When the things we appreciate appreciate

Jeff Bernier |
By Jeff Bernier

Giving. It’s something Ashley and I have worked to instill in our kids ever since they were small children and began receiving their cherished weekly allowance. Every week on ‘pay day’ they would divide their coins among the three slots in their piggy banks: one for saving, one for playing, and one for giving. It was a small but important lesson that I hope they carry with them their entire lives.

I’m a huge believer in the power of giving—and not just for the kids. Every year, I leave the comforts of John’s Creek and head down to Costa Rica where, working side by side with a small team of men, we do the little we can to help a community of mostly Nicaraguan refugees. It’s an experience that never fails to shake me to the core. Imagine a “town” of 30,000, jammed into a shantytown between the city dump and a river. The houses are made largely of boards, tin—anything that the owners have been able to salvage. Adults and children alike live in constant fear of rampant crime, street gangs, drug dealers, and a world swimming in uncertainty about sustenance, safety, and the basic ability to survive. The families we help, many very young single mothers and their children, urge us to leave before dark. The danger rises as the sun sets. This community, La Carpio, has been called Costa Rica’s worst ghetto. I can’t imagine a place worse than this to live.

In the short time we are there each year, we do all we can to help, yet I question who receives more from our visit: the families we serve, or our own volunteer group of 20 men. Every day, we provide meals from the soup kitchen to 100 or more. For many, it’s the only protein they receive each day. For some, it’s their only meal. We work together to make much needed repairs to the buildings, and even that is a challenge, often taking hours just to buy basic hardware supplies. We take time to play with the kids, and just kicking a ball around in a dirty alley brings out the smiles, the laughter, and the joy in the faces of children who have so little to be happy about. One day during this last trip, boxes and boxes of shoes arrived, generously donated by TOMS though its Giving Partners program. The kids were so excited it felt like Christmas! The shoes they received that day may need to last them a whole year. What a gift.

On Sundays, we join them for the church service, all in Spanish of course, that lasts for three hours or more. (Three hours!!) And while I can’t understand more than a few words of what’s being said, again, the joy is palpable. The singing! The dancing! And sermons so lengthy that any pastor in John’s Creek would be sent for the hills for keeping his parishioners captive that long! But no one complains. Why would they? This is the one time all week when most of them can feel safe and secure—and in a beautiful building that provides a stark contrast to their daily lives.

When I return home to all the material and emotional safety of our small corner of Georgia, I’m struck by all we have. We start every day with opportunity, and most of us have had that opportunity from the day we were born. I’m overwhelmed by all I have, and I’m grateful that I can truly be a river rather than a reservoir. I don’t do as much as others, I know. The leaders of our trip, Mike Gailey and Ed Pease, do so much more than coordinate and host our visits. Ed started these trips about 15 years ago, and Mike has been instrumental in funding the church that now serves as a place of worship, a soup kitchen, and a safe, clean haven for the community. It’s there that Pastor James looks after the community, where women may learn new skills to support their families, and where at least some of the kids receive the motivation to find a path out of the poverty they’ve been born into. I do what I can, but I often feel it’s not enough. How could it ever be?

In last month’s blog, I shared about my son Nicholas’s experience searching for his first real job. Since then, he received his first real paycheck. Oh, the excitement! He deserves to be proud of himself, and after allowing him to gush about how amazing it was to have earned so much, I talked to him about the need to start giving some of it away. Immediately. It’s a tough conversation to have with someone so young who may feel he can’t afford to share what he has. At least not yet. But I assured him he would be rewarded. “I can’t tell you how. I can’t tell you why,” I said. “But give away 10% of what you earn, beginning today, and you will be rewarded in some way that matters more than money.” It’s a discussion we try to have with every “next generation” client when we first begin working together. Our guidance: for every dollar you earn, give 10%, save 10%, set aside 20% for taxes, and live on 60%. (I wish someone had given me the same guidance when I was young!)

No matter how young or old you may be, I urge you to do the same. After all, the things you appreciate appreciate. If you focus on and invest your resources in the things that matter to you, whatever they may be, that investment will increase in value. Give to others, and you will be rewarded. If you’re not sure where to give, consider local Atlanta charities. We have supported and know about the great work done by local churches and organizations like A Beacon of Hope, City of Refuge, North Fulton Communities charities, and Wellspring Living. To expand your reach, check out Charity Navigator to choose wisely. If you can donate your time, I can testify that you’re likely to get just much out of your experience as those you’re helping—if not more so. For me, helping those less fortunate grounds me in what matters most in life. It magnifies my gratitude for all that I have, and it reminds me that, whatever my problems may be, they are trivial. They are “John’s Creek problems.” If you can find it in your heart to give what you can, your generosity will appreciate. I guarantee it.

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