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opinion

Caitlin Kelly is a writer based in Tarrytown, N.Y.

We live in an era where the world’s richest people move through their lives in ways the rest of us can barely imagine: owning multiple homes, flying on private jets, wearing enormous jewels. It’s an era closer to the Gilded Age as any previous. Thanks to social media, and the reflexive worship of enormous wealth, we read daily about the unfathomable means of people named Gates and Bezos and Zuckerberg and, in Canada, families like the Westons. These people are able to donate millions, sometimes tens of millions of dollars, to hospitals and universities, always with an eponymous building or wing in return for their generosity.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or intimidated if we’re not at that level. How can we make a difference? What would a few hundred or thousands of our dollars actually do in the face of global immiseration?

There’s a solution I’ll call microphilanthropy, the imagination and willingness to make a smaller gesture. If you will, the starfish effect – like someone tossing one stranded starfish at a time back into the ocean.

“What difference do you think you’re making?” asks a skeptic.

“For that starfish, a big one.”

I have no children or close young relatives, and am now at an age where, thankfully, we have saved hard and have enough for our needs. It’s a good time to give back where and how we can. I tried first with my alma mater, and was told I’d have to give $5,000 a year for four years to create a university scholarship, and would have no say in who was chosen to receive it. That’s a lot of money for me, a retired journalist, and I didn’t love not having any input beyond my financial donation.

I thought of my middle-class Toronto high school. Certainly not the city’s neediest population, but every bit helps, especially for those graduating into a difficult economy and high inflation. I initially thought of a prize for someone choosing journalism, an industry that gave me tremendous joy and opportunities in Canada, France and New York. But the industry is now in such chaos it didn’t feel like the best choice.

But what, arguably, is the greatest skill new graduates need in 2023? Creativity. The ability to discern, to imagine, to push past accepted wisdom and tired theories.

So I created a prize for this: $1,000 for a graduate heading into this challenging and uncertain world. What happened next touched me deeply.

I asked a friend from our graduating class if she’d share in the cost. She agreed immediately, as did four others, and we named the prize in honour of a much-beloved classmate, a talented writer and comedian who rocketed out of our high school into a terrific career – only to be lost in later life to severe mental illness. For all of us, he embodied the spirit of joyful creativity we hope to encourage in those who follow.

Two things made this easy: the Toronto District School Board has a website where one can set up such a prize, donate funds by e-transfer or credit card, and know the winner will receive whatever total amount is offered.

The crucial element that meant the most to me was my Canadian classmates’ immediate agreement to honour a man we loved. E-mails flew back and forth from my home in New York to Toronto and Burlington, Ont., to Nova Scotia and Australia, where one of us was travelling. We also agreed to an annual commitment of five years. This immediate reconnection surprised and delighted me as several of us had not been in touch since we graduated – in 1975.

One friend, an artist, designed a handsome certificate with a beautiful photo of our pal. Another wrote a moving remembrance of him so the winner would know at least something of this talented man we so miss decades later.

The school’s guidance counsellor helped us refine the language for applicants. We received nine applications, five finalists, and two very strong candidates. It was a heady feeling to go from a vague idea to a real-life opportunity for a person we didn’t even know but wanted to support, even in a small way.

Three of us attended the school’s June commencement ceremony (something our graduating class never even had) and watched the proud parade of 275 graduates, our winner among them. Being a parent or grandparent always means investing decades of love and effort, but being able to help even one young student, even in our small way, made the day special.

We all need help. Many of us, wealthy or not, can find a way to offer some.

I’m glad we did.

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