16 MARCH 2002, Page 42

Helping the poor

From Lucy Abelson Sir: The puzzle is that Mary Wakefield ('Serving suggestions', 2 March) volunteered to feed the poor at all. Luckily she did not, as I did, help the dispossessed handicapped being cared for in the community. How would she have reacted to the Down's syndrome lady who, having refused to wash her hands after performing on the lavatory, wished to hold my hand when crossing the road? We who put ourselves forward as volunteers have to learn grace, and it is humbling.

The right to make a choice is a fundamental aspect of democracy. If prosperous urban people did not enjoy making choices about a beverage, Starbucks coffee bars would not be filling the city. The poorer and more dispossessed you are, the smaller and fewer are the choices you have the chance to make, so inevitably those choices become more important to you.

The challenge for those working with the poor, especially the young, is to help them make positive choices which enrich their lives. This does not happen in one afternoon from the other side of a tea counter; it certainly won't happen if volunteers are not willing to empathise or ask themselves, in the words of the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, 'In what circumstances would I behave like this?'

Lucy Abelson

Farnham, Surrey