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November 25, 2013

The spirit of America

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With the annual media coverage of “Black Friday,” it’s easy to overlook an important fact: There’s a lot of giving going on year-round that isn’t gift-wrapped — giving that makes a significant difference in the lives of millions.

Take the aptly named Spirit of America (SOA), a nonprofit organization that works with U.S. military personnel to provide humanitarian assistance worldwide. It’s funded entirely by private contributions. SOA goes to war-torn places from Afghanistan to Guyana, bringing everything from metal detectors, tools and tourniquets, to blankets, soccer balls and radios. It fixes wells and donates computers to help local schools.

When the U.S. Army in Mauritania needed to make areas scarred by al Qaeda-inflicted violence more secure, it turned to Spirit of America. Livestock health, the Army determined, was the primary local need, so SOA went to work providing the training and equipment needed to improve the health of cattle and goats in the region.

It isn’t just groups such as SOA exhibiting this kind of selflessness, though. Individual Americans contribute millions of hours of their time each year to help and support people and causes, working out to an average of three hours per week per person. Americans give more of themselves and their personal income to assist the less fortunate than all other nations on a per-person basis.

Truly, we heed George Washington’s call: “Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distresses of everyone, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse, remembering … that it is not everyone who asketh that deserveth charity.”

When natural disasters strike, Americans rally around the flag like no other people on earth. After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Americans donated more than $3 billion to rebuild and to aid those who lost everything in the storm. These donations were made even though people understood that the federal government would allocate tens of billions to the effort.

Americans’ generosity doesn’t stop at our nation’s borders. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes, Americans are there to help without question. In addition to the military and financial donations our government makes, Americans reach deep into their own pockets when their fellow human beings are in need.

After a horrific tsunami hit the Indian Ocean region in 2004, killing more than 230,000 and rendering millions homeless, Americans donated more than $3.16 billion to help rebuild. In the days after the disaster, it was the U.S. Navy (with help from our Australian and British allies) that got water-treatment plants running and delivered emergency aid.

In 2010, after an earthquake devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 and leaving more than 1.5 million people homeless, Americans donated $1.3 billion to help rebuild the devastated island nation. The largest percentage of donors (37 percent) reported making donations through their places of worship.

The generosity of the American people doesn’t decrease because of poor economic circumstances at home. For example, the donations to the Haitian relief efforts were made at the height of a major recession in the United States.

Americans have donated billions of dollars in relief funds to aid every natural-disaster relief effort around the globe, even when that nation’s government is our adversary. The American people provided $74 million in the first year after Cyclone Nargis to Myanmar, where the government was hostile to America.

“Private charities, as well as contributions to public purposes in proportion to everyone’s circumstances, are certainly among the duties we owe to society,” Thomas Jefferson once said — and Americans have been living up to that creed ever since. That’s something we can certainly be grateful for this holiday season.

- Ed Feulner is founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times.

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