Charity Begins… At the Bar? How Sincerity and Compassion Can Change the World

It’s my birthday.

I turn 28, today. Which means that for the umpteenth year in a row, like most hipsters, I’m forced to reflect on my own mortality while simultaneously trying to come up with a suitably badass way to celebrate the anniversary of my birth. Haha, just kidding – hipsters don’t reflect on their mortality.

If we did, we'd spend less time on Instagram.

If we did, we’d probably spend less time posting ridiculous photos on Instagram.

Earlier this month, while I was pondering what I wanted to do for my own “special day” (I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to do anything that involved actually using the phrase “my special day” – which is probably a good rule for life, in general), I went to two different birthday parties, each attended by completely different circles of friends. The only thing that they had in common is that they both had themes: one was labeled as a “Barbados Birthday Bash” and other was a “27 Club” party, which is fast becoming a de rigueur right of passage for hipsters entering their twenty-seventh year. And of course, there was nothing at either party that actually indicated that the respective themes were.

In case you don’t run in hipster circles, there is a really obnoxious phenomena amongst the under-30 set wherein hipsters throw parties with themes that they then completely ignore. This is usually preceded by a huge and overly enthusiastic Facebook Event Page, and in most cases, the guest of honor will make some pro forma attempt at dressing up and doing some minimal decoration, but that’s normally about as far as it goes. Everyone else wears whatever they damn well feel like, and the theme dies a quick and painless death – only being mentioned in passing when some poor sap asks why no one bothered to dress up. (“Dressing up for theme parties? That’s so old-fashioned!”)

White people create events like this every day, and it's TERRIBLE.

White people do crap like this every day, and it’s TERRIBLE.

Now, I realise this isn’t exactly a major problem. If you want to half-ass your birthday party, that’s your prerogative, and no one said you need to have a theme in the first place. But it does strike me as mildly perverse that people go to the trouble of assigning themes to events when they know that no one is going to pay them any heed – you’re basically encouraging mediocrity and insincerity. And this got me thinking – if we “phone it in” and allow apathy to rule the day for birthdays, are we doing the same thing the rest of the year? Are we “phoning in” our own lives?

I realised that if I was going to do anything for my birthday, I wanted to do something that seemed sincere (at least to me), not just the usual ironic hipster drivel. But what would that entail? And could I get my friends to go along with it?

Now, in my circle of friends, regardless of what theme you choose to have your guests ignore, most birthday parties follow the same formula: we all gather at a bar and everyone buys drinks for the guest of honor. Lots of drinks. I enjoyed this well enough when I was in my early twenties, but as I get older, the idea of doing multiple shots in rapid succession for the viewing enjoyment of all and sundry is enough to fill my liver with terror and my mind with the memory of hangovers past. So in addition to searching for meaning from my birthday, I decided that I didn’t really want to drink, all that much.

So I wanted sincerity and I wanted (relative) sobriety. And that’s when it occurred to me – if I gave my friends an alternate way to spend money on my birthday, perhaps they wouldn’t feel so obligated to use me as a human shot receptacle. Why not take the money they were going to spend anyways and put it towards something more useful? Why not give it to charity?

I wrestled with this idea privately for a few weeks. It was actually something I had considered briefly the year before, but I eventually rejected it as being far too pretentious and self-aggrandizing (this was before launching PretentiousPDX, obviously – nowadays, I actively seek out pretentious shit to do). But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this was the right thing to do. About a week before my birthday, I told a couple of friends what I was considering, and I was surprised by how enthusiastic they were about the idea. My friends Lucy and Barbara agreed to help spread the word and we bandied about some different charity ideas, ultimately settling on two: New Beginnings Haiti Ministry and Northwest Boxer Rescue.



New Beginnings Haiti Ministry is a small orphanage located in the town of Anse-à-Galets, not far from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Founded in 2012, they currently care for ten orphans in one of the most impoverished parts of the Western Hemisphere.

When I met New Beginnings founder Katie Cajuste last year, she had recently finished working at one orphanage in Haiti and was preparing to go back to start another orphanage. Oh, and did I mention she was 19? That’s right – at an age when most of us can barely decide whether we want to watch Netflix or Hulu on a given night, Katie was determined to go back to a poverty-stricken hellhole to take care of the poorest of the poor.

When we reached out to New Beginnings to find out what they needed, Katie told us that $150 would help them expand their chicken coop and stock it with enough hens to provide their community with a sustainable source of eggs. I didn’t think we could raise that much money in one night of heavy drinking, but I told her we’d try.

NWBoxerNorthwest Boxer Rescue is another charity with local ties that works to provide shelter for abandoned and homeless boxers (the dogs, not the pugilists) throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho. They provide foster care and adoption services for boxers in need of a good home.

Although I have no particular bias towards the breed myself, several of my friends are boxer owners and a couple of them have even worked as doggie “foster parents” themselves, so I figured this would be an appropriate choice for my target audience.

So, having picked my charities, there was nothing left to do but show up at my party and see whether or not my experiment would work. What happened next was both humbling and amazing.

My “Very Charitable Giving Birthday” was a resounding success – almost two dozen of my friends showed up and in about four and a half hours, we managed to raise over $340 for charity. We were able to make a donation of $126 to Northwest Boxer Rescue, we gathered $177 in pledges and donations for New Beginnings (enough to finance their chicken coop project), and my friend Megan went off the beaten path and decided to sponsor an owl at the Audubon Society of Portland’s Wildlife Care Center (because, let’s be real here, birds of prey are cool as shit). I was ecstatic – and so were my friends. Several of them even said that they wanted to do something similar for their own birthdays.

Now, admittedly, $340 is a drop in the bucket for groups like the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities. But for a handful of people sitting at the bar, it seems like a sizable victory – especially when you consider the alternatives. By my calculations, my birthday last year probably cost $50 or $60 in booze… at most. Yet when presented with a charitable alternative, my friends were able to raise almost six times that amount, which is remarkable.

I’m not telling this story to be self-congratulatory or to try to paint myself as being more altruistic than I actually am. I’m not the hero of this story – my friends are. It’s their generosity that’s helping feed orphans in Haiti and house abandoned dogs here in the Pacific Northwest, not mine. I just provided the idea.

And isn’t not even a very ground-breaking idea, either – I actually got the inspiration from my friend Cait, who asked for donations to charity at her wedding, which is even more hardcore. (With any luck, I will have other birthdays. Conversely, with any luck, my friend will not have any more weddings.) So I’m not the first person who did this, and hopefully I won’t be the last. Nor am I the most successful. But the point here is that I did it, and it worked. No matter how small the impact or how cliche the sentiment, I was able to trade a raging hangover for actual change in the world.

I talked earlier in this article about the importance of sincerity. More than any other age group, I think we’ve been very successful at building a generation of cynics. We’ve fostered a culture of insincerity – partially because we’ve been conditioned to be apathetic and to believe that our efforts don’t make a difference, and partially because it takes far less effort to be lazy than it does to be idealistic. But what if we changed that? What if we made compassion and sincerity a part of our daily lives? What if we made charity a priority?

When I use the word “Charity”, I’m not just talking about charitable giving. Charity is not about how much money you donate or how many volunteer hours you work. Rather, true charity is about having a deep and abiding conviction that the world can be a better place tomorrow than it is today… and a willingness to work in whatever capacity you can to achieve that result. Charity is human compassion, put into action and made manifest in the world – and it has the power to change the world.

True charity is about having a deep and abiding conviction that the world can be a better place tomorrow than it is today.

So my hope – my birthday wish, if you will – is that we will all lead more charitable lives. Not just on holidays, not just at some pretentious asshole’s birthday party, but every day. Even if we’re only changing the world in infinitesimally small ways, a slightly better world is still a better world, right?

~ Yume ~

New Beginnings Haiti Ministry

Northwest Boxer Rescue

Audubon Society of Portland’s Wildlife Care Center


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