The proverb “give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” has a bit of a confused origin story. It has been attributed to an ancient Chinese axiom as well as to the medieval philosopher, Maimonides, but the provenience seems to be a short story, ‘Mrs. Dyer’, written in the 19th century by Anne Isabella Ritchie, the daughter of ‘Vanity Fair’ author, William Makepeace Thackeray. The misty origins of the quote aside, it has since become a handy aphorism when discussing issues of altruism and philanthropy. The moral of the quote is that by giving a person the skills to provide for him/herself, one does a greater service than just a temporary hand-out.
Homeless advocate George T. McDonald puts the rule to positive effect with The Doe Fund, the non-profit organization he founded in 1985 in response to the death of a homeless woman he got to know while handing out food in Grand Central Station. Known as “Mama” by the other homeless inhabitants of the iconic train station, she was found frozen to death on the sidewalk on Christmas Day after being removed from the terminal by Metro-North police, despite her pneumonia and freezing temperatures outside. McDonald was so moved by the fate of the woman he had gotten to know during the two years that he was a fixture in the station, giving out sandwiches to the homeless, that he named his non-profit organization after the designation she was given in the city morgue, “Mama Doe”.
Back in the 80’s, when McDonald was handing out those sandwiches in Grand Central, he found that, while people appreciated the free food, what they really wanted was a room of their own and a job to pay for it. That was when he and his wife, Harriet Karr-McDonald, developed their key programs based on their belief that most homeless people will change their lives if given the opportunity. One of the most successful and lauded of those programs is Ready, Willing & Able, launched in 1990, when The Doe Fund received a work contract from the city to renovate low-income housing and another to purchase and renovate an abandoned building on Gates Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where program participants would live. The McDonalds attracted volunteers by canvassing Grand Central Terminal and homeless shelters throughout the city, inviting anyone who wanted to work and was willing to forgo drugs and alcohol. Since that time, The Doe Fund has used paid transitional work and a holistic, individualized service package to catapult individuals into the workforce and out of cycles of homelessness, crime, and addiction.
Since then, The Doe Fund has expanded their programming to respond to the specific needs of targeted populations, including recent parolees, homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS, homeless veterans, and low-income individuals and families. Last Thursday night, May 7, at “sweet: New York”, The Doe Fund’s fourth annual tasting event and fundraiser held on the outdoor terrace of The Bowery Hotel, McDonald said “we have prisons all over America filled up with African-American men who can’t get jobs when they return home from prison because of their criminal records, and they are left behind the eight ball.” Through The Doe Fund and Ready, Willing & Able, “when a person comes home from prison, they immediately start getting paid through our programs and they have money in their pocket”. Men in the Ready, Willing &Able program are called “trainees”, as well as “men in blue” due to their distinctive blue uniforms. The “men in blue” earn money by cleaning over 170 miles of city streets every day, making NYC cleaner and safer while getting to the place where they can leave the program with savings, a home of their own and a full time job.
Many of the “men in blue” in Ready, Willing & Able choose the culinary arts as their path to a better life, and the kitchens at The Doe Fund provide over 1 million nutritious, delicious meals a year to trainees and are a training ground for aspiring chefs in the program. At the “sweet: New York” event, students from The Doe Fund’s professional culinary training program traded their blue uniforms for chef’s whites as they worked alongside chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants to prepare savory and sweet delicacies for attendees to sample. Participating restaurants included such New York mainstays as Tao, Lavo, Patisserie, Dinosaur BBQ, BLT Prime, Magnolia Bakery, The Wayfarer, Beaumarchais, Sons of Essex, Rochelle, Lady M, Kopali, Casa Nonna, Pescatore, Hernan, La Pulperia, West 3rd Common and Petaluma. Cocktail sponsors included Flora Springs, Spud, Fox Run, New Age Imports, Espolon Tequila, Great Brewers and American Sommelier. Spud Vodka is donating 10% of its national proceeds to The Doe Fund for the month of May.
The tasting kicked off on the terrace with the arrival of celebrity supporters who walked the “blue carpet” and posed for photos with the uniformed “men in blue”, including “Orange is the New Black” actors Selenis Leyva, Abigail Savage and Catherine Curtain, actors Harry Lennix and Hisham Tawfiq from “The Blacklist”, Holt McCallany from “Blue Bloods”, television legend, John Amos, New York Giants running back, Rashad Jennings, actors Josh Saviano and Max Jenkins, Musicians Ana Isabelle and Simon Kirke, wife of Ethan Hawke, Ryan Hawke, Payard Patisserie & Bistro Chef and Owner, Francois Payard, Chef/TV Personality best known as the winner of Top Chef, and owner of Perilla, The Marrow and Kin Shop, Harold Dieterle, and the tunes for the night’s festivities were provided by top DJ, Chelsea Leyland.
Catherine Curtain, who plays a correctional officer in Season 1 of “Orange is the New Black”, spoke about how important it is for her to be involved with organizations like The Doe Fund that recognize the importance of helping people whose opportunities are limited because of their criminal records. “There are too many people in our prisons, and this is a deficit for our society,” she said, speaking after the “blue carpet”. She continued, saying “these men and women, given the opportunity and the skills, are capable of contributing so much to our society, and that is what is so wonderful about the work The Doe Fund does with their transitional training programs.” Curtain concluded by saying that she is “saddened by how broken the system is, and as a New Yorker I feel that it is so important to pitch in and help.” Through its pioneering work in social enterprise, including the acclaimed Ready, Willing & Able program, The Doe Fund reduces recidivism, improves the quality of life in city neighborhoods, and fosters permanent economic independence among its clients. To learn more, visit www.doe.org.