Five hundred and forty-eight

I almost completely forgot that it was Wednesday and my regular blog post is due.  I love the fall, but the change in weather from hot to cool is making my body go crazy.  I’ve picked up some kind of virus that has left me physically and mentally exhausted, plus of course the sore throat, cough, fever, aches, sinus headache, and the rest of the usual fun flu stuff.  I hate being sick!  Well, I doubt anyone likes being sick, but I’m really not very good at relaxing and waiting for my body to heal itself.

Luckily, I have a guest blog post this week, so I don’t have to try to sound intelligent and put together much longer.  A few weeks ago I wrote on giving to charities: how do you know where your money is going?  There was a comment from my cousin Nikki, whom I’ve mentioned before as being the first person I ever knew to write on a blog and has since created her own company to design blogs for non-profit companies, as well as continues to write herself on One Tiny Starfish.  She has done a lot of charity work and has traveled a lot in the past few years to donate her time to those in need.  I asked her if she would write a little something on good charities to donate to, her experiences with different charities in the places she’s visited, and any other information about donating that could be interesting.  I figured she is more of an expert than I am on the subject.  Without further ado (and because I don’t think I’m going to able to make much sense in a moment and I really need sleep), here is Nikki:

When I was in high school, I began having an interest in international development. At the time, I knew of only the major charities; World Vision, PLAN Canada, UNICEF, etc. I liked the idea of writing letters to a sponsor child, and so went online to World Vision’s website, looked through a photolisting of children around the world, and began sponsoring a 7 year old girl from Ethiopia named Tsehay. I paid $30/month and didn’t know exactly where my money was going, but trusted that it was going somewhere good. I looked forward to receiving new photos of Tsehay and letters from her in the mail. I didn’t question where my money was going or how much of my money was going to Ethiopia and how much was going to administrative fees. I didn’t even really know what administrative fees were.

Over the years, I have spent most of my summers overseas doing the work I dreamed of doing when I was in high school. It has been through these experiences in Kenya, India, Haiti, and Uganda, among other countries, as well as two years working for an international non-profit, that opened my eyes to the ideas that 1) big name charities are a business, and 2) small, grassroots charities are often doing much better, more focused work and need our support even more. I know longer trust that my money is going to a good place, and now realize that not all help is good help. I now scrutinize websites before donating, and ask questions in order to ensure my funds are going where I want them to go.

Just a week ago I returned from India where I spent time volunteering with Sarah’s Covenant Homes (www.schindia.com). This was my second experience with this organization, and I could not speak more highly of them. The disabled in India are considered the lowest of the low. These 105 children under the care of SCH, all with disabilities, were abandoned due to the stigma of having a disabled child. SCH provides everything for these kids that parents would. Many of the kids, who are capable of being educated, go to private English-speaking schools. The government orphanages for children with disabilities leave the children on mats on the floor all day, with no toys, stimulation, or even diapers. The SCH children have nutritious food, physiotherapy, toys, committed caregivers, medication, and surgeries if needed. 100% of the money donated to SCH goes to the care of these children. Right now, SCH is running a campaign called 105 in 105; an attempt to get all 105 children sponsored in 105 days. Lily is one of my favourite kids at SCH and she needs a sponsor! She is 7 years old and has cerebral palsy. She is the sweetest, funniest little girl I know and is so bright. Go to http://www.schindia.com/ChildSponsor/lily/ to learn more, and know that 100% of your money is going directly to making a difference in her life. All these kids are available for international adoption, and so one day my dream is that we will be able to see Lily find a forever family and watch her thrive outside of an orphanage. SCH is working hard to make sure this happens.

Lily at Sarah’s Covenant Homes

Real Hope For Haiti (http://www.realhopeforhaiti.org/) is another organization that is small and unknown to most, but doing incredible work. RHFH focuses mostly on healthcare, although they have education programs, employ over 100 women and men, and do literacy and job training for adults. They are making a huge difference in rural Haiti. Children come to the RHFH clinic every single day weighing next to nothing and dying from the sad fact that their parents don’t have the resources to feed them enough protein-rich food. RHFH nurses these kids back to health with a high-protein peanut butter paste called Medika Mamba, and supports their families to help them get back on their feet so they can properly care for their children.

Real Hope for Haiti

There are hundreds of organizations like this around the world, doing quiet, incredible work that few people know about. Don’t let your skepticism of big name charities stop you from donating. I have worked with these charities. I have kissed these children and seen the donations hard at work. Do your research before donating, and find one like SCH or RHFH that you can trust. There are kids like Lily whose quality of life relies on it!

(Thanks Nikki!)

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Five hundred and forty-one

An update on the Metro Theatre – one of the few remaining old-time adult cinemas in Canada

Going to the Metro Theatre is one of the most popular things I did and also one of the most referenced in my blog.  It was an experience I will never forget and not necessarily in a good way.  I would almost go so far as to say it haunts me.  I can remember the cashier’s words of caution, the smell, the feeling of being a complete outsider in a world I sometimes wish I never entered.  Here’s an excerpt from my blog post of my experience there:

We entered the grand theatre to the image of a black leather corseted woman in white makeup and a top hat on the big screen (this I later found out from my date, as I was too petrified to even pay attention to what was on the screen).  The vinyl seats are peeling and sticky.  The musty smell is strong.  I am creeped out.  It’s dark, but I can see about four men scattered around the theatre.  All is still when we enter and we take a seat on the side.  My date sits like a coiled spring ready to defend me.  Then there’s movement.  The men are moving towards us.  We hear belt buckles clink.  It’s been five seconds.  I tell my date we have to leave – NOW.

I also went back and took some more photos of the outside of the building for photography month, which are posted here.   Everyone loves to ask me about it.  I guess as humans we are curious of what goes on behind the red door with the “POSITIVELY NO ONE UNDER 18 ADMITTED” sign under a picture of a woman holding a snake.  It’s a view into a world foreign to many of us.  And hey, everyone has their own things that make them happy.  I try to keep an open mind and not judge.

The Metro Theatre has recently appeared in the news because two entrepreneurs have plans to turn it into an indie, art house, foreign film hub four nights a week.  There will still be porn shown during the day, but after a bit of a makeover and a “really detailed sterilization process” (quoted from one of the entrepreneurs on the cbc website), starting August 24th you can go see one of four screenings per night in the two cinema rooms.  They will also be holding special events on the weekends.

It’s an interesting sell, considering there will still be the porn on during the day.  I would not want to be the cleaners for that place.  And as one woman commented on blogTO’s article about the changes at the Metro, “just beware all you ladies in spiked denim cut offs – it might be wise to bring your own seat cover to avoid accidentally impregnating your butt.”  It’s a little extreme, but I can imagine a lot of people feeling that way.  I admit to bringing a plastic bag just in case I needed to cover the seat when I went.

In defence of the building itself, it is a beautiful old cinema from the late 1930s, and with a makeover could look quite spiffy.  I also go back to my original point of why so many people want to hear about my experience there: curiosity.  I have a feeling there will be a large group of people curious about the building with the posters of old porn stars on the front.  If they are suitably impressed and can get over the idea that someone was possibly touching themselves in the seat a few hours earlier, maybe they will go back.  I might have to go, if only to get over my traumatizing experience and associate a historic building with beauty and art instead of the creeps.

Five hundred and thirty-four

Neighbours

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog debating how friendly people in Toronto are, including having a very unsuccessful attempt at walking down the street, smiling at people and saying hello (unsuccessful in the fact that no one smiled back and I almost got in a fight with a girl who thought I was hitting on her boyfriend).  In the suburbs when I grew up, smiling at strangers was normal.  What I did find was that within the greater city that is Toronto, there are smaller communities who act a lot more like neighbourhoods.  People speak to each other there.  There are local cafes, shops, parks, festivals, etc.  The same people are around and those people get to know each other’s faces, and perhaps names.  In a smaller scale, my neighbours in my house/apartment are generally great.  Over the past few years that I’ve lived here, we have chatted, helped each other out, collected mail, my neighbour below me even gave us his old barbecue and patio furniture when he bought new ones.

What happened to me Monday morning, though, was truly proof that there are neighbourhoods in a big city such as Toronto, where people look out for each other and care about what is happening.  It was around 8:30 am when I heard the doorbell ring at my boyfriend’s house where I stayed the night.  I was still in bed and often the doorbell ends up being someone selling or preaching something door-to-door, so I almost didn’t get up to answer it.  But then I heard fairly frantic voices outside the front door of his apartment in the house, and I could hear the small beep of a fire alarm going off somewhere in the building.  I could hear policemen coming through the front door and a girl’s voice saying there was a lot of smoke and two people unconscious in one of the apartments.  I quickly put on some clothes and stuck my head outside.  “There’s a fire in the basement apartment,” says one of the neighbours standing outside.  I go inside to grab my keys and come outside to wait.

Turns out the girl in the basement apartment passed out after putting something on the stove and the pot was burning.  The firemen and police helped the girl outside (who from what I heard was on very strong painkillers combined with alcohol) and woke the guy who was staying there.  They removed the pot, the girl was taken to the hospital, and all was fine besides the lingering smoke effects.  The amazing bit is how all of the neighbours reacted.  The one girl in the building was concerned about the fire alarm not turning off, so went to check on her neighbour, reacted quickly, called the police, and alerted the other people in the building.  Then, as we were all standing outside waiting for the firemen to check everything out, the lady who lives next door came by to ask if she could make anyone tea or coffee while we waited.  Another concerned person who lives in the neighbourhood came by to see if we were ok.

There was a lot of response from the cops, the firemen, the people who live in the house, and the neighbourhood in general.  I felt safe and supported and that if something were to happen to me, someone would come help.  It’s nice to think this, especially with the topic of random shootings being so present in the media right now.  I’d like to think the kind people of the world who look out for each other far outweigh those who want to cause harm.  Maybe I should continue to try to smile at my neighbours.  They might not respond outwardly, but hopefully it will let them know there are strangers who are looking out for them in this big city of Toronto.

Five hundred and twenty-seven

Giving to charity: how do you know where your money is going?

I like to donate to charities.  I am helping others.  I feel good about myself.  I get a tax receipt.  Up until now I’ve chosen the charities I do donate to haphazardly: someone I know asks me to sponsor them in a bike ride; or I come across a good cause on the internet or in an article in the newspaper; or a friend or family member is affected by a specific cause.  Sometimes I just pick it because it’s in my community and I hope I’m helping those around me.

During Good Deed Month in December, I wrote about The Science of Good Deeds and that doing something nice for someone else decreases your stress levels and helps in your physical and mental health.  I also found the more you do good deeds, the more those around you will want to help others out, and vice versa.  This refers more to actual volunteering and physical interactions, but can also refer to helping from afar (such as donating money or objects) if you feel a direct connection with the cause.

If I have the money to spare, I can only see the good in giving it to others in need.  I never really thought about how much of what I donate goes to the actual cause, though.  I knew administration took some of it, but I never really thought of that being my money.  I donated to Habitat For Humanity last year and they recently sent me an e-mail saying they were ranked an A+ in overall charity efficiency in MoneySense Magazine’s review of Canada’s largest 100 charities.  That took me to the MoneySense website and I started looking at all of the charities and their ranking.  I am a bit in shock.  Why are people being paid over $350,000 to work for a charity?  How is it possible that in some cases less than 50% of the money raised goes towards the program or that it costs over $50 (in fundraising costs, etc.) to raise $100?  There has to be something wrong with this model.

This list refers only to Canadian charities, but whichever country you live in, I’m now realizing how important it is to research what your money is used for before you give to anyone.  Some of the organizations I have donated to in the past are on this list and haven’t received very good grades in efficiency and transparency.  I work hard for my money and I don’t have a ton of it.  When I choose to give some of those dollars away, I fully expect some of it will go to the people who are working hard to make that charity run.  They of course have to make a living as well, and are doing it in a very honourable manner.  But I don’t think anyone should be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And there’s got to be a way to cut the costs of fundraising.  Isn’t there?  Am I just being naive?

I am still going to donate money, because I believe in helping other people, but I’m going to do a bit more research of who I sign that cheque to from now on.

Five hundred and twenty

A month in a car

Having spent a year doing monthly experiments, I am hyper-aware of other people’s thirty day challenges.  Isn’t the saying that it takes 30 days to break or form a habit?  There are plenty of exercise, smoking, eating a certain way, reading, etc. challenges out there.   Trying to do something for a month is a manageable goal that is easier than committing to a change “forever”.  By the time you get to the end, you are in a different routine and the new change is normal.  I experienced that during my year.  There’s always an arc: the beginning is exciting and a little apprehensive; the middle is the hump you have to get over to continue; and the end is where you reap the benefits.

Although these personal tests are important, what really fascinates me right now is people who are doing extreme trials to raise awareness for a particular cause.  I was skimming through the Metro free newspaper the other day while on the bus to Montreal to see my boyfriend (he’s still working there), and I came across an article about a 6 foot 3 inch, 240 pound, 22 year-old man who lived in a mid-sized hybrid car for a month.  Tanner Zurkoski slept, ate, practiced “car yoga”, called into restaurants and asked them to serve him outside, raced bicycles, and tried to live his life all out of his car.  He could only leave the car to shower, change and use the washroom.  His goal was to highlight the length of time people in the Greater Toronto Area spend in their cars commuting.  “The average Torontonian spends 80 minutes a day commuting in their car.  That adds up to about a month every year,” according to MetroNews.ca.  The stunt was sponsored by Evergreen for their MOVE Transportation Exhibit.

Tanner Zurkoski stands next to the car he called “home” for the past month with his new set of wheels—a bike courtesy of Curbside Cycle in Toronto, ON (Photo: Evergreen)

The interesting thing with this experiment, though, is that the result for Zurkoski was not good.  He gained weight, it was long and hot, his relationship with his girlfriend ended, his social life deteriorated, he had to see a clinical psychologist for road rage, and he had a hard time sleeping.  It’s a little like that documentary Super Size Me, where Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s food three times per day for thirty days and showed the detrimental effects to his physical and psychological health.  Both are good causes to raise awareness for.  As I’ve talked about many times before, there are so many better (healthier, better for the environment) alternatives to fast food and car commuting.

I found the whole experiment interesting, although it sounded more like Zurkoski was depressed about the experience than gained anything from it.  I guess that was the point – that being a month in your car a year can cause serious problems in your life and that something must be done about the traffic in the GTA.

I personally prefer to do experiments I can learn from and will help me develop skills that I can continue to use.  But maybe I’m being selfish?  I guess my year was more about changing me than changing the world.  Now that I’ve worked on me, maybe it’s time I do a stunt to raise awareness for something else?

After I read the article, I did some research and found more on Tanner Zurkoski’s progress on MetroNews.ca here:
The Beginning – ready for the challenge
Day 11 – feeling good, enjoying himself, getting into a routine
Two Weeks – struggling with road rage
Three Weeks – wants to be out of the car
The End – happy to be out of the car

And click here for a video from the CBC.