‘Twas a brisk February evening in 2011 as I made my journey home from work on campus. Few people, minus the stragglers from Boba sales, were out on Ring Road still: as far as I could see, I was free from the usual screams and shouts that the clubs and societies often perturb the average student. However, as I walked from the Student Center to Langson Library, I saw a few people in black shirts smiling and gesturing to oncoming students, only to be ignored by those walking by. I’m not sure if it was my general curiosity at whom would be trying to solicit on a Friday evening, or perhaps I temporarily zoned out, but as I walked closer to the people, I made eye-contact with one of the male volunteers.
This was probably the worst mistake: I had made eye contact so soon that I had no chance to run. He smiled and gestured with his arm to come closer, a creepy sentence now that I see it in writing, but at the time it was all very light-hearted. I sort of smiled and attempted to walk away, which was difficult since it was at the part of Ring Road where there is no exit readily available and no crowd to get lost in, but he said to me, “Hey, come over for a second, it will only take a minute, I just want to share with you some ways to get involved with some of the atrocities occurring in Africa.”
Who is this man that I speak of, wearing a black shirt, calling out to random students on Ring Road? Why, of course it is the Hands for Africa volunteers.
At the time, I had no knowledge of their group, nor the backbone to simply walk away and say “No, thanks.” Instead, I timidly conceded, me in my second-year naivety, with a new credit card and eyes wide looking at pictures, horror at children with missing limbs. He first asked me if I had heard of the blood diamond industry, to which I said yes, something gave him a bit of shock, but he recovered and moved on with his speech, angling it more as a “Oh, well, since you already know, than you are smarter than most of the people we talk to, so good job, I chose the right person to talk to, blah blah blah” speech.
He showed me a few pictures, all of which were undoubtedly horrific, and told me how their group takes the money donated to Africa in order to make prosthetic limbs. Of course, I wasn’t really listening intently, I was more focused on how to say no after he had given me this long speech; but the longer I thought about it, the more time I wasted (which made me feel much worse), and the cycle repeated in my head multiple times as I nodded to the information he told me.
He finally asked me how much I wanted to contribute a month, and I said “Uhhhhhhhhhhh, fifteen?” since I didn’t want to seem too cheap or anything. “Wow! That’s awesome!” he said, and he took my credit card, found out my information, and wished me well.
I tried to convince myself I had done something good, because I had, but the whole thing was very sketchy, and it would have been avoided if I could say no to him.
Eventually, I forgot about the monthly payments and became accustomed to my credit card losing fifteen dollars a month for almost two years. I never received anything in the mail, such as updates, and once or twice I received an email asking me to go volunteering in Africa with them, no specific country notated.
A year and a half later, my mother came across my receipt I received when signing up for my monthly payments. Curiosity got the better of her, especially when the information I could provide her about the company was limited at best, and so she set off to find the truth about Hands for Africa herself. She followed the address to a small industrial park in Tustin, where the building was locked to outsiders. My mother relayed the story to me on the phone later that day: she had to ring an intercom in order to be let inside, and was forced to wait almost ten minutes before being let inside.
Once the door was finally opened, a young girl led her into a room that Hands for Africa shared with a tax service company, where she waited for a bit before being helped. Although my mom only wanted to know some basic statistics, such as how the funds were being distributed, the only information the girl could provide my mom was what was already on the website; she did mention however, that an intern was working on the information. She stated then that when Hands for Africa did make trips to the continent, they often partnered with other groups, so numbers were not readily available.
My mom called me later that evening and told me to cancel my monthly donations to Hands for Africa. After telling me that story, I didn’t feel the need to ask her why.Although donating earnings in college is difficult, and I am still confused as why such volunteer groups feel the need to target our age range, I still do think it is what every college student should do in order to give back to society. My recommendation from my experience is to ask for printed literature in order to do personal research when you are approached from volunteer organizations, rather than signing up on the spot. That way you can figure out if the company is legitimate, or if they are using your funds for other purposes.
Colleen Bromberger is a fourth-year history major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.