AUTHOR: Kelsey Timmerman
Giving is complicated. Helping can be harmful. I’m only one person, so how can I make a difference? Kelsey Timmerman takes on these issues and others in his most wide-ranging, ambitious book yet. The book is a far-reaching, intimate exploration of altruism, philanthropy, and various specific models of giving. To make the discussion enjoyable, Timmerman has crafted a string of short tales and visceral vignettes from his extensive travels, which he uses as vehicles for his further research on each topic.
Starting in his hometown of Muncie, Indiana, and then bouncing between Myanmar, Kenya, India, Nepal, and other places, Timmerman explores giving in many roles—as a worker, consumer, volunteer, and as both a local and global citizen. He takes a look at orphanages and child sponsorships. He spends time with monks, students, a refugee, a Marine, a former Hollywood executive, and seasoned aid workers to explore how they give. He also speaks with the people on the receiving end of their giving, voices which are often ignored in this discussion.
Along the way, Timmerman struggles to be a more informed giver, becomes a “voluntourist,” starts his own local non-profit, and searches for balance between practicalism and passion in how he gives. Rather than look at these issues in isolation, Timmerman also addresses the greater current context of each setting, including the immediate socio-political landscapes of Myanmar, Kenya, and the United States during the times that he was in each place.
My Own Service Journey
One of my first calls to serve first came from a junior high teacher named Gerald Schehr, an inspiring human being who took our 7th grade social studies class to a soup kitchen on Long Island. The
experience brought me face to face with the other and woke me up to what would become a lifetime of being involved in some service-related experience or another. In college, I was the volunteer coordinator for my fraternity, rounding up groggy but enthused brothers on weekend mornings to pound nails with Habitat for Humanity or walk and groom dogs at the local shelter. After graduating, I joined one of the first AmeriCorps groups and then the U.S. Peace Corps, which sent me to Nicaragua for two-and-a-half years. As a trip leader in Central America, I would engage our groups (usually North American college students or adults) in discussions about some of the issues Timmerman covers. Why, for instance, were we as a group spending so much money to fly from all over to Honduras and “help build a school,” instead of just sending the cash equivalent of all of our plane tickets? We had plenty of ways to rationalize our short-term volunteer/service trips, the intercultural exchange for example, the longterm relationships with the host organizations, the language and communication building, etc., but they were not usually comfortable talks to have.
When I got married, my wife and I traveled the world as volunteers with American Jewish World Service, completing assignments in India, Sri Lanka, and Ghana (see my travel memoir, Crocodile Love). Skip ahead a decade—I’m a teacher, my wife is a nurse and birth doula, and we recently began exploring how to expose our three daughters to the idea of giving (last Thanksgiving, we helped serve and deliver meals in Colorado Springs). We’re still discussing it and figuring it out.
My point is, I’ve been waiting years for someone like Timmerman to come along and take a deep dive into these different ways of giving. What really is the best way? What should I be teaching or modeling for my daughters? How do I not feel overwhelmed, frozen into inaction? It would be so much easier to only worry about myself and my family, as the world burns somewhere far away. As Timmerman asks in his introduction, “Are awareness and empathy treasures that can enhance our lives? Or are they burdens that would be better off discarded because awareness without action leads to guilt and apathy?”
“I choose action,” he answers, unequivocally.
Giving Rules & The Gift of Travel
To help the reader choose action as well, Timmerman peppers the book with dozens of bolded, one-line “giving rules.” Some are helpful reminders, some seem obvious, some I’ve heard before, some are brand new, eye-openers. There are enough to cover all kinds of givers, readers, and travelers:
Giving Rules: Gratitude first, then giving. When you look at your life, time, money, and talents as gifts, you will give more of them all.
Giving Rules: Our gifts should give others dignity, not take it. Giving isn’t about you.
Giving Rules: Sometimes you are the giver and other times you are the vessel through which a gift flows.
I love that Timmerman entitles the entire last part of the book “The Gift of Travel,” focusing on travel’s importance both as a vessel for change and an integral part of most of the kinds of giving he’s written about. “Travel can increase caring,” he writes. “It’s an opportunity to lift the spotlight and expand the boundaries of empathy.”
He goes even farther: “Travel changes your brain. We know this deep down and science backs it up … Travel exposes us to new sights, smells, languages, tastes, awkwardnesses, and cultures that ignite different synapses and alter our neural pathways.”
That said, “not all travel is equal,” and Timmerman includes stories on slum tourism, orphanages, medical safaris, and so-called responsible tourism.
Where Am I Giving? will give readers ideas to continue their personal journeys of giving—whether they are taking their first steps, or whether they are already living lives of service and have volunteered abroad for years. I give it two super-tranquilo thumbs up. Enjoy!
Also, check out Timmerman’s FACING PROJECT, a 501c3 nonprofit community storytelling project, which he started in 2012 with J.R. Jamison.