.” He said he knew they were on welfare because of their skin color.

This wasn’t the first negative stereotype of the poor I had heard from a volunteer. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t the last. I’ve heard members of the nonprofit community say ‘some poor people want to be poor,’ and distinguish repeatedly between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Fellow volunteers describe ‘them’ as potential criminals, complacent, uneducated or even unintelligent, intent on taking advantage of welfare programs.

I know firsthand that these ideas are wrong.

My good friend, who I will call Joy, is an African-American college graduate and a member of MENSA (an international club for people with exceptionally high IQs). At age 19, Joy was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic and painful degenerative disease.

Today, she lives on public assistance with her parents. She’ll lose her disability payments if her income rises above a certain level, so she can’t save money for a home of her own. Ambitious enough to have traveled the country to share her poetry, hard-working enough to haved earn a college diploma, and smart enough to be a member of MENSA, Joy is still poor.

My own mother worked the night shift at our local McDonalds and collected welfare to support my siblings and me. We only wore hand-me-downs and had secondhand toys. We didn’t own a T.V. and drank powdered milk. We also never missed a church service.

My mother did not choose to be poor and neither did I. In fact there are many people who just never managed to get out of the financial situation they born into.

I am upset deeply when people refer to people on welfare as lazy or criminal. They are referring to my friend and my mom. They are referring to me.

Today, I work with a national nonprofit organization that facilitates volunteerism among students through service-based scholarships and stipends. With funding from this organization I help run the community service department for a university.

As a person who has both benefited from and distributed charity I have never had use for pity. Nor have I ever wanted someone to smile to my face but judge me in private. As I tell my students, a volunteers’ work can only go so far without understanding, compassion and respect.

by Hannah Zaic
Monday July 07, 2008, 6:00 AM