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Anonymous charity


TWICE A WEEK, a Baltimore man visits and cooks for an elderly man and his son who has cerebral palsy.

A young college graduate comforts critically ill people with AIDS so the last months of their lives are as comfortable as possible.

A worker in a homeless shelter in East Baltimore asks that when sleeping another night out of the cold, the diners give some comfort to someone even worse off.

Charity is often quite public. Media-conscious non-profits and foundations, patrons of the arts and benefit party-goers become well known. Names get on buildings, rooms and programs. Names get in headlines and sound bites.

No question, donors' money is needed. Publicity shakes it loose and inspires other givers. The above three, who probably don't know each other, have charity on their minds and hearts, too. And they have it in their legs and fingers.

One way they're set apart is that they prefer anonymity. During the course of the past year, they asked a reporter to leave them out of stories in the paper.

Why? "People would wonder why I do this," the shelter worker said. "I just help these guys. It's not for fame." Or fortune.

Seeking no credit

It's the same for some of those who, without seeking credit, donate money to the state's 4,000 registered nonprofits. In this age of self-promotion, the idea that charity can be anonymous is hard to digest.

It happens. Eight per cent of the employed in Maryland work for nonprofits. Thousands of others volunteer their time. They're not all motivated by good will, nor do all make a difference for the better. Motivations can be mixed.

Many of the good ones burn out under the pressures of unrelieved bleakness, of family obligations or of the difficulty in reducing an overall problem.

But they did their part, as do thousands of colleagues working at modest or no salaries. They're out there, in obscurity. More often than not, it's women who care enough. They don't say "Look at me" or "What have you done for me lately?"

During the recent presidential campaign smug Democrats told voters to ask, "Am I better off today than four years ago?" A few years ago, smug Republicans said the same. Some politicians, primed to chop welfare benefits, apparently expect middle- and upper-class voters to want them to do things for them. Who in leadership posts today publicly mentions John F. Kennedy's challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Some people don't have to ask the second question. They've been doing things. Many of them work in the spirit of another phrase in Kennedy's inaugural address: "With a good conscience our only sure reward."

It happens all the time in the quiet corners of Maryland. The workers help keep doing things. They help keep some kids reading Mother Goose, some homeless folks alive, some classical music in tune, some old people company with cats and dogs, some families in their own homes, some ex-cons out of trouble, some drunks and addicts on the straight and narrow, some students in college, some blind or deaf people connected to others and some lead out of buildings.

They keep many breathing some hope.

Ernest F. Imhoff is a reporter on The Sun covering nonprofits.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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