BOHANON & CUROTT: Private generosity still gets things done in our country

An unprecedented number of households are facing economic distress this holiday season. While Congress dithered, local charitable organizations have risen to the challenge. Secret Families in East Central Indiana is a great example.

Secret Families was founded by Muncie’s Al Holdren in December 2004. He and his wife, Chris, “decided to not buy presents for each other for Christmas and use the money to provide a family in need with a tree and presents for the holidays.” The program has mushroomed under Al’s and Chris’ leadership. Hundreds of families in need receive a Christmas tree, wrapped presents for their children, and gift cards all worth around $550. Hundreds of people volunteer their time and treasure to make it happen.

At the crack of dawn on the first Saturday in December, a crew of volunteers descends on a local big-box store to buy gifts. A second crew delivers the gifts to a nearby car dealership, where yet another crew wraps the presents. Then a final crew delivers the bounty to the needy families. With the help of the local health department, COVID safety measures were successfully followed this year.

Don’t call Al and ask him to add a family to the list. The recipient families are identified, in theory, by local school principals, but in practice by local school secretaries. They know the family situations of the schoolkids and can discern which families need some holiday help.

Al is keenly aware of the importance of the secretaries’ role. In his words, “If you don’t have a filter, you get played.” So Secret Families courts these school secretaries assiduously. When delivering them a complimentary lunch, the volunteers are known to ask, “Would you like cubed or crushed ice in your soft drink?” Local knowledge is thereby harnessed to ensure help is directed to those in most need.

There is no way bureaucrats in Indianapolis or Washington, D.C., could effectively make that determination. A government program would undoubtedly impose layers of legalistic and byzantine rules for assessing who was and was not eligible. It would inevitably require needy families to submit detailed financial documentation of their plight. Finally, a government program would deny more fortunate community members the opportunity to be directly involved in helping their neighbors.

The spirit of private generosity in America has been noted since our founding. Fortunately, it has not been crushed by the coronavirus or government overreach.•

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Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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