Don’t Make Eye Contact: Confessions of a Selfish Twentysomething

I round the corner of 15th and P determined to make it into and out of Whole Foods in time to get back to my desk for a 1:00 call. And then I see them.

Crap. Look down at your phone. Walk quickly. Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact. I manage to pass by just as the guy in the reflective neon vest catches an unsuspecting victim holding a full bag of groceries.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire what this guy’s doing. It’s not easy to stand on the sidewalk in the blazing sun to promote a cause you probably really believe in, only to be invisible to nine out of every ten people who walk by.

I quickly grab my lunch, make it through the checkout line, and exit the store with ten minutes to spare. But then:

“Hey there, we’re having a smile contest.”

The corners of my lips turn up. Crap.

“Wow, that’s a good one. Mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?”

“I’m sorry. I’m just on my lunch break and need to get back.”

“Well, I can walk and talk.”

I stop. The idea of being stuck with this guy all the way back to my office sounds worse than the look I will get from my boss when I’m a few minutes late to my call.

“No, that’s okay,” I say. “Do you have a paper or something I could take with me?”

“Well, see, I’m out here today to talk about an organization I’m extremely passionate about. Let me ask you something, have you ever seen extreme poverty?” Sneaky.

“I have.”

“Oh really? Where?”

“I actually spent some time in Uganda a few years ago teaching reading and writing at a primary school and doing HIV-prevention education,” I say (a little too proudly).

“Wow, so you’ve probably seen a lot more than other people who look like you.” What’s that supposed to mean?

“So we haven’t yet expanded into Uganda, but we are working in other areas of Africa right now. As you are well aware, so many kids around the world live everyday without basic necessities. They go hungry, they don’t see doctors, and they don’t go to school. But for $1 a day, you can change that.”

“So I’m actually in the process of re-evaluating my charitable giving, and I can’t do anything right now. But do you have a website or a flier I can use to learn more about how to get involved?” It’s true, I had been considering changing-up my one charitable donation.

“One dollar a day. Thirty bucks a month. That’s probably, like, beer money for a weekend.” More like the difference between buying lunch for a week and living off of the free snacks in my office, but okay. Point taken.

“I know. I’m just dealing with student loans and medical expenses, and I need to take a look at this before I make any commitments.”

“I totally understand that, but while you’re worrying about that stuff, there are kids across the world going days without something to eat or drink.”

“I get it,” I say. “I appreciate what you’re doing, and I’m definitely going to give this some thought, but I can’t do it today.

“Really?” [Evil glare.] “Well thanks for your time.”

I always walk away from these types of encounters feeling the same way: bad about how little money I donate to charitable organizations, annoyed that someone has just made me feel badly about myself when I actually think I’m a pretty decent person, and pissed-off about the fact that I’m about to be a 25-year-old with a master’s degree who still has to ask her parents for grocery money every few months.

It’s not that I don’t want to donate to these organizations. Really, I do. But in a town like Washington, where even a decent-paying entry-level job doesn’t quite cover a monthly student-loan payment comparable to my rent check and medical expenses amassed from a freak jaw infection (among other costs that creep up here and there), it’s hard to find money to donate, even to organizations that are doing great things around the world.

After I get over these initial feelings, I start thinking about the organizations that are doing great work right here in DC. I may not be able to donate significant amounts of money to them, but I’m here—I can donate my time, and that feels pretty good, too.

Last winter, I volunteered at Thrive DC, which fights homelessness in the District by providing vulnerable individuals services that help stabilize their lives. A co-worker and I cooked Thrive’s annual holiday lunch alongside Chef Terrence, and then we served up over 200 plates full of lamb chops, roasted chicken, green beans, stuffing, warm rolls, salad, and strawberry shortcake. I left Thrive that day feeling the way I usually do after volunteering: happy to have spent the day making someone’s life a little better, but also sad, since I know there is so much more to be done.

Increasingly, when someone soliciting donations asks to talk to me, I try to take this approach, which I suggest you try, too: Stop and listen. Learn something new. Donate if you can, but even if you don’t, don’t walk away feeling bad about yourself. Instead, sign up to volunteer somewhere in DC doing something you care about. And yes, there will always be more to do, but let the moments when you’re making a difference in someone’s life (even if it’s just for one day) carry you to your next volunteer opportunity and then the next one after that. There is no “best” way to donate. Whether it’s time or money, do what you can. That’s all anyone can really ask for.

Elizabeth Ritonia has degrees in management and writing from Gettysburg College and a masters in public communication from American University. She lives and works in Northwest DC.