Saturday, April 13, 2002


Helping without offending

        We want sad stories, but not too sad. We want details, but not too many. When it comes to helping the less fortunate, we want to know just enough to feel good about it.

        That's a tall order for non-profit agencies.

        “I think it's absolutely an ethical dilemma for all of us,” says Mary Jo Davis of the Women's Crisis Center in Northern Kentucky.

        To touch people's hearts, her agency must share stories about victims of domestic violence. But it must do so in a way that doesn't exploit the women's suffering — or offend potential donors.

        “How do I make the appeal?” Ms. Davis asks rhetorically. “Do you want to see women whose bodies are broken and battered? Where do you draw the line? Some people want to know only about successes.”

        It's a balancing act — one that's been on my mind since last week's column about Peter Deane, the Cincinnati firefighter and advocate for Hispanic immigrants in Over-the-Rhine.

Firefighter helps

        One reader didn't like my focus on Mr. Deane's outspoken style, which I described as a bit obnoxious.

        “He is a kind-hearted person, and it should end there,” writes Melissa Alvarez, president of a Latino student group at Northern Kentucky University.

        She has helped Mr. Deane deliver coats to immigrants.

        “We went into the homes of some of the Hispanics, and he wasn't scared, just very calm and thrilled to be helping out. I feel it is so important that we have more individuals to wake up and do these kinds of things.”

        On Easter weekend, Mr. Deane received word that three newcomers from Mexico needed clothes to look for work. With thrift stores closed, he brought the men items from his own home.

        These are indeed generous acts. And to encourage other givers, Mr. Deane has vividly described the plight of certain immigrants in e-mails to journalists and Hispanic leaders.

        He has written, for instance, of a Guatemalan man whom he saw bleeding and crying after a robbery. “Their stories are stories of violence, where brutality and abandonment are commonplace in their lives,” he writes.

Not all poor

        Here's where the fine line comes in.

        Last year, Mexican migrants sent home $9.3 billion earned in the United States. Their contributions were Mexico's third-largest income source, behind oil and tourism.

        Some immigrants struggle here, but others do well. Is it possible to overdramatize their plight, out of an honest desire to help?

        Appalachia is forever debating this question. When I lived there in 1994, some Cleveland church kids spent a week repairing houses near Pineville, Ky. Upon their return, they told a Cleveland paper about “primitive homes, some unfit for animals” that were filled with “huge bees and wasps.”

        The idea was to stir sympathy and attract donations for a return visit. But the mayor of Pineville happened to see the story and was furious. The residents of Pineville are not all poor and helpless, he said.

        Sometimes, action is the easy part of doing good. The hard part is figuring out what to say about it later.

        Contact: (859) 578-5584 or


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