The children’s book “The Velveteen Rabbit” is a Christmas story because the Rabbit comes to the Boy on Christmas morning, “wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws.” The story’s theme is becoming Real, and there are different levels of realness. There is the Real the Skin Horse describes, when a child loves you. That kind of Real happens to the Rabbit when the Boy loves him. But at the end of the book the Rabbit becomes Real like the other rabbits in Rabbitland. So there’s Level 1 Real and Level 2 Real.
For some people, nonprofits are hardly real at all. I recently helped write an obituary, and I asked the family if there were any charities the deceased would want mentioned. The answer that came back almost simultaneously from the three people in the room was, “Nope, he didn’t really give to charity.” For him, nonprofits were as useless as the Rabbit when he spent empty days in the nursery toy cupboard and “no one thought very much about him.”
Others of us get involved with a nonprofit at an entry level — we donate occasionally or participate in a run or attend a gala. Maybe we volunteer for a season. And then, suddenly, it all becomes Real.
In 2010 my husband and I rode our bicycles in the Waco Wild West 100 Bike Tour. The event supports Be The Match, a nonprofit operated by the National Marrow Donor Program. After John finished, he had his cheek swabbed and was entered into the registry. He didn’t do it because he had a passion for the cause. He did it because he was there. Level 1 Real.
Now it’s five years later. John has a family member who will undergo a bone marrow transplant next month. When Be The Match’s annual fundraising letter came in the mail, we wrote a check. Now it’s not just a good cause — now it’s real. Level 2 Real.
Even if we ignore nonprofits the rest of the year, they tend to hit our radar during the holidays, perhaps because we’re in a giving mood or maybe we’re thinking about the tax benefits of donating. It could also be because many organizations have special events during the Christmas season. When you buy a toy for Toys for Tots and load the kids in the car and do the drop-off at KWTX, it gets Level 1 Real. There’s the real Rusty Garrett! And real Marines! And real bicycles and tricycles for real boys and girls so they can have a real Christmas.
But when you deliver toys to a real house (like we did two years ago), when you get lost and call the number on the gift tag for directions, and a girl answers and tells you she can see your truck — you just passed the house. Because it sure didn’t look like a house. So you turn around and hand the presents to the girl because no adults are home on a Saturday morning. And even though it’s December 21, she opens them, and then she calls you back and thanks you so, so much. Level 2 Real.
Nonprofits are real to us because John has worked in that sphere since 2003. He hit the first level when he volunteered at Talitha Koum while he was between jobs. Playing with kids a couple of days a week was good for his soul. Later he went to the next level — he worked as their fundraiser, and now he runs a charitable medical clinic.
John has taught me that givers give at different levels, and the amount is not the only indicator of how real the organization is to them. One couple donates $10 to the clinic every time someone they know dies (it used to be $7). That $10 is real money to them, and it represents real people they love.
At the end of “The Velveteen Rabbit” the Boy spots two rabbits playing in the wood and notices that one of them looks like his old Bunny. “But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.” When we drop by Talitha Koum, we hear updates about the real kids we knew back then who are now in middle and high school. We did not deliver toys last year, and I don’t know if we will this year — I guess it wasn’t as real as I thought. And I hope that when we receive another solicitation from Be The Match that everything will have turned out fine for our loved one, the way the Boy in the story recovered from scarlet fever. Because right now, it’s all just too real.