Today is part one of a series on Something Good, a coalition formed to provide Kindles and ebooks to LGBT homeless youth. Look for part two on Friday.
CHOOSING WHICH STORY TO TELL
I meant to tell you the story of an interview and give you a professional account of someone else’s work.
I meant to ignore my work and that of the Something Good crew, in favor of highlighting everything happening at the homeless shelter for LGBT youth.
I meant to tell someone else’s story.
Instead, today (and Friday, for part two), I will tell you mine.
My story, and the story of 30 authors, readers, editors and publishers who raised $4,000 in 25 days.
The story of a woman who lives on a tight salary and medical bills, but she donated the money she budgets for pleasure each month. Her pleasure is to give to others.
The story of another woman who gave a donation without blinking an eye, and then offered to give again when travel funding fell through.
The story of a publisher that said, “Here’s money. And books. Oh, and more money. We’ll give you more, if you need it.” No questions asked.
The story of another publisher that said, “How much do you need? How can I get it to you?” And got it to me within hours, despite preparing for an international trip the next morning.
It’s a story of sacrifices, small and big. It’s a story of widow’s mites and huge numbers, truckloads of books and donations one by one.
It’s a story of love.
Last year for Giving Tuesday, I asked for suggestions how people could make a difference. Of the ones I received, two concerned homeless LGBT youth.
I didn’t think anything more about LNF until October of this year when I visited Atlanta for an author conference. After engraving 260 wooden spoons for party favors, I remembered LNF. Since I was going to Atlanta anyway, why not stop by the center and pick up promotional materials? Since I was going to pick up promotional materials anyway, why not set out a tip jar at the conference and take donations for LNF?
Loaded down with a container full of flyers and postcards, I set up a pretty red-and-white dish and peddled my spoons. In exchange for the days upon days of engraving spoons and the hours at the book signing, I received a cool $13 in cash.
Thirteen dollars. The flyers I gave out cost more! Although the conference was stellar (and I made new friends I hope to keep for life), I felt both embarrassed and disappointed. This was it? Sure, I’d spread awareness of the center. Sure, I’d handed out flyers and talked up the program. Sure, I garnered interest. But…thirteen dollars?
69 LGBT AUTHORS
I headed home, and the frustrated desire burrowed until it emerged in new form. What if I tried to fundraise, but to do it for real this time? What if I got together a bunch of author friends to each donate a dollar and purchase a basic, black-and-white Kindle? I knew far more than 69 LGBT authors, and we could surely each donate a dollar plus a book or two. We could give LNF a library contained in an ereader!
I’m Ana. I have a million ideas a day, and most of them serve to distract from real work. This idea, however, took root. I mentioned it to a few other authors who immediately jumped on the idea. After asking and receiving my permission, B. Snow posted the idea on her Facebook and received an avalanche of support.
Still not quite believing, I made some tentative inquiries. Would LNF be interested? I placed the call.
“We don’t say no to anything,” the answer came, quick with disparagement. “But do we need technology that will depreciate the second it arrives? No. Cash is king. We don’t need a thousand dollars in Kindles; we need a thousand dollars in cash. You should give us money toward our renovation in the spring. We need four hundred thousand dollars for that, not books the kids won’t even read.”
I hung up the phone and doodled on my notepad. It was a silly idea. I should abandon the plan. And yet…I remembered the laundry list of authors signing up to join the project. “What can we give?” they asked. “It’s a great idea!”
Maybe the kids at LNF didn’t read, but wasn’t that the point? As an author, I wanted to encourage reading. As an LGBT author, I wanted to offer something I never had as a child: a book about a girl who loved a girl.
I KISSED A GIRL
At the ripe old age of thirteen, I had my first crush. (Call me a late developer.) “Emily” was one year older and, in my opinion, everything I wanted to be. I cursed the bad luck of being a lowly seventh grader to her lofty eighth. I wanted to share classes, sit next to her, and be her best friend. At age thirteen, I had no concept of female-female interactions except for friendship, and I wanted it with an intensity that scared me.
Instead, I only got to see Emily once a week for chamber orchestra rehearsal. As serious violinists (we both wanted to become orchestra teachers), we never exchanged more than a few comments about the music. Up bow here, accent here, split this long note into two bows. I watched from afar, envious of the easy laughter she shared with friends.
I wouldn’t understand until many years later just why I longed to stroke her hair, sit at her feet, and listen to her play. When I read Prelude by Madeleine L’engle (a worthy read for anyone), my heart broke for Katherine the pianist who was reprimanded for leading her best friend Sarah astray. Sexuality was never mentioned outright, but their friendship was viewed by school authorities as deviant. Dangerous.
When I was in college and my church’s national headquarters launched a study on its position regarding sexuality, I asked my parents what they thought.
My cousin “Samantha” was a lesbian, they told me. But they didn’t say “lesbian,” a dirty word. They said “gay,” in all of the hushed tones of a funeral attendant. Her “roommate” and “best friend” was more than a friend.
“How did Samantha and she meet?” I asked my aunt at our next family gathering, wanting to be supportive without taking a stand.
My aunt rolled her eyes. “Oh, gay people like to hang out with other gay people, so I’m sure they met at some gay person thing.”
Those weren’t her exact words, but it was the tone. She might have been discussing buying marijuana or cocaine. (I am sure no heterosexual people like to hang out with other heterosexual people.)
Later, after a woman told me I was beautiful and things happened, I talked with my pastor. Was homosexuality a sin?
“Yes,” he answered. “But it’s no more a sin than anything else we do. We all sin. If we were pushed to make a statement, we might wish that someone who is homosexual not practice homosexuality, but we are in no position to judge. We are all sinners. If we start judging, then do we throw divorcees out of the church?”
“I had a woman come onto me, too,” another pastor told me. “She lit candles and set a gorgeous room, and it was so uncomfortable.”
I had moved back home to care for my cancer-stricken father, an event so traumatic that I gave up writing fiction for the next decade and a half. (I wrote about it in one of my most popular posts, Elegy of a Fiction Writer.) Faced with the prospect of losing my father, I set aside all personal needs in favor of baking cookies, washing laundry, cleaning house, and managing the many and complex needs associated with chemotherapy and radiation.
When I mentioned the “incident” to a friend or two, they were horrified. “You’re a Christian!” they told me. “You didn’t see anything wrong with kissing a woman?”
We did more than kiss. But that’s a story for another day.
WHY WE GIVE
What the employee at LNF didn’t understand (when he wanted cash rather than book donations) is that people don’t throw money into a black hole. Selfish as it may be, we need something tangible. I need something tangible. If not, why give?
We give because we have needs inside of us. Maybe it’s the need to feel we are a good person, that we are making a difference, or that we have helped someone who could have been us at a different stage in life. We give what we wish we could have had when we were in a similar situation, or we give because no one gave to us when we needed it most. Sometimes that giving means writing a check or dropping money into a bucket. For others, it may be volunteering time, energy, and skills. As someone who has spearheaded many philanthropic efforts, I knew enough about human nature to discount this false idea of “a thousand dollars in cash is better than a thousand dollars in Kindles.” For one thing, a cash drive would collect perhaps one-tenth of a fundraiser to buy something tangible. If I put all of my resources into it, I might be able to raise one hundred dollars in cash. Would that help as much as ten times that amount in books and e-readers? More importantly, would such an effort be worth my time?
Who said giving is selfless? Not me. We give to make a difference, to change the world, and to find a new reason to believe in humanity. We spend our time and money because we need to hope that tomorrow will be worth living for ourselves and our children. When we feel crushed by loneliness or hopelessness, we give because sometimes the only way to find goodness in this world is to create it ourselves.
Something Good almost died the day it was conceived, until I talked to a woman who changed everything. Sue, the manager of the drop-in center, jumped at the offer. “We’ll take care of the details,” she promised. “It’s a wonderful project.”
She told me about Heidi*, a former resident who had fought to turn her life around, graduated from the program, and beat the odds. Then, a truck hit Heidi and hospitalized her for months. Some days she can sit up in a wheelchair; other days, the pain is too great. Through it all, Sue told me, Heidi kept the Kindle given to her by Elizabeth North of Dreamspinner Press last year. It was her connection to friends and family…until someone stole it. At that point, I resolved to get Heidi a new Kindle if it were the last thing I accomplished.
Over the next six weeks, I had a daily phone date with Amazon technical support and a nightmare’s worth of spreadsheets, emails, text messages, and consultations. People came forward to contribute, spread the word, and get new authors to donate their books. When the first plans to visit Atlanta fell through, I received enough offers to fund five trips to deliver the Kindles. In the end, Less Than Three Press paid my way and I asked everyone else to save money for the spring.
People apologized as they sent five, ten, fifteen, twenty dollars. “I’m sorry I can’t give more,” they said.
“Do you understand what you’ve done?” I asked. “You’ve taken this tiny idea and turned it into a reality.”
People told me that my idea mattered, that my work mattered, and that we could make a difference. They contacted me behind the scenes because they were too shy to go public. “Can you take this?” they asked, not wanting to be named in public. “I was kicked out by my parents for coming out. I know where they’ve been.”
“Thank you for giving us something we can actually do,” said another. “I always wanted to do something but didn’t know what.”
People don’t want to give cash to a yawning money need. They want to walk away at the end of the day, knowing that they changed the life of one individual. Even if it’s something small and temporary, they want to make a difference.
On Friday, for part two of this series, I’ll tell you how we made that difference.
(For more information about Something Good, please visit the blog here. We are in the process of expanding the program to include donations to three more LGBT homeless shelters across the US.)
*Name and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. Both Sue and Heidi have given consent for this story.