SOPHISTICATED GIVING 2023
Read below for the annual letter on giving from our Editor-in-Chief, Amelia Jeffers.
The theory of “bootstrapped success” has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s because of the rising visibility of individuals who tout it as an American opportunity, or maybe because it feels so personal to me as someone who has lived the experience of escaping the cycle of addiction and poverty. Telling those who are affected by poverty or addiction that they just need to make better choices and work harder is cheap talk when you haven’t been there. When an individual is lucky enough to have lived in disadvantaged circumstances and found their way to success, the bootstrap explanation can become a “look at me, I did it” argument that is rife with judgment and sadly relies on broad generalizations - sacrificing detail, context, and humility in favor of hubris and indifference.
By most standards, my professional and personal life accomplishments would be considered a success story - even without the extreme circumstances surrounding most of my childhood. My annual earnings put me in the top 5% of American households as a single woman, I live in a beautiful home and drive a nice car, and I vacation several times per year. Though my marriage ended in divorce, I have four beautiful children, a wonderful romantic relationship, and enjoy a community of friends and family who are loving and supportive.
I lend my time, treasures and talents to a number of organizations every year - often sharing my story publicly. More times than I can count, someone has suggested to me that I should write a book. My immediate response is always, “About what? That book has already been written.” With rare exceptions, the rags-to-riches story has become a stale trope, with too many autobiographical accounts of a boot-strapped success that ignore blatant privilege, dumb luck, and the investment of countless community members and organizations. Recently I saw a blog post from a fellow “success story” that listed her life events chronologically, noting which ones were the result of her hard work (or boot-strapping) and which were the result of dumb luck. Inspired, I thought I’d do the same.
“Bad Luck or Misfortune”
The circumstances of my birth dictated a childhood split between multiple stepfathers and extended families, without much stability and frequent bouts of food and housing insecurity;
As a result of the alcoholism and addiction of my biological mother, multiple stepfathers and with one exception, every genetic sibling, I experienced significant trauma, neglect, and abuse from an early age;
Due to a lack of education, mental health resources, and the local economy, my family lived below the federal poverty line for my entire childhood - and on public assistance for much of it.
If genetics play a part in addiction (most medical authorities believe genetics have a role), then I hit the lottery because I am the only sibling with one parent without apparent issues with addiction;
I was born white and did not suffer prejudice as a result of my race;
Multiple extended families meant that I had a number of caring adults who stepped in from time to time when my parents were unable to care for me, keeping me from ever being placed in the foster system;
Thanks to where we lived and good timing, at the age of four I was enrolled in the federal Head Start program which provided me with a safe place to be every day, a warm meal, and teacher who ignited a love for learning and reading (books would help me escape the chaos in my home for many years to come);
I have no learning disorders or physical disabilities that would interfere with my ability to easily remain attentive in class and absorb information;
A teacher recommended me for IQ testing that resulted in a special education placement for “gifted” students in fourth grade - a program that provided me opportunities to travel on field trips to art and science museums, universities, national landmarks, and cultural events;
When I was 12, a classmate’s family gave me a summer job and paid me $10 per hour, at a time when minimum wage was $3.35, helping me to provide for my younger sister’s needs as well as my own and igniting ambition and drive;
I had access to schools and teachers who took time to know my circumstances and often stepped in to buy (or find resources for) my books, clothes, and school supplies;
“Hard Work & Good Choices”
I did not skip class and attended school regularly because I enjoyed it, and it was mostly better than being home. (This could also be categorized as luck--see #8 above);
I worked every summer and many weekends from the age of 12 because it afforded me a few small luxuries like having a phone line when I could afford to pay the bill, (this is also partially luck - see #7 above);
I was awkward and shy, and ashamed of my home life, so I did not have much of a social life - which meant I wasn’t able to get into too much trouble.
It is impossible to over-emphasize the myriad of lucky breaks that have to align for a poor kid to escape the cycles of addiction and poverty and experience success. Here is a hard truth: there are good, bright kids throughout central Ohio who have life experiences far more challenging than mine, who are making all the best choices and working hard but haven’t yet caught a break.
Haven’t yet caught a break…helping our readers identify opportunities to be the lucky break for a less fortunate member of our community is at the heart of my passion for our annual Charity Register. In these pages you will find information about 40+ nonprofits who are meeting a variety of needs creatively and consistently, despite challenging circumstances of their own. And you will hear from the philanthropic leaders at The Columbus Foundation, where I am proud to hold a donor advised fund for my family.
Friends, as this year comes to an end, here’s to more opportunities to acknowledge the gifts and blessings that have helped each of us get to where we are - and the opportunity to be a gift and a blessing in the lives of others.
Amelia Jeffers is the Editor-in-Chief of Sophisticated Living Columbus. She is also an auctioneer and appraiser, specializing in fine art, antiques, and bespoke collectibles with over $100M in career sales and a licensed Realtor in Ohio with Street Sotheby's International Realty. For more information, visit ameliajeffers.com.