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Philanthropy Thought Leader Uncategorized

Caring for the vulnerable in our region of abundance

By Terry Mazany, senior vice president, philanthropy,  Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

I was riding MARTA to work recently and at one stop I looked up to see a small elderly woman struggling to drag a large overflowing suitcase and plastic trash bag full of her possessions through the door next to me onto the train. Then I glanced out the door and saw on the platform a pile of three other large suitcases, each bigger than she was, and more plastic bags.  

As the door started to close she darted back onto the platform to rescue more of her possessions, leaving one bag in the doorway to prevent it from closing. My initial thought, “this isn’t going to end well.” If the train took off, she would lose the luggage on the train, or if she got back on the train, she would lose the luggage on the platform.

In a moment of “what would you do?” I only had the wherewithal to get up and stand in the doorway to hold it open and try to signal to the train operator that a passenger needed more time. This was not greeted kindly, judging by the announcement over the intercom about not blocking the doors.

The good news for the moment was that the woman was able to pull all of her belongings onto the train (dragging because the wheels had broken off of the suitcases), the doors finally closed, and off we went.  

But I don’t know how this story really ends and when I stepped off the train at my stop I left with a swirl of questions. Where was she going, and how could she off load so much luggage without the same struggle and risk of losing something? And once off the train, how would she keep up with her possessions and keep moving to wherever her destination was?  Did she have family, anyone to count on? Was there anyone in her life to care for her and help her keep her belongings together?

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, implores us to be proximate with those with the least, to stand up for those who experience oppression. MARTA is such a place where Atlanta meets itself (and one reason, I suspect, why some won’t ride MARTA).

And Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” How are we doing when judged by that standard?

Was this elderly woman poor and homeless, having no option but to carry all possessions dear to her? Was she mentally ill, finding solace in her accumulated treasures?

What I do know is that she is a human being with a right to care and compassion in a just and humane society. And in the moment, I didn’t know what specifically I could do the help lighten her burdens, except to force the door open.

I also know that there are hundreds of nonprofits and volunteer organizations across our region that are on the front lines of service to those in great need, be it feeding the hungry, finding homes for the homeless, educating children so that they can have a better chance, forging community through acts of love, or providing health care or legal assistance. These organizations need our contributions now, more than ever.

And so I wonder, who held open the door for this woman at her final stop, and who will keep that door open as she makes her way around our region that is blessed with great abundance?  


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