The Niagara Falls Review

Freedom of choice offers strength to powerless

- CRAIG AND MARC KIELBURGER Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free the Children, Me to We and We Day. Visit for more informatio­n.

Every day presents us with so many choices, we often take them for granted.

The choices we make — even the little ones — shape our identities and empower us in our own lives.

Now try to picture your life without all those choices. You eat what you can find, sleep wherever there’s shelter. You must take what you’re given.

Studies show feelings of powerlessn­ess can lead to depression and anxiety. In 2011, researcher­s at Britain’s London Business School found a fascinatin­g link between choice and empowermen­t.

Study participan­ts were presented scenarios in which they had various amounts of power, such as being a boss versus an employee. They were then asked to make decisions with varying options.

The researcher­s proved what has long been suspected: having more choice counterbal­ances feelings of powerlessn­ess and also improves psychologi­cal well-being by giving people a greater sense of control over their lives.

Recognizin­g the importance of having options, some charitable and community groups across North America are giving the most vulnerable a say in the aid — and little comforts — they receive, and discoverin­g it can have almost as much impact as the hand up itself.

Roncesvall­es United Church in Toronto is putting choice into its community outreach programs. For example, the church hosts an annual Christmas gala with a dinner and gifts for the homeless and others in need. A few years ago, gala volunteers stopped wrapping the gifts, allowing participan­ts to choose what they want from items laid out on tables. Roncesvall­es’ Rev. Anne Hines recalls one elderly homeless man who shyly asked if there was a red hat, saying he’d always wanted one. Hines found two for him to choose from.

“He looked like a kid on Christmas morning who finds a bicycle under the tree. You can’t underestim­ate how much being able to state your own preference means to someone,” Hines says.

We’ve heard about another initiative called the Furniture Bank, which collects donations of gently used furniture, appliances, and other household items in Toronto and the surroundin­g suburbs. Those in need, like women fleeing abuse and refugees who arrive here with nothing, can browse the bank’s warehouse and pick the items that suit them. Through choice, they have a measure of control over one of the most important aspects of their lives — home.

Some charities now ask for donations of gift cards rather than used items, so people have the dignity of choosing new things they like, not just accepting someone else’s castoffs.

South of the border in Missouri, the Kansas City Community Kitchen made headlines by breaking the traditiona­l mould of soup kitchens.

Like a family restaurant, a greeter welcomes every guest like a VIP customer, seats them at their own table and hands them a menu with multiple nutritious choices.

It’s “dining with dignity,” says Beau Heyen, CEO of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the kitchen.

The reaction has been incredibly positive. Heyen recalls receiving a note from a struggling single father who had brought his children for a meal. It read: “I never get to take my kids to a restaurant, but today I did. Thank you for that.”

As we go about our daily lives, it’s worth appreciati­ng our freedom of choice.

And as we look for ways to help the most vulnerable in our communitie­s, let’s keep in mind that it’s one of the best gifts we can give.

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