If you ever watch those “antenna” channels on TV you’ll see ads by the Shriners Hospitals for Children and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. You can’t help but appreciate that such charitable institutions exist offering free medical care for unfortunate kids.
St. Jude was founded in Memphis in 1962 by two Lebanese Americans, entertainer Danny Thomas and car dealer Anthony Abraham. The fundraising arm of St. Jude is the ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities). The Shriners – those guys who wear fezzes – endowed their first hospital in 1920 and now have twenty-two around the country.
Are there any Italian American hospitals? None that I know of. Charitable giving is the hallmark of all our major organizations, whether to medical causes, disaster relief, or scholarships. But there has never been a concerted effort – on their own or in cooperation with other Italian American foundations – to build anything in this country.
The last joint effort by our organizations was to match the Italian government in funding the Italian Language Advanced Placement Test in 2012 to the tune of $1.5 million. That investment has a dubious future judging by the latest College Board report.
I don’t want to belittle the good intentions of our major organizations. Their hearts are in the right place. But if Italian Americans are truly a great people, shouldn’t we have built something grand in the past one hundred years? In 1927, we did build the largest most prestigious cultural center in America – La Casa Italiana at Columbia University – only to have the Italian government buy it in 1990 and shut its doors to Italian Americans.
The best our organizations can do today is hold black-tie galas and donate some of the profits to assorted charities and scholarships. Over the years, these donations have reached tens of millions of dollars. The Sons and Daughters of Italy recently gave an earthquake damaged school in northern Italy $200,000 to rebuild. This is the same Italy that locks us out of La Casa Italiana, an Italy that has plenty of millionaires and access to European Union funds.
When the Sons of Italy was founded in 1905 it acted as a safety net for member widows and the poor. Today, it donates millions to non-ethnic charities for Alzheimer’s, autism, and Cooley’s Anemia. But even this money flows through multi-stage associations where middlemen shave much of the donation before it reaches a laboratory.
The million or so dollars that the Columbus Citizens Foundation donates annually for scholarships could fund a hospital or even an Italian American preparatory school. Instead, the money sustains Catholic parochial schools which channel the scholarships to any applicant who is 25% Italian. In 2013, the CCF gave $130,000 to repair St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 2001, it gave $1 million to Millennial High School in lower Manhattan where only Chinese and Spanish are offered.
The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) was launched in 1975 as a political powerhouse in Washington, DC. It has very little clout today and cultivates its image among Italy’s diplomats with invitations to its galas and recently a $450,000 donation to rebuild an earthquake-damaged community center in Italy. Again, the same Italy that has locked us out of La Casa Italiana and has access to Italian millionaires and the European Union treasury.
Another major organization is UNICO, which also gives scholarships but has gone a step further in establishing Chairs in Italian Studies at a number of universities. But these chairs depend on more than the invested endowments to survive. And they are operating in challenging academic environments.
I once advocated that all these groups should donate solely to Italian cultural projects rather than to medical charities, since they were founded to sustain the Italian heritage. But the years have taught me some harsh lessons. The so-called 17 million Italian Americans (now mostly multi-ethnic) have little attachment to heritage beyond the cuisine and mafia movies. We witness that reality daily, in person or on the internet. And as for the Italian government and its people, they have little regard for their ‘cousins” in America wishing only that we buy Italian products and send them money on request.
Perhaps if we concentrated our resources on a hospital with the name “Italian” on it, we would have a meaningful achievement. – JLM