GIVING BEGINS WITH AFFINITY. Our life experience usually informs the things we care about. As we gain a deeper understanding of giving over time, we move away from pure affinity, but it’s a foundational step of making philanthropy a lifelong habit. We are what we repeatedly do. And it isn’t just about giving more. A small, meaningful gift is often more effective than a large, detached one. If we keep at it, we find we can do a lot with a little.
In starting the Mitten Brewing Company, Max and I certainly had to learn to do a lot with a little. Besides our limited fundraising ability, we also had limited hospitality experience (read: next to none). We had to fill many day-to-day roles ourselves (including management), even though we weren’t particularly good at them. Thankfully, our staff was gracious and gave us the thing we needed most: their patience. They afforded us time to learn about our roles and forgave us when we made mistakes. They went through the journey with us and rarely quit along the way. Sometimes we were lucky and got things right the first time. One of these was building giving into our plan from the start.
We made our first company gift in December 2012. It wasn’t as well-organized, large or effective as we wanted it to be, but we knew we had to start somewhere. Every journey starts with a single step, and each cause starts with an emotional connection. And this was a deep one.
For the better part of eight years, I was a part-time caregiver for a boy named Nathan Hurwitz. Nate had been diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy as an infant, but when I first met him in the third grade, the disease hadn’t yet taken a very noticeable toll. He had some mobility issues but was able to walk mostly on his own when I became his classroom aide. Although he faced a daunting diagnosis, he was one of the sweetest people I’d ever met.
The school eliminated all non-essential aides (me) the following year, but Nate and I had become such good friends that his family hired me to work for them privately. I enjoyed my time with Nate but it was heartbreaking to watch his physical faculties fail him over the next eight years. After being admitted to the hospital for an internal infection, Nate’s heart and lungs failed and he tragically passed away at the age of 16 in 2012, just weeks before The Mitten opened its doors. He had tested our newly-poured wheelchair ramp only days prior.
My time with Nate both opened my heart and broke it. I had worked in special needs classrooms for years but never formed a bond like I did with him. He taught me that even in the face of our own impending mortality, there can be genuine positivity. Nate had his dark times, but he was rarely without a smile and never wanted to be treated differently than anyone else. He loved baseball and video games, and was fortunate to have a loving family that took excellent care of him and saw that he wanted for nothing.
Nate’s favorite song was George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” and his father asked me to perform it at their temple for Nate’s funeral. Though I had dreaded it for days—unsure of whether or not I could even make it through the song without breaking down—I felt a strange surge of happiness course through me as I stepped up to the bema where Nate had read from the Torah at his bar mitzah three years before. I strapped on my guitar, did the song fair justice, and stepped off the stage. Under my breath, as I walked down the aisle flanked by sobbing friends, family and classmates, I thanked Nate for being there with me and for one last time, reminding me to always look on the bright side. A few hours later at the interment, the thick clouds that had darkened the day since morning suddenly broke, and warm sunlight bathed Nate’s close friends and family. We all thought of the song.
Before he passed away, Nate and his family had been raising money for The West Michigan Miracle League Field, a fully-accessible baseball field in nearby Rockford that now bears his name. The cause made perfect sense for The Mitten, and we chose it as our first company donation. A gift of $590.10 to an enterprise with a total budget of more than $600,000 was how we inauspiciously launched The Mitten Brewing Company’s charitable giving program. While it was small, we had a feeling it was the start of something big. And it was. I have Nate to thank for many things, but particularly for inspiring our first of many gifts. He sure taught me a lot in the little amount of time he had been given on earth.