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Book review: "A Year of Living Generously" by Lawrence Scanlan

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If you could do volunteer work for a year, with each month in a different non-profit, what twelve groups would you work with? Lawrence Scanlan, a writer in Kingston, Ontario, chronicles his experiences as a volunteer in A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy. Betsy Kepes has this review.

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Betsy Kepes
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Scanlan began his year of volunteer work by serving food at "Vinnie's," a community drop-in center in Kingston, Ontario. Though much of Kingston is scenic and historic, thirteen thousand people live on social assistance and struggle to pay their bills. As Scanlan served pie and washed dishes he met people down on their luck and he wondered "What must it be like to always have your hand out?" In his year of "deep volunteering" he remained uncomfortable about the divide between the haves and have nots and the North American model for charity— let the rich get richer and hope they "give back" before they die.

Scanlan's volunteer work ranged widely. He worked with a group that helps people released from some of the nine prisons in the Kingston area. He traveled to Senegal, West Africa to offer his help to reporters at a woman's radio station. He helped First Nation high school students with their writing. While on an October trip to New Orleans to work on a building project with Habitat for Humanity, Scanlan was quite smug that Canadians have provided so much help to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Later he discovered that volunteerism is down in Canada, with three million fewer volunteers than three years ago, a disturbing trend.

A Year of Living Generously is well-written though at times the entries are too brief. The cast of characters changes every month and the reader gets only the smallest glimpse into the lives of those who help and are helped. I wanted to know more about the dedicated people who persist in advocating for the poor and homeless and what makes them have the strength to carry on. Scanlon does connect his chapters by including short sections on the history of philanthropy and biographies of important philanthropists.

Scanlan ends his book with an Epilogue, an effort to understand what his year of volunteer work has meant. He knows that scientifically 'doing good' does indeed give him "Helper's high", a rush of endorphins, but that's not enough. He writes "Chance is a major determinant of circumstance, so those born unlucky will soon discover that help is slow in coming and may not come at all." Historically, major advances in reducing poverty arise from social struggle not charity. The private groups are important, but people must elect governments that work toward creating social justice.

Scanlan gives a list of resources at the end of the book and his variety of volunteering experiences will make any reader think a little harder about ways to help others. His take home advice: "Weave generosity into your daily life" and be politically engaged, too. He writes "Show empathy as a volunteer, show passion as an activist."

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