Saturday morning while walking the dog, I encountered a throng of well-scrubbed Boy Scouts in front of the local coffee shop selling raffle and pasta dinner tickets. I remember encountering a similar group of clean-cut, uniform-clad boys in front of this same coffee shop last year; their annual dinner and raffle are apparently a tried-and-true fundraiser. Last year, the boy who sold me several raffle tickets was awkward and soft-spoken, not cut out for sales; this year, the boy who stroked Reggie’s fur while I filled out my tickets was chatty and self-assured, obviously accustomed to making small-talk with grown-ups. He’ll grow up, I predict, to be a successful salesman, or a winning politician, or both.
I follow an unwritten rule that says you should make a habit of donating to whatever charity that is soliciting contributions outside your local coffee shop, grocery store, or other gathering spot. If you have spare change, you should give it; if you can find any possible use for whatever the organization is selling, you should buy something. And if you can possibly take the time to chat with the person working the sales table, donation can, or ticket roll–usually an embarrassed teenager or an earnest parent shepherding a younger child–you should say something nice to help pass what would otherwise be boring hours spent soliciting donations or selling miscellany to strangers. You should, in other words, spend a couple minutes and a couple bucks helping your local scout troop, cheerleading squad, or Little League team with whatever fundraiser they’re doing. This is, in my mind, one of the things it means to be a good neighbor: a member of the home team.
Every year, for instance, the Girl Scouts set up a table at cookie-selling time. I’ve seen them outside this same coffee shop, and I’ve seen them outside my local grocery store: in both cases, I’ve bought cookies even though I didn’t need them (and even though Girl Scout cookies, to be honest, are no better–and significantly more expensive–than store-bought cookies). What you’re buying when you buy Girl Scout cookies, in my mind, isn’t cookies: you’re buying a slice of faith in the young women of your local community. The last time I bought Girl Scout cookies from several girls and a Den Mother sitting at a table outside my local grocery store, twenty bucks bought me several boxes of cookies, an extra box to donate to troops overseas, and a priceless sensation of having helped a worthy cause. It was the best twenty bucks I spent that week: a small but personally significant investment in the social capital of my community.
J and I make a habit of cheering for the Boston College football, women’s basketball, and men’s hockey teams in part because I went to BC for my Masters degree…but mostly we root for the BC Eagles because their campus is within walking distance of our house. The students we see on the football field, basketball court, or hockey rink are our neighbors, as are many of the folks who sit next to us in the stands. Rooting for the home team is one way we establish allegiances by rooting ourselves in a particular community. Instead of remaining standoffish and aloof, refusing to make eye-contact with the folks we pass on the sidewalk–instead of insisting on our outsider status, refusing to take off our proverbial coat and make ourselves at home–we make a point of cheering for the home team, contributing to the cause, and buying a fundraiser’s wares as a way of belonging in our local community: a way to only connect.