The Holiday Season

Several weeks ago, a photo that juxtaposed two images popped up on Facebook. The left was a photo of (I assume) a "starving African child" lying on the ground wearing only a tattered shirt. The right was a Christmas tree with a huge pile of presents spewing out from underneath it. While I am uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of the child's photo, I appreciate the underlying message.

Before you rush out to buy your children every toy in the world, and perhaps rack up thousands of dollars on your credit card, think about ways you might make your gift-giving more meaningful, personal, or charitable.  Whether for Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, or other celebrations, is spending thousand of dollars on more "stuff" necessary? When our friends visited from India they commented on how much "stuff" Americans have. We have relatives who live in the UK and they've told us the same thing.

This holiday season, I encourage you to slow down. Enjoy your family and friends. Instead of spending an entire day out shopping, dedicate that time to making simple gifts for friends and family. Bake cookies and give those as gifts. Provide a variety of papers, glue sticks, scissors, stickers, etc. and have your kids make cards. Provide paints and paintbrushes and have them paint pictures for their relatives. Buy simple frames at a craft store or discount store to display them. If you're interested in more specific craft ideas, there are LOADS of resources in your local library and on the Internet that offer simple, inexpensive gifts you and your children can make.

Another way to make the season more meaningful is donate money in someone's name. There are so many ways to give back. Here are two of our favorites:

1. Heifer International  focuses on raising people around the world (including the US) out of hunger and poverty by helping them become self-sufficient. They provide animals appropriate to the region in which a family lives and teach them how to keep the animals healthy and productive. When the animal has babies, the family "passes on the gift" by giving the offspring to others in their village. Heifer provides lovely gift cards that announce your gift, or you can have an email sent to the recipient.

To teach your children about the benefits of such a donation, read them Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier. (If you purchase the book, a percentage of the proceeds go to Heifer). Beatrice's life in Uganda improved dramatically after her family received a goat from Heifer. I was lucky to have Beatrice visit my classroom in 2001. She was an intelligent, lovely, 16 year old. She spoke several languages and shared her story with my students in English. They were so moved, they began a fundraiser for Heifer. We have been regular supporters of the organization ever since.

2. Support a family in need in your community. We donate to a locally run organization that helps families in our area. Nearly every town has an non-profit organization or church group that supports families in need. Many school nurses also know of families in need and can arrange for anonymous donations to help those families. Many retail establishments also have tags listing needed items. You can choose a tag, make a purchase and deliver it to that store.

Related to this point, our children receive an allowance every week. To "store" their allowance, they have three jars. One is labelled "Save," one "Donate," and one "Spend." We've told them a minimum amount they need to put in the "Save" jar (to go in the bank). Otherwise they divide their money as they see fit. Then they choose how to donate the money they save. Last year, both kids decided to use the money to buy a toy for a child in need. We went out as a family and made our purchases, then we delivered them to the organization that ensures anonymous donations.

If you look closely at the two ways my family supports others in need, you'll see they match what is important to us. That is not to say other organizations are not important. Of course they are. But one family can only donate so much. Find what you are passionate about and choose an organization that supports those passions.

One final note: If you find your family in tough financial times this year, don't be afraid to reach out for help. There is no shame in asking your community to support you in your time of need. Some day in the future, when you get back on your feet, you can "pass on the gift" by helping someone else.

Have you benefited from the generosity of others? What are your favorite charitable organizations? (Please include links, when possible, so others can learn about them. Note: charitable organizations only, please).