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Fishman: Less meetings, more benefactors
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Last week around 8 p.m., hearing a commotion outside my house, I opened my door and saw a young girl walking down the middle of the street tearing up a phone book and tossing the paper-thin pages into the air.

"What are you doing?" I yelled, without thinking. "Are you crazy or something?"

"No, m'am," she said, while a compatriot laughed and pointed at her for being busted. She kept walking but she stopped her antics. And I started picking up all the strewn pages.

"Are you crazy?" a friend said when I related the story.

Was I? Was it crazy to ask a young boy what he was doing in my backyard jabbing a stick at my chickens while waiting for the school bus?

"He trying to poke his eye out," a buddy said.

"Well, stop it," I said. "Unless you want me to poke your eye out."

He stopped.

Is it crazy when people walk up and down the grassy median on 37th Street to pick up litter? Or when someone on my street takes his blower (or he did before it got stolen) and tidies up two or three houses around his?

Or when someone else calls -- every day -- to complain about kids' behavior while waiting for the school bus?

That made me start to think about something else. We have expensive community centers (sometimes open, often not), neighborhood associations (that tend to hold elections every eight years or so), parent universities (that meet two or three times a year) and public schools (where teachers are instructors, social workers, functionaries, paper-pushers, adjudicators and truant officers).

I know we have politicians (who love to tell all they do for us).

But the most positive connections we have are those that result from the block parties, the potlucks, the casual encounters, the voluntary acts. Meetings, as I've observed, tend to turn into bitch sessions and exercises in power. They're run by little secret cabals more anxious to keep their dominance than to look around and reassess the changing needs of the area.

I went to a neighborhood meeting the other day and was laughed out of the room because I've only lived in the area two years. The president called me a "wannabe," a "Johnny come lately."

Your point? I thought.

That's OK. If thereís any healing to do in the world, any real improvement, it will be done one-on-one, not in a room with the same 12 people over and over again.

But we do have some work to do. Any idiot can see that.

In a book I'm plowing my way through, To Heal a Fractured World, author Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, "We are here to make a difference, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make the world a place of justice and compassion."

Most of what Sacks writes is through the prism of Jewish writings, Jewish philosophy, but it applies across the board.

As a child receiving gifts for birthdays or graduations, I can't say I appreciated the note card that read -- "a tree has been planted in your honor in Israel" -- but now Iím more apt than not to contribute to a nonprofit organization than to buy a serving fork for a wedding gift.

Still, it's the people with the big bucks who need to -- and who do- - come through. (Thatís why it's time to hear from the oil companies, who are raking in the dough these days.)

But benefactors are out there. Take the Savannah Music Festival. Ticket sales account for something like 30 percent of the entire budget. The program lists pages and pages of names of people who are filling in the gap.

Similarly with the Jepson Center, which benefits from hefty individual donations. Itís the people listed as anonymous on the marble roll call of names who interest me. Guess they don't want to be besieged by other organizations. From my lowly level of the occasional $100 donation -- which leads to more direct mail requests -- I can appreciate the sentiment.

Then there's Paul Newman and his daughter Nell. Since 1982, his organic food products have contributed over $200 million to charities. Now he sells cat food, dog food, lemonade, marinara, popcorn, salsa, and steak sauce.

When I was telling this to a friend, she told me about the time a nun at St. Vincent's Academy - who had a big crush on Newman, to boot - wrote him a letter confessing her feelings and asking for help with some fund-raising event.

He answered with a check.

Paul Newman knows something about sticking his neck out. So does his daughter. No one calls them crazy.