An immodest grant proposal

In a letter to the editor, Sheela Clary writes: "In the next few weeks, young children everywhere will be left to fend for themselves for eight to 12 hours per day, three or four or five days per week. Shame on us if we know that’s what’s going to happen and we do nothing about it."

To the editor:

If you are not the parent of a young child, I will let you in on a terrible secret. Households all around you are operating at an unsustainable, emergency setting. Families are in trouble.

I need you to help me raise $1 million. Today. Now. Please. Five thousand dollars per child, for 200 children total. In return for $1 million, I can give you 200 reasons to be hopeful — 205, actually.

There are heroes among us: Maria Rundle, executive director of Flying Cloud Institute; Ilana Steinhauer, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine; Will Conklin, executive director of Greenagers; Jenise Lucey, executive director, and Kate Tucci, director of education and community programs at Berkshire South Regional Community Center.

These people all have full-time jobs. These people are all parents themselves. To their full-time jobs and parenting duties, this summer, they added the task of figuring out a way to get 200 South Berkshire County children out of their houses this fall, when students will be schooling from home three days a week, and into supervised distance learning sites so that caregivers can make a living.

I represent Flying Deer Nature Center, as board chair, on this coalition. Our herculean effort is called Community Learning in the Berkshires (CLuB). Our small pods will be located at Berkshire South Community Center and on the April Hill campus of Greenagers in South Egremont, and will be staffed by child care providers and educators. Participants will get assistance with their remote learning work along with hours of play, nature connection, music and art. CLuB is possible where regular, full-sized, in-person school is not because our activities will take place almost entirely outdoors.

Let me tell you who needs our help.

Flying Cloud Institute at April Hill. Photo courtesy communitylearningintheberkshires.org

On my way to town, I drive by the home of a single mom and essential worker I know. I’ll call her Cara. She lives with her 10-year-old and 5-year-old daughters. Cara leaves every weekday morning at 6 for a 12-hour nursing shift. Despite her burdens, she’s always good-natured, with a full-throated laugh. On Saturday, while I was scanning the 140 (now up to 150) application entries to CLuB, I came across her name.

Actually, it was not the name on the form that caught my attention, but her response to a mundane question that, in the COVID-19 era, turns out to be poignant: “Who will be with your child on remote/ distance learning days?”

There are eight possible responses listed: primary caregiver; primary caregiver who is also a full-time remote worker; sibling; grandparent; neighbor/friend; child will come into work with caregiver; no one; and other.

Many of the responses included multiple answers, with four or five different possibilities. Several people added details of the piecemeal solutions they’d devised themselves, as though eager to point out their hard work on Plans A, B, C, D and E. Each paragraph represented, I knew, uncountable hours of texts, phone calls, emails, notes, backaches, anxiety and sleepless worry. These are the ingredients of a parent’s fragile contingency plans for the fall of 2020, subject to the whims of distant officials and dependent on elderly relatives, older children, the goodwill of neighbors, federal subsidies and savings accounts.

But Cara’s response to “Who will be with your child on remote/distance learning days?” was uncomplicated. She chose: “No one.”

Other essential workers, who make up nearly two-thirds of applicants, responded similarly: “Sibling, father with MS”; “Sibling/No one”; “Sibling”; “Unknown”; “No one”; “No one. We are seeking help.”

I called Cara today to flesh out what it looks like for her child to be left home alone versus enrolled in CLuB.

She looked back to what her daughter did in the spring, with understatement: “Asking a 10-year-old to focus without adult supervision is a lot to ask.”

And forward to the fall: “Now she has to navigate schoolwork again, which is terrifying for her. It’s a new system, and she already has a lot of anxiety around it. I’m taking her to the doctor because she’s had stomach issues and dizziness. How much is physical rather than emotional? I don’t know.

Academics are the least of my worries, honestly.

To have her out of the house with adult eyes on her, with other kids, and to be outdoors? That’s huge. Knowing that she is having a productive period of time, not just screen time, or sitting on a swing lamenting the loss of her friends or finding ways to fill the hours? That’s huge.”

If I’ve successfully pulled on your heartstrings and you’re ready to open your checkbook for CLuB, thank you. Thank you for showing your gratitude to your essential workers in a concrete way. You will be easing your neighbors’ burdens. You will be improving the quality of life for all of us. You will also be setting an example of solidarity for the thousands of communities around the rest of our county, state and country who must scramble to set up similar systems.

Please go to communitylearningintheberkshires.org, and click on “Donate.”

If you are not yet convinced that this project deserves your money, I don’t blame you. I get about 20 requests for my money per day and I rarely respond to them. I know that my little story about Cara and her unsupervised kids is not enough.

Let me try harder. Let me take a different tack.

I’ve been dreaming of making this fundraising effort into a million-dollar GoFundMe campaign. I was impressed by the wild success of Matt Tannenbaum’s fundraiser to save his Lenox bookstore. His goal was $60,000. As of Monday morning, he’s raised $121,180. Good for him. He deserves all the love he’s getting. I love bookstores, and his is especially charming.

But I’m going to be blunt. I’m afraid that buildings — along with cats and dogs and opera and Harvard — are easier to love than other people’s children. Remember in 2019 when Notre Dame burned, and the richest French citizens gave so much money to fix her that they overshot the costs of repairs by hundreds of millions of dollars? At exactly the same time, thousands of children were starving in the streets of Yemen.

The reason I haven’t tried a GoFundMe is because I’m afraid it would raise a tiny amount, and the world would see what a tiny amount we’d raised. I can’t set myself up to be any more demoralized than I already am.

But I think my fear begs a tougher series of questions for us as American citizens. Those of us with disposable income are, for the most part, happy to send $100 here, $200 there, to a favored political candidate or two, save a bookstore campaign, support for your local theater, pet rescue or soccer club. But are we willing to invest in other people’s mental health or the social-emotional development of children we don’t know and will never meet? If the American education system is a competition that sorts out the winners and losers, I wonder, too, if it’s possible for us to even feel invested in other people’s children’s success.

Upwardly mobile American parents have come to think of education primarily in sports terms. What combination of classes and enrichment is going to get my kids over the finish line first? What do I have to do to help them win? What are the steps I need to take to get them into Fill-in-the-Blank Exclusive School?

Isn’t this what’s behind much of the concern among privileged parents about children “falling behind” during the COVID-19 pandemic? Who it is we’re afraid they are falling behind? Who do they need to stay ahead of? If my kid is “ahead,” whose needs did he disregard to get there? We’ve become so accustomed to thinking in “ahead” and “behind” terms we can’t see how racist, classist and morally bankrupt they are.

“We’re all in this together,” does not ring true to me. Are we? It seems to me the essential workers who can’t afford to hire full-time babysitters are in this mess together. The rest of us? We have no idea.

Americans are complicated. We’re selfish, we’re self-giving. We love winners but love to root for the underdog. We believe in status symbols, also sacrifice.

Do we still believe we have an obligation to support our fellow community members beyond our tax dollars? I don’t know about that one.

What I do know, as surely as I know anything, is that, deep down, I still stubbornly hold certain truths to be self-evident, that we’re all created equal: My kids; your kids; Cara’s kids. I further hold that it is our duty as American citizens to make of our lives the manifestation of these truths. There can be, and will be, no “equal” until and unless we all do what is in our power to bring it about.

Perhaps you, like me, are blessed with money you don’t need, money gathering interest somewhere and giving you a little jolt of comfort when you check your balances. Use it. I have $3,000 in an account called the Crocus Fund that I started a decade ago to support out-of-school-time enrichment for low-income kids. I don’t want to liquidate it. That feels reckless and short-sighted. I really should be more conservative. I really should think of future situations that will call for that money.

But to hell with all that smart thinking. I’m going to invest it in CLuB, because show me a more compelling cause than the following scenario:

In the next few weeks, young children everywhere will be left to fend for themselves for eight to 12 hours per day, three or four or five days per week. Shame on us if we know that’s what’s going to happen and we do nothing about it.

CLuB needs $1 million to serve about 200 children this school year. It’s a lot of money. We’re scrambling to pivot existing grant funds, applying for new grants wherever we can. Should this fiscal problem be the schools’ to solve? Yes. Probably. I don’t know. No. Who cares? Fact is, the schools are clearly not equipped to solve it, and it needs to be solved. Cara’s daughter is going to be sitting alone in her kitchen starting Monday, Oct. 5, unless we act now to ensure she is not.

“Charity” does not mean “tax shelter” or “naming rights.” It was born as the Latin word “caritas,” meaning “love of humankind.” and is related to the beautiful Italian word “Cara” or “Caro,” meaning “dear,” as in both beloved and expensive.

In Italian, you might say, “Cara Cara, mi piacerebbe aiutarti”: “Dear Cara, I’d like to help you.”

Contributions are directed to our fiscal sponsor, Greenagers. Donors will, in fact, receive a tax deduction. Thank you. For more information about how to help or where the money will go, please contact: CLUB@flyingcloudinstitute.org.

Sheela Clary
West Stockbridge

The writer is the board chair for Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham, New York, as well as an Edge contributor.