Beyond volunteerism

December 03, 1991

Bea Gaddy's massive Thanksgiving dinner at Dunbar High School, which attracted widespread media attention and served thousands of meals to hungry Baltimoreans, was indeed a philanthropic spectacle. But the Thanksgiving feeding was only one meal, one day. Undoubtedly those same people are as hungry today as they were last Thursday.

Certainly the army of volunteers who made the meal possible, and those who served thousands more dinners at area churches and agencies, are testament to the concern Baltimoreans feel for their less-fortunate neighbors. But while there will be a similar outpouring again at Christmas, the sheer numbers of those standing in line for turkey and potatoes shows that even with a thousand points of lights glowing, a decade of cuts in social programs has left the cities without the resources to meet the basic food, housing and medical needs of a growing cadre of poor.

The problem is complicated because even those who can give are feeling the pressures of recession. Bags of Plenty, the area's annual food collection, has received only about 20 percent of the money and 25 percent of the food it needs to stock the state's food pantries and soup kitchens. United Way contributions are 25 percent behind. All over the city, clothing and food drives face the double-edged problem of decreased giving and increasing need. In Baltimore every day, for instance, nearly 6,000 free meals are served by volunteers. But it is not enough. Moreover, needy Baltimoreans are only a fraction of the men, women and children across the country now in desperate straights.

Volunteer efforts, here and elsewhere, are indeed impressive. But they can be sustained for only so long, and do only so much. Volunteers burn out. The holiday season passes. Donations run short. That reality, and the awesome number of people in need, should force a reassessment of national policy priorities. What better time than during this season of celebration?

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