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HETRICK: Awed by America's generous help for Haiti

January 23, 2010

My wife and I have speaking engagements coming up. Seeking inspiration and ideas, we sat at the kitchen table after dinner on Martin Luther King Jr. Day watching videos on YouTube.

We watched King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We watched an illustrated cartoon about pessimism, pragmatism, power and vision. We watched a moving short from the Cannes Film Festival.

We also discovered a much-viewed video of Severn Suzuki, a then-12-year-old Canadian girl addressing the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio Centro, Brazil.

In blunt remarks that appeared to leave her audience stunned, she told delegates to do right by future generations. To illustrate her point, she spoke of kids from have and have-not worlds.

“In Canada,” Suzuki said, “we live the privileged life, with plenty of food, water and shelter; we have watches, bicycles, computers and television sets.

“Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with some children living on the streets. And this is what one child told us: ‘I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter and love and affection.’

“If a child on the street who has nothing is willing to share,” said Suzuki, “why are we who have everything still so greedy?”

An age-old question, rendered most famous, perhaps, by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol.”

“At this festive season of the year,” says a fund-raiser, calling on Ebenezer Scrooge at his counting house, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asks Scrooge “… and the Union workhouses … are they still in operation? … the Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?”

“What shall I put you down for?” asks the fund-raiser.

“Nothing!” says Scrooge. “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die,” says the fund-raiser.

“If they would rather die,” says Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Now, compare Scrooge’s remarks on poverty relief in 1843 London with radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s remark on fund-raising efforts to help 2010 Haiti.

“We’ve already donated to Haiti,” Limbaugh said, “It’s called the U.S. income tax.”

Bah, humbug!

Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

In this country, in this current crisis that’s placed our neighbor in need, the answer is, “Plenty.” As is our nation’s wont in times of trouble, we’re behaving not like the mega-millionaire miser with the megaphone, but like the pitch-in-for-others street kids of Rio Centro.

Indeed, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported that more than $210 million in donations already have been raised in the United States to help with relief efforts in Haiti. And the number was expected to climb much higher.

“You’ve got a bad economy and a disaster outside of the U.S.,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “It makes sense that lots of people gave to the Katrina disaster in the U.S., but to give outside of the U.S. like this is remarkable, especially at a time with 10-percent unemployment.”

I’m proud of my country for having the wherewithal, the political will, the humanitarianism and the selflessness required to rush to the aid of a neighboring country and her people.

I’m proud of my fellow citizens not only for contributing a small percentage of their income taxes to foreign aid, but also for donating far more than that—on a voluntary basis—to help a neighbor in peril.

I’m proud to live in a nation where the political power is transitioned with so much respect that a sitting president can ask two of his predecessors—of opposing political parties, no less—to join forces to raise funds. That’s happening with Haiti today, and it happened following the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia.

That said, I’d much prefer a nation that can be more the world’s benefactor and less the world’s cop.

I’d prefer a nation that unites to act not only in times of crisis, but also in time to prevent crises.

And mostly, I wish the selflessness so evident in our response to Haiti would manifest itself not only when there’s short-term visibility of a serious situation, but also when there are routine obligations to one another here at home.

“What are you doing for others?” King asked.

“Plenty,” I’m proud to say of our nation. If only we’d practice that same civility and generosity of spirit in our daily lives.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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