Are Americans Cheap? Or Charitable?

The Men in Blue

Thank goodness we do because charity does it better. I notice the difference on my way to work because in my neighborhood, the men in blue -- that's what they call themselves -- clean the streets.

Who are they, I wondered? They say they are ready, willing and able, and they do this menial work energetically.

They're not volunteers. It turns out that they're former street people. … Ex-alcoholics and drug addicts. The Doe Fund, a private charity, puts them to work while they try to teach them to be responsible and to stay clean.

One year after entering the program, most of the men in blue are drug-free and employed. That's twice the success rate of other shelters in the city.

William Hurst went through eight different rehab programs before this charity taught him the self-respect you get from work.

"I respect myself again, I'm drug-free. After I completed the drug counseling, they put me out in the field immediately. … And to me, that's the most important thing, staying clean and working," he said.

I'm still not sure exactly what makes this charity so successful, but it clearly has discovered … something.

I've never seen government workers do work like this -- with this kind of enthusiasm

"I enjoy doing what I do. It just keeps me motivated," said Allen Corey Funderburg, another trainee.

Nazerine Griffin, one of the supervisors and an ex-addict, said simply, "Private funders do it better."

Private Charities

That's why I donate money to that charity and to Central Park, where, full disclosure, I'm a director of the charity that's helped clean it up.

About 20 years ago, the park was in terrible disrepair. The lawns were barren and eroding.

Buildings were covered with graffiti. The government kept promising to restore it, but never did.

Yet now, the park is beautiful. Central Park is now the No. 2 tourist destination in New York City. … Because our private charity now manages the park, and pays for most of its upkeep.

One more example.

In Namibia, in West Africa, a country ravaged by the AIDS crisis, many orphans were being neglected, even though the country got $161 million in foreign aid from the U.S. government.

A little church in Maryland decided it should help. Members of the Mount Zion United Methodist Church decided that they'd use their own money to build and fund an orphanage, The Children of Zion Village, in Namibia.

Today, the children, many of whom lived on the streets -- one little boy was found living in a tire -- are safe and smiling and going to school.

Now church members fly from Maryland to Africa to volunteer at the orphanage, and meet the child they sponsored.

"The children know who their sponsor is. … And so there's a relationship there. We're a family," said Rebecca Mink, who runs the Namibian orphanage.

That's charity working the uniquely American way.

Regardless of what our government does, Americans are anything but cheap.

Americans gave $300 billion away in charity last year -- that's about $1,000 per person.

This story originally aired on December 1, 2006.

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