Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holiday Gifts that Matter

Not sure what to get your loved ones for the holidays this year? One idea that you may not have considered is donating to a non-profit organization in someone's honor.

For example, if your mother is a teacher, she might appreciate a donation in her honor to an organization that supports education for the underprivileged. Or if your best friend is interested in public health, he may be touched by a contribution to an organization supporting HIV research. Does your loved one value children? Try giving in his or her honor to a non-profit providing food and shelter for orphans. Does your mentor talk a lot about women's rights? Consider providing a micro-loan or giving the gift of livestock to help a woman start a business. The list is endless.

When someone asks me what I want for Christmas, I often feel like I have no need for more stuff to clutter up my life. I have so much already. And I hear this same thing from my parents, relatives, and friends. So this year, try something a little different! And while the huge nonprofits we all know are great, consider searching for a smaller local organization or finding targeted programs within the larger organizations that provide for the specific need that touches your heart.

Here are some of my favorite organizations this year:

The Fistula Foundation
Based in San Jose, CA

This organization helps provide life-changing surgery for women who have suffered from obstetric fistula, a hole between the vaginal wall and the bladder or rectum, which can develop as a result of prolonged obstructed labor. Obstetric fistula is almost never seen in the United States, as a result of advances in emergency obstetric care, but it is all too common in the developing world. For many women living with fistulas, they suffer daily shame as they leak bodily fluids and may even be rejected by their families and communities. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I am certain if you read about it in my July blog post, you will be deeply touched, as well:

CASA of San Mateo County
Based in San Mateo, CA

This organization trains volunteers to be Court Appointed Special Advocates for youth who are in the child welfare system, either due to abuse or criminal activity. A CASA mentors a youth, advocates for his or her needs with other professionals (teachers, social workers, therapists, etc.), and reports to the courts on the best options for the child. I have been volunteering as a CASA for almost two years now, and it has been a tremendous blessing for both myself and the child I mentor. And the good news is that there are CASA programs throughout the country. Please consider supporting this organization that is changing the lives of foster children and struggling youth. And if you feel so inclined, consider becoming a CASA yourself! Read more here:

Agape International Missions
Based in Roseville, CA

Agape International Missions (AIM) is an organization working to end child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Their mission is to fight trafficking, restore victims, and transform communities through a multi-faceted approach. This is also the organization with which Matthew and I volunteered on our trip this summer. We are still working to put together a follow-up letter about all we did there (which will be our Christmas card this year and will also be posted to the blog when complete). We were amazed by the ways lives were being changed, but there is so much still to be done to end this horrible evil. AIM needs your support to continue its transformative work in Cambodia. Learn more about AIM and the months leading up to our trip here:

Samaritan's Purse
Based in Boone, NC

I have been participating in Operation Christmas Child with Samaritan's Purse since I was a child. This program involves filling a shoe box with school supplies, toiletries, and small toys to be given to a child in the developing world. This is a great activity for families to open up dialogue with their children about gratitude for what we have and the importance of giving to those in need. For many of these children, this may be the only holiday gift they ever receive. Many of my friends know that I hoard small toys in my closet all year (based on when they go on super sale) just for this program! This year, I got together with some friends to shop and build our boxes together. In addition, Samaritan's Purse publishes a "Holiday Gift Catalog," with items that Samaritan's Purse will purchase using your donation and will distribute in the developing world to assist with relief work. These gifts each have a suggested donation amount and can be given in someone else's honor. Some examples include emergency medicine ($60), household water filters ($100), milk ($4), mosquito nets ($10), fruit trees ($45), dairy animals ($70), and many more.

These organizations would be a great place to start, but there are also many more in need of your support. If you or a loved one has a passion, chances are someone is helping in that area!

Another idea is to do a family donation pool. In my very large extended family, we used to have a gift exchange where each adult drew the name of another adult and gave that individual a Christmas gift worth approximately $50. In a large family, it can be expensive to exchange gifts with everyone, so this ensured that all members received a gift without having to spend a fortune every year. Of course, this system had flaws. Sometimes "the draw" got rigged by an individual who had a great present idea for someone else. Other times, the gifts were not necessarily something the receiver actually liked. A few years ago, the family decided to change the draw. Now, instead of buying gifts, everyone who wants to participate gives $50 to go towards a charity, and each year, a different family member gets to choose the nonprofit organization that will receive the funds. There are some stipulations that it cannot be a political group or an otherwise "controversial" charity, but it is generally open to go towards any worthy cause. This has resulted in some awesome gifts to great organizations, including the year I was studying abroad (2007), when my aunt decided to designate the gift towards Baca Ortiz Children's Hospital in Quito, Ecuador (which I had told her about back then and which I also wrote about in my blog in March of this year)!

And of course, nothing beats the gift of your time! Consider serving with friends or family this holiday season! This year, my friends and I went to a nursing home and sang Christmas carols with the seniors. (I can't take credit for the idea. It was all thanks to my amazing friend Jen Ko, but I was happy to join along!) It was such a hit that our thirty minutes of prepared carols turned into fifty minutes, with the last twenty being special requests for favorite songs. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to the residents while doing crafts. So many of them expressed how much they appreciated our visit and wanted us to come back. The staff also told us that some of the residents who could not get out of bed were enjoying listening from their rooms across the hall. As a result, we are thinking about making our visits a regular occurrence, maybe once every few months.

Caroling with Seniors: My friends on the piano,
playing guitar, and singing throughout the room.

For another example, SF City Impact will be delivering 5,000 hot meals and serving 300 sit-down Christmas dinners to the poor in the Tenderloin on December 15. They will also be hosting a Christmas block party that involves that same number of meals on Christmas day. Each event is made possible by 500 volunteers in 26 positions! What an awesome way to love those in need and to build deeper relationships with your own loved ones while doing it!

Some other serving ideas I have seen implemented in my community are: writing Christmas cards to people who otherwise would receive none, baking cookies for prisoners, throwing a teacher-appreciation party for your local school, serving a meal at a local shelter, praying for those who are hurting, sorting cans at the food bank, inviting an international friend or coworker to your holiday celebrations, sending a package to our troops overseas, and the list goes on.

It is clear that I definitely advocate serving personally and donating in a loved one's honor for Christmas. One thing to keep in mind throughout the rest of the year, however, is that many charitable organizations see a surge of giving in December, but are lacking feet on the ground and are struggling for funds during other critical times (especially during the summer months). While it is important and meaningful to budget for holiday gifts, I would also urge you to plan recurrent serving opportunities and to consider setting aside a monthly giving amount as part of your regular budget to support these organizations year-round! With the New Year coming, it is a perfect time to revisit your schedules and monthly expenses, so that you can plan ahead to bless others regularly, as you are able.

He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  ~Micah 6:8

Note: All images are directly from each organization's website, except for the photo of Christmas caroling, which was taken by my friend, Jennifer Ko.

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