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April 17, 2007
Doe the Right Thing

by Tom Deignan
New Yorkers, according to George T. McDonald, "are an extremely generous lot."
But as we emerge from the Lenten and Easter holiday season, McDonald, who is president and founder of the charitable Doe Fund, acknowledges that the calendar also has an impact on people's generosity.
"It's a time of year when people tend to look inward and donate," added McDonald.
The Doe Fund is one of the most widely respected charitable organizations in New York City.  It focuses not merely on helping the homeless and others in need of a break, but in giving them the tools they need to build successful lives.
Sometimes international events also compel the Doe Fund to action.  Given the recent Walter Reed scandal in Washington, which involved Iraq war veterans receiving poor care and living in squalor, a potential future Doe Fund project is particularly relevant.
The group is looking into opening a veteran's facility to serve over 100 homeless veterans.
"At any given time around 15 percent of the homeless population are veterans," said McDonald, whose Irish immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. in the 1850s and settled in Albany before making their way to the New York City area.
McDonald said the Iraq war has created a new sense of urgency around the issue of homeless war veterans.
McDonald himself had a critical moment when he looked inward during the mid-1980s. But whereas many of us might write a check or volunteer for a few days, McDonald found himself in Grand Central Terminal handing out sandwiches to the homeless. By one account he was there every night for almost two years straight.
Of course, New York in 1985 was a vastly different city.  Homeless men and women could be seen literally on every Manhattan street corner.
McDonald was in the thick of the homeless debate.  He had become active in politics, working for Senator Ted Kennedy's1980 White House run, before running for Congress himself in the mid-1980s.
McDonald did not win.  But he also did not forget those people in Grand Central Terminal.
The Doe Fund now has almost 45,000 people donating and employs nearly 500 people, most of whom are trying to get back on their feet after spending time on the street, in prison or some other tough place.
And if you're rolling your eyes and mumbling about starry-eyed do-gooders trying to save the world, well, McDonald knows who to blame.
"I blame the nuns," he said with a laugh.
Indeed, the Doe Fund - and its emphasis on teaching people how to fish rather than handing them fish - seems rooted in a deep sense of Christian charity in general and Catholic social justice in particular.
"To whom much is given, much is asked," adds McDonald.
He recounts a comfortable youth in Spring Lake, New Jersey, the fabled "Irish Riviera." After working in the private sector and socializing in 1960s and 1970s Manhattan (including stops at the famous Lion's Head writer's bar, where he became friends with ink-stained wretches such as the late, great Dennis Duggan of Newsday), politics called.
But when he was not elected to Congress, McDonald still saw an opportunity to make the world a better place.  Does he have any regrets?
"Well, I was a man with high ambitions," says McDonald, again laughing.  "But, no, I don't have any regrets. I meet people all the time and they come up to me and say, 'You saved my life.' I say, 'I didn't save your life, you took advantage of an opportunity.'"
The Doe Fund's name honors the anonymity of those McDonald and others initially helped in Grand Central Terminal, among them a woman known only as "Mama" who was ejected from the terminal one particularly cold night and later died.
The fund also assists people with AIDS as well as prisoners who have served their time and want to use their first 12 months of freedom to make a smooth transition into the world of full-time work and responsibility.
Doe Fund programs employ them and provide an opportunity to save as well as earn money.
"If I was just sheltering people in a church basement, which by the way is a very noble thing to do, I'd get burned out, seeing the same people over and over. Now, I see people taking advantage of opportunity.  In the end, I still think that anyone can prosper in America. No matter who you are."          

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