What 5 dollars can do

If you had $5 to give to someone anonymously, would you do it, and why?

Ted Gup’s book, A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness — and a Trove of Letters — Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression talks about the discovery of an old family suitcase. It held a newspaper advertisement from a B. Virdot offering to provide financial aid to 50 to 75 families in Canton, Ohio (during the Depression). Inside the case were also letters of petition, thank you letters, and canceled checks.  Upon discovering that his grandfather, Sam, was the mysterious donor, the author goes on to research what led him to give away money under a false name, and also why he might have chosen specific people in his hometown to help, based on their letters. Only 150 letters were kept, and that was the number of families helped.

So who would you choose to get the equivalent of $100 in today’s currency? Would it be the family who longed to give their daughter a toy? Would it be the wife who had lost her husband and was raising adopted daughters on her own? Simple pleas for a winter coat, clothing, coal for Christmas, money to pay the doctor. The author says

I would withdraw the B. Virdot letters by the handful and lose myself in their words. These were the voices of my hometown speaking from the depths of the Great Depression. All but one were handwritten…

Most satisfying of all, the book doesn’t leave you with the Great Depression, but draws the reader into the lives of both the giver (and his possible motives) as well as the lives of the letter writers or their descendants. It’s interesting to see how what we would think of as a “small” gift in today’s terms could raise people’s hopes, help them get on their feet, or make a difference years later. Overall, it left me wondering how today’s anonymous gifts (through foundations, through $10 given to a food kitchen) affect the spirit of people today, even if benevolent gifts can’t solve all the problems, either for the giver or the receiver.

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