Cash-Poor Americans Find Other Ways to Give

Short on cash, more Americans practice person-to-person philanthropy

June 17, 2009, 6:04 PM

June 18, 2009 — -- Americans are generous people, donating more money to charity than any other country in the world. But in a recent ABC News poll almost half of those surveyed said they would give less money to charities this year.

Instead of writing a check, a lot of people are becoming more directly involved in helping others -- you could call this new normal, "person-to-person philanthropy."

Marilyn Mock is one example. She runs a stoneyard business with her family outside Dallas. She is a serious businesswoman, but some say she's also an angel.

Last Fall, Mock attended a foreclosure auction along with her son, who was getting ready to purchase his first house.

Tracy Orr was also at that auction, but for a drastically different reason. The home she'd owned for 20 years was up for auction. A period of unemployment left her behind on her mortgage, and Orr had come to watch as her precious home was sold to the highest bidder.

Mock noticed Orr in emotional distress and began talking to her.

"She was crying, and I just asked her what she was upset about, and you know, she lost her house," Mock said.

Orr's house was up for sale next, and without even knowing the location or price, Mock raised her hand to bid. Within minutes, the gavel fell at $30,000, sold to Marilyn Mock. But the split-second deal wasn't for her, it was for the sobbing woman she'd just befriended.

"I didn't even know what her name was," Mock said.

Mock admitted that she is not wealthy, but she had good credit. Using one of her company dump trucks as collateral, Mock borrowed the $30,000 and put Orr back in her home.

"It made me realize, to be grateful for what we got," said Orr, who said she is repaying Mock little by little, sending her whatever she can afford each month.

Mock has a reputation for generosity among her family and friends, and she said it is just something that comes naturally.

"If somebody gets a flat tire along the road, you pull over and stop to help," she said. "Sometimes it backfires on you and you'll be upset for two or three days. But then somebody else comes along that you see needs help, and you just go off again."

Click here for resources for loan modification assistance.

Despite Bust Times, Volunteerism Is Booming

Mock must be on to something: Direct person-to-person giving seems to the on the rise, even as mainstream charities are struggling. Donations have dropped 30 percent this year, and some experts say as many as 100,000 charities could shut down over the next two years.

"This is going to be the most serious restructuring of the non-profit world that we have ever seen," said Stacy Palmer, editor in chief of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Although many people are more reluctant to write checks to charity, they are more likely than ever to contribute their sweat equity: volunteerism is booming.

Beth Shapiro, spokeswoman for Citymeals on Wheels in New York City, said her organization has seen an increase in volunteerism.

"Maybe people realize that there are others in this world who may be having an even harder time than they are," Shapiro said.

Volunteerism is rising even among the unemployed.

Emmanuel Touhy, who has been out of work since January, said he is pitching in at the DC Central Food Kitchen in Washington, D.C.

"You have to have that sense of optimism to say: Look at what I have and what I can do," Touhy said.

Even schoolchildren are benefitting from this new spirit of generosity. Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a South Carolina eighth grader, gained attention after writing President Obama about her dilapidated school. The president mentioned her during an address to Congress, noting that "The letter asks us for help. She had been told that her school is hopeless."

Darryl Rosser, 57, who runs Sagus International, a school furniture builder just outside Chicago, was listening to the speech, and was also moved by Ty'Sheoma's letter. Rosser visited Ty'Sheoma's school school in Dillon, S.C., and was shocked by the conditions he found.

"I don't know how any politician or how anyone could walk into that school, see those conditions, and walk away and not do anything about it," he said.

So Rosser did something. In a stunning act of kindness, he collaborated with his employees and suppliers to build and ship $250,000 in new furniture to the school. In one weekend, they gave the whole school a major makeover.

When Ty'Sheoma and the other students came to school the next Monday, they were blown away.

"One of the girls in the class came and gave me a big bear hug," Rosser said. "It was so touching to me that I've made it as my screen saver on my computer. So every time I fire up -- she's there."

Woman Saved From Foreclosure: 'This is Unbelievable'

Rosser and Mock may just represent the future of charitable giving. After the flurry of media attention Mock received for saving Orr's home, she said she's been swamped with other desperate pleas -- more than 200 so far. Some of the letters have been heartbreaking and caused her to lose sleep, she said.

So despite working 12 hours a day, six days a week at her family business, Mock started The Foreclosure Angel Foundation to help more people.

Next on her list: 62-year-old Shirley Dvorak of St. Cloud, Minn. After losing her job and running out of unemployment benefits, Dvorak fell months behind on her mortgage. In desperation, she wrote to Mock.

"Day to day I did not know if it was my last day in the house. I would leave not knowing when I got home, if there was going to be a foreclosure notice in my mailbox. I hated to get my mail," Dvorak said.

Mock and her daughter, Alyssa, paid a visit to Dvorak's hometown. They paid off her mortgage and all her back taxes -- $20,000 in all.

Then they found Dvorak at the local Catholic Charities office, where she works for a small stipend, to give her with the news. She was speechless, amazed at her turn of fortune.

"I have never, ever had a surprise in my life," she said. "Not a birthday party, not a surprise of any kind. This is unbelievable."

Click here to watch video of Dvorak's emotional reaction.

The generosity comes with only minor strings attached. Dvorak makes whatever payments she can afford, and Mock's Foreclosure Angel Foundation in turn uses those payments to help others in need.

"This is my life we're talking about. I can live in this home until I die. I don't have to worry no more. No one can imagine what it means to me," Dvorak said.

Amazingly, Mock has spent much of her own money helping strangers in need, and has already helped many others avoid foreclosure.

Thanks to her recent TV appearances everywhere from "Good Morning America" to "Oprah," she's been showered with checks from some 50,000 good-hearted donors so far. (The outpouring of generosity continues -- in the first 48 hours after this story first aired on 20/20, Mock says she received an additional $20,000 in donations).

Still more people across the country have volunteered their financial and legal expertise, and any other assistance the Foundation might need.

A Little Goes a Long Way

This generosity doesn't surprise Mock's family. Her husband Bruce told "20/20" that she has a long history of helping anyone she can, and even extends that spirit to rescuing stray animals. But her main goal is to help people keep their homes, she said.

"It doesn't take much," Mock said. "Sometimes just a few hundred dollars to repair a life."

And where does her motivation come from?

"It needs to be done," she said. "That's it."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events