Model charitable giving at home and school

Two things I feel compelled say about charitable giving: “Thank you,” and “Pass it on.”

The heartfelt thank you goes to all in Bellevue who recognize that donations are crucial to supplement state funding for education, which provides only the footings for a quality program.

Five hundred such people gathered this week to support Bellevue Community College and its students, collectively contributing well more than $200,000 to the BCC Foundation. Their gifts will further build the quality of our programs and open the doors of life-changing education to many students for whom college would otherwise be just a dream.

In giving, these caring people have engaged in a distinctly American practice.

Did you know that most of the charitable giving worldwide is done in North America? And while donors elsewhere direct the majority of their support to family and friends, in the U.S. we give primarily to help people we don’t even know — to the tune of a quarter-trillion dollars each year!

Beyond that, thousands of people in Bellevue also contribute their personal time and effort, doing everything from helping college students with disabilities to serving in homeless shelters or cleaning up the environment.

The benefits of such involvement are two-way. Surveys show that the vast majority of those who volunteer feel stronger within themselves as a result. They suffer less stress and enjoy better health.

Yet, despite the benefits it yields all around, philanthropy is an acquired taste. We must take special care to “pass it on” by proactively teaching this value to our children.

Judging by the trend in an annual survey of UCLA freshmen, however, we’re not doing well at that task. Forty years ago, the primary reason UCLA students gave for attending college was “to develop a meaningful and responsible philosophy of life.” In the new millennium, the primary reason has shifted to “becoming very well-off financially.”

Are we losing ground as a society? How can we do better at passing on the values of philanthropy and community involvement to succeeding generations?

Some of the best advice I have seen is to expose young people to the wider world. Studies show that the more we interact with people from other walks of life, the more we develop empathy and compassion.

But while charity, in this sense, really does begin at home, as an educator I am intrigued by the role our schools can play.

At BCC we encourage an educational approach called Service Learning, through which students volunteer their time and skills in the community then relate that experience to learning objectives in their classes — which may be in any subject, from anthropology to zoology. Students learn critical thinking skills as well as personal and social responsibility.

Nearly a thousand students take part each year, making such important contributions as teaching citizenship to refugees and assisting domestic-violence witness-and-victim support teams. Just this week, a team of BCC students won the prestigious, national President’s Volunteer Service Award for helping victims of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their homes.

This is powerful and life-altering education. In written reflections, our students speak repeatedly of an awakening of ideals and a new awareness of their value to society. One student concluded that, “My BCC degree will not just be an associate in psychology, but a degree in life and humanity.”As caring people with a stake in the future of Bellevue, we need to create more opportunities to pass the torch of philanthropy on to the next generation. This is a gift as important as any other — the gift of generosity itself — and one we must not forget to give.

It’s true what Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. “

Pass it on.

Jean Floten is the president of Bellevue Community College.

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