Friday, December 16, 2011

Narcissistic Philanthropy…Or “For The Troops” when someone is looking.

I’ve resisted the urge to write about this for well over a year but I was encouraged to do so by a couple of friends so here goes.

My wife's father spent the last 5 years of his life at the Palo Alto VA hospital. The malady isn't important, but what is important is the "Armchair Patriots" in his life that abandoned him and his family in his dying years. Because of that, my wife, her circle of friends and myself like to put on a Christmas party for some of the patients at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital. Nothing big, we aren't changing the world up there by any means but it means a lot to the guys who are up there who don't have support systems. 

Palo Alto Veterans Hospital
We put on a Christmas party each year for the 4 different mental health wards. These guys are truly "the forgotten". When Channel 7 News wants to do a Veterans Day story on combat Veterans they go to the prosthetic labs where they can get great images of some poor kid with a limb or two that has been blown off. Makes for better television than a guy who watched a buddy get something blown off and now, due to PTSD can't cope with society. Or a guy who's brain is no longer functioning normally due to exposure to chemical-warfare agents, least of all, the guys with chemical dependence problems due to being addicted to pain medications, or other "self-medicating" agents when their pain meds were denied.

There are usually about 45 or so patients split between 3-4 wards of variable levels of care. They range in age from their early 70’s to as young as 19. Among the patients you have guys who look like they could be serving today just fine. Apparently normal, able to communicate in a manner appropriate between a young soldier and a civilian. You have guys who are clearly without all their faculties. You have guys who are not far removed from the last dude you saw sleeping under a bridge.

Anyway, we take donations from some friends, with which we buy all the guys and gals sweatshirts to wear in the wards and we've bought televisions, stereo's, books, magazine subscriptions and such as well to hopefully make their stay there a little more comfortable. One of our friends works for a local school district and he collects hand-made cards from his students which are usually a little rough on the tear ducts. We bring a bunch of cookies and pies and we had an acappella group that would come and do some Christmas songs and sing the Service Hymn Medley. Well, last year, as you might imagine donations were down, to top that off, two members of the acappella group passed away so we had no entertainment for the patients.

The reason I’ve resisted writing about this is that doing so requires that I call out a guy that is pretty highly thought of at least where philanthropy is concerned. Further, the guy has taken no small amount of criticism, though well deserved for his on-field performance over the last few years. 

The narcissistic philanthropist is Barry Zito. 

If you aren't aware, Zito is a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants and has a charity called “Strikeouts For Troops”. The premise of the organization is that Major League ballplayers pledge a certain dollar figure per strikeout or Hit/Homer/RBI for position players and the donations are used, according to the website, “to provide injured troops with important comforts of home while they are undergoing treatment at military hospitals across the country.” 

It occurred to me when I learned that we wouldn’t have entertainment for the guys this year that I might be able to get some help from Zito’s organization. I wrote a detailed letter explaining our background and mission as described above. I asked if Zito could attend or at least assist by making a request of someone in his circle of friends and associates who is a musician to attend to fill in for our lost acappella group. We didn’t ask for money, we didn’t ask for media attention all we asked for was a little time and some music. In addition to the actual letter which I sent via snail-mail, I sent a copy of the letter via email. 

Two weeks passed and I hadn’t heard back from Zito’s organization so I called and left a message referencing the letter and email, reiterated my contact information and requested someone contact me to discuss. Another full week passed without a reply via mail, email or telephone. Thinking that perhaps whomever handles such things might have been on vacation I repeated the above with a new letter, new email and a follow-up phone call. 

No response. 

In total I sent two letters, four emails and left four telephone messages to the address, email address and phone number listed on their website and I received exactly zero response. Not so much as a polite decline. 

It was very disappointing to have an organization that touts itself as a selfless endeavor intended to honor and assist Military Veterans go silent when asked to do exactly that. If you look at the website for the organization there are tons of press releases and links to stories about the organization and lots of photos and video of Barry Zito attending events, receiving awards or being interviewed about the organizations efforts. Perhaps if we had spent less time collecting hand made cards from kids in Sunnyvale and more time arranging for press coverage the result might have been different. 

I’ll allow for the possibility that there is a perfectly good explanation for the utter lack of response. The San Francisco Giants had just won the World Series and I’m sure demand for his time, despite having been left off the playoff roster, is generally high. But on the surface it really smacks of a guy who is “deeply concerned” but only when someone is looking. 

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