Children International needs a foster parent

Clad in midnight blue uniforms, they brave the Oregon winter with a fierce light in their eyes. Once they’ve got you in your sights, they take an aggressive pursuit angle, they attempt, often successfully, to corner you with the carnivorous glint of their alligator smiles, and they pounce. Who are these warriors, immune to precipitation and temperature, immune to indifference?

These are the men and women of Children International, beneficiary/subsidiary of the global middleman, DialogueDirect.

A few months ago, I had my first direct dialogue with these people. I’d seen them hovering around Pioneer Place like fruit flies, I’d watched their pugnacious insistence, and I’d carefully avoided them. Hell, I’ve canvassed for Greenpeace and worked for several "outgoing call centers" in my day, so I understand the kind of treatment these folks get. But I also understand the steely hardness that underlies the patchouli-scented affability of their greetings.

However, my careful avoidance was effortlessly bested by a slight, fiercely grinning young lady with shoulder-length dark hair and eyes filled with ecclesiastical zeal. Panicked, groping for an escape, any escape, I met her eyes, smiled back and shook my head, saying in my most polite tones, "Thanks for your time, but I’m not interested."

Ah! A challenge! Her eyes narrowed somewhat and she demanded, "How do you know? Don’t you care about children?"

OK, got me, I do care about kids, but now I saw an opening. I’ve got a son who will be in kindergarten this coming fall, so I said, "I do sponsor a child: my son."

Uh-oh. She seemed to take my comment as a personal insult and launched into a breathy diatribe about wasteful, wealthy Americans, driving our SUVs, blah, blah, blah. Expecting as much, I pointed out that I work two jobs to pay for my own schooling and was not here on my dad’s dime – thank you for your time, goodbye.

Her smile became grim. "What’s your problem?" she demanded.

"Right now, it’s that you refuse to leave me alone," I admitted.

Her grill formed a smirk. "It’s a free country. You can walk away anytime you want."

At this point I began to get angry. I asked her to please go away and leave me alone. She refused and raised her voice, whereupon I asked her to please get out of my face and go on about her day. She leaned in to within a centimeter of my nose and said, "I wasn’t in your face. This is in your face."

Her actions pushed me over the edge. I pulled out my notebook and asked for her name, which she delivered with a jut of the chin. "You’re a heartless fucking man!" she screeched at me. "I feel sorry for your son!"

My subsequent talk with her "team leader" did little to mollify me. Spewing a blandly appealing pap of clich� and euphemism, he failed to elicit my sympathy. Stories of his poverty-laden childhood in Cambodia likewise fell on deaf ears. "What is it, you want her to lose her job, all because of your pride?" he asked, unctuous with false concern.

More than a little pissed, I went home to do some research and see what I could dig up. Unsurprisingly, the numbers published on the Children International web site (www.children.org) seem pretty much in order. If I’d hoped to find the monies redirected to Afghan heroin warlords, I was disappointed.

The one interesting thing I found was a $409,538 profit for 2003-04. Maybe the CEO got a nice, not-for-profit SUV or some such. Likewise, the $50,000 yearly pay for "experienced dialoguers" seemed a little suspect, but that sort of disingenuousness is par for the course in recruitment materials.

The main discrepancy was in the portrayal of the organization or, more specifically, the employees. The site talks about "dialoguing ethics" and claims that teams are regularly "secret shopped" to maintain good conduct, but the fact is the teams are trained to be aggressive sales cadres, even embracing the old saw "The sale doesn’t begin till after the third ‘no.’" All this is couched in the same kind of faux-hippie rhetoric that is the bread-and-butter of Wild Oats employee handbooks and press releases.

I have never been treated so poorly in public by anyone not looking to kick my ass. The canvasser’s indictment of me as a person and a father was inexcusable, not to mention stupid if she wants to warm people’s hearts enough to open their wallets. To have been treated thus in the name of compassion and generosity borders on the perverse. The right to free speech does not extend to vulgarities or insults spat into the face of a fellow citizen.

But who needs a high horse to talk about this stuff? Behind their learned, plastic smiles, the Children International drones I’ve met around town are just plain assholes. Surely there’s a better way to help the starving children of the world.

Riggs Fulmer can be reached at [email protected]