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We ended our Helping Hand charity campaign on the highest of notes

In December, best-selling author Patricia Cornwell met Wesley Thomas, who spent 29 years living on the streets of D.C. before seeking help from the charity Miriam's Kitchen. This year, The Washington Post's annual Helping Hand campaign raised more than $400,000 for local charities. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Honestly, I had no idea what to expect in November when we kicked off The Washington Post Helping Hand campaign. This column has been encouraging readers to donate to worthy local causes since it debuted in 1947 under the pen of its creator, Bill Gold. But had we ever had a year like this one, in the midst of a pandemic, cut off from friends and strangers alike, beset by a low-grade unease that seemed to permeate everything?

Still, we set our Helping Hand goal at $250,000, hoping we would raise that much collectively for Bread for the City, Friendship Place and Miriam’s Kitchen. Last week, when we tallied all the donations, the total stood at $252,508.61. What’s more, the Robert I. Schattner Foundation — a Maryland-based organization funded by the late dentist whose inventions included Chloraseptic — had pledged $150,000 to Helping Hand, the funds to be distributed equally among our three charity partners.

That means that Helping Hand 2021 raised $402,508.61 to help alleviate hunger and homelessness in Washington.

I am incredibly grateful to all of the readers who donated. Your gifts — of whatever size — powered us past our goal. I want to thank the Schattner Foundation, too. And I want to thank author Patricia Cornwell, who read my column about Wesley Thomas, a Miriam’s Kitchen client who adores her books, and then made a point of visiting Miriam’s, meeting Wesley and making her own donation.

I’d also like to thank Thomas and all of the other clients of Miriam’s Kitchen, Bread for the City and Friendship Place who shared their stories with me and allowed me to share them with readers.

To me, all of these people are heroes. They have overcome great adversity. They had help, of course — from the very organizations to which Post readers donated — but the decision to seek help was their own.

I know not everyone thinks poor people are worthy of our help, certainly not of our money. Every year I hear from a few readers — a very few, I’m happy to say — who object to the whole notion of charity for people who have become homeless or impoverished. Where was my handout, these people wonder.

This year, it was a column I did on Bread for the City’s diaper bank that prompted this reaction. Basically, a handful of readers believed that giving diapers to parents who can’t afford them just encourages people to have babies they can’t afford.

Wrote one reader: “These ‘can’t-afford-diapers’ parents are freeloaders. Why didn’t they save enough money for even diapers? Why did they have any children at all before they could afford them?”

Wrote another: “Where imprudence is not stigmatized, you may expect more of it. And, so, social problems are worsened as better-off members of the public congratulate themselves on their ‘compassion.’ ”

Punish the babies, these people seem to think. Make them sit in wet and dirty diapers. Those infants practically asked for it. Well, their parents did, anyway. How will they ever learn?!

I don’t think anyone I’ve interviewed over the years who got “free” diapers or a “free” meal or a “free” apartment got away with something. These people live on the edge, usually under the edge. The challenges they face — whether economic, or with issues of mental illness or substance abuse — are ones most of us can scarcely imagine.

I’ve been writing this column since 2004. The past 21 months have been the most challenging. But between interviewing people on the phone, via Zoom, socially distanced, masked and — finally — vaccinated, it’s been possible to get the job done.

Even if I hadn’t needed those accommodations, this Helping Hand campaign would have been different. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this year, the topics of equity and inclusion, of systemic racism, have surfaced. Every one of the Helping Hand charities is confronting these issues.

That was another thing that ticked some readers off. They wondered why the waters of compassion had to be muddied with the issue of race. I wonder if any of them read an Answer Man column I wrote a few weeks ago. It was on an unrelated topic: the Naylor family of Southern Maryland and Southeast Washington, all descended from an English boy named George Nailor who came to America in 1668.

The colonist who paid for George’s passage received 50 acres of land in Maryland for every colonist he imported. And each of those apprentices was promised 50 acres of land once their apprenticeship was completed.

Talk about free diapers.

And talk about inequity. You better believe none of the enslaved African Americans who were working the Delmarva Peninsula’s tobacco fields 300 years ago were getting 50 acres anytime soon.

Again, thank you to everyone who donated to The Washington Post Helping Hand. And even if you didn’t donate, thank you for reading. I hope that you learned something. I know I did.

Read more from John Kelly.