Like most families, we're trimming our holiday budget, trying to economize in any way we can. My good financial intentions fell by the wayside, though, when I saw the Christmas tree at my youngest kids' preschool the other day. It was decorated with tiny colored lights and pairs of red and green paper mittens; each set of mittens had on it a needy child's Christmas wish.
The wishes weren't extravagant. A 5-year-old asked for "any toy." A 14-year-old wanted a set of extra-large fleecy pajama bottoms. A tween asked for a scarf, gloves, and a hat. Several teens each requested a gift certificate to a fast food place; one child asked for a gift card to a local grocery store.
My heart broke. I wanted to gather up all the mittens from the tree and buy everything I could. But of course I couldn't. Instead, I picked five sets of mittens -- one for each of my own five kids -- and started to think outside the box.
By shopping some crazy sales at places where one might not think to buy presents -- places like Walgreens, where you can buy trendy toys at bargain prices, or Michael's crafts, where creative kits are currently on sale for less than the price of a latte -- I managed to stretch my holiday dollar and make five other kids a little happier. It wasn't much, but it was something.
If you don't have time to make a special trip or catch a sale, you can still help someone in need by making the things you were planning to buy anyway do double duty.
Holiday cards can be purchased from local and national charities that are struggling to provide more services with less money. Buy presents from which the proceeds go to support a cause. Give gifts for free with the click of your mouse. Shop at stores that use part of their profits to help the needy.
Need specifics? Here are a few places that can help you help others, effortlessly.
The Pine Street Inn offers emergency shelter, supportive housing, street outreach, and job training to homeless men and women in New England. Founded in 1969, it serves more than 1,300 people each day. Their holiday cards feature artwork by local artists, and a box of 10 cards and envelopes costs $15.
Project Bread works to alleviate, prevent, and end hunger in Massachusetts. They provide nutritious meals to families in need, and with the economy the way it is right now people, including children, rely on them more than ever before. Their cards cost $15 for a pack of 10 (discounts are available for larger quantities) and feature classic scenes and whimsical designs, some of which are perfect for people like me, whose Christmas cards sometimes turn into New Year's greetings.
America's oldest child and family service agency, The Home for Little Wanderers has a 200-year history of caring for children and adolescents. The artwork on their cards is created by children in their care -- an immediate reminder of the fact that your good wishes are bringing cheer to a child. $15 for 10 at their online store.
Online boutique Give Wink is giving away free eye exams and glasses to underprivileged children in South America every time someone spends $100 at their store. They have plenty to choose from: Educational toys and games, bedding and furniture, personalized gifts, baby items, and accessories -- you can shop for several people on your list and help needy kids at the same time.
One of the first shelters for homeless women in the country, Rosie's Place was founded by Kip Tiernan in 1974 with $250 donated from friends. Through their Women's Craft Cooperative, they sell decorative accessories made by some of the women they serve. The bookmarks, bracelets, and other items make lovely gifts, and the proceeds help women artists earn a living.
There are many ways you can use what you already have to help someone else (For example: here are five ways to help a friend who has been laid off.) If you do have time to shop, though, you can send a gift to a child in foster care thanks to the folks at Amazon.com.
Or consider giving a gift to a needy family in honor of (or in memory of) someone you love. Through Heifer International, you can fund a project to help end world hunger or give a gift of sheep, llamas, chickens, or other animals that will allow a struggling family earn an income. A flock of ducks costs as little as $20; a single flock can as much as triple a family's income in Xiang Qian, China. For more options, check out their extensive online gift catalog.
Safe Motherhood Kits from IMA WorldHealth help women in developing countries give birth safely by providing them with clean and sterile supplies, training on how to prevent infection, and warm clothes to protect their newborns. According to the World Health Organization, the leading cause of death in childbirth is infection, usually from unsanitary conditions. A kit for one safe birth costs just $25; to give, go to IMA WorldHealth's donation page and designate your $25 contribution for "Maternal and Child Health."
No matter what we're up against, there are people out there who are struggling more than we are. How do you think you can help?