Gifts of Giving


When my parents retired, they jettisoned most of their "stuff" and reduced the size of their household so they could be footloose and worry-free. I completely understood, but when gift-giving seasons rolled around, I was stumped. My family wanted my parents involved in the fun of opening gifts, but we also wanted to honor their "Don't get us anything ... really!" request. Enter "gifts that give to others."

Donating to or volunteering for an organization on a gift recipient's behalf can be a winning - and rewarding - solution. Not only are you limiting the amount of material bulk in someone's life, you're also doing something good beyond your inner circle - and you're showing your child how to do it, too, so he can pay it forward in the future (when you're the one cutting back on possessions). In fact, a new report from the Women's Philanthropy Institute found that children whose parents discuss charity with them are 20 percent more like to give to charities themselves.

But how can kids get on board when those donations are often intangible? That first year, when we bought a goat from Heifer International for my parents, we accompanied the gift with a small stuffed goat. I didn't see it around after that, so I suspect it found its way to the donation center by February. The next year, we skipped the plush toy and instead went as a family to the petting farm.

As the holidays approach and you begin making your gift list, consider these ways your family can give from the heart.

Give what matters most

Think about what's important to the recipient, then brainstorm. In lieu of her son's birthday party gifts, Charlyn Spiering of Raleigh suggested friends and family make donations to the orphanage in India where they adopted their son. Michi Vojta, another Raleigh mom, gave to the Coastal Land Trust as a wedding gift for friends in Wilmington.

Getting started: Consider hobbies, interests or anything the recipient holds special, then search for appropriate organizations. Examples include local or well-known hospitals such as St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (, political fundraisers and public libraries.

What kids can do: Draw or make a certificate to show the recipient the details of his or her gift. Older children can help raise money, locate organizations, or even offer a cut of their own allowance or earnings to put toward the gift.

Adopt in someone's name

Who can say "no" to the adoption of an adorable polar bear cub in their name, or the honor of a star in space being named after them? Some organizations allow you to adopt a creature, name or object on a recipient's behalf. The donation goes toward research and/or helps fund the organization, and the recipient gains a unique connection.

Getting started: Adopt a star ( or manatee (, or sponsor land or an animal (

What kids can do: Draw or make an adoption certificate to accompany the "official" documentation, write a story about the "adoptee," create a map showing the link between the recipient and adoptee, or consider hosting a celebration meal with the recipient and ask the kids to help. You could make Asian food to celebrate a panda's adoption, for example.

Volunteer your time

Don't limit yourself to monetary donations. Share your time on your recipient's behalf by volunteering for a meaningful organization that honors him or her. Is she outdoorsy? Does he have a special place in his heart for seniors?

Getting started: Check out a list of volunteer opportunities ( or

What kids can do: While volunteer opportunities are often limited to older kids, sometimes younger children can pitch in. Contact organizers to find out.

Think globally

Consider reaching across the globe in your recipient's name. There are plenty of international organizations you can donate to - maybe even one with a connection to your recipient's heritage or interests.

Getting started: Try Heifer International (, World Vision (, Samaritan's Purse ( or Doctors Without (

What kids can do: Kids can help research and choose the organization you want to shop with or donate to, then choose gifts out of the organization's catalog to give in the recipient's name (goats, chickens or blankets, for example). Consider setting up a budget for your kids to work with, then divide the number of relatives they each get to shop for. It's a charity and math lesson all in one!

Have - and give - faith

To celebrate renewal (like birth, bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings), Vojta gives to the Jewish National Fund (, which is dedicated to planting trees in Israel. Finding a faith-based gift is especially welcome during the holidays.

Getting started: Inquire at your local place of worship or check out some of the religiously founded global organizations mentioned in the above "Think Globally" section.

What kids can do: Again, allow kids to choose gifts from the organization's catalog to give in a loved one's name. Have a family conversation about values you'd like to share in the form of a gift to others, then discuss how your family can continue doing good in the world.

Go solo

If you can't pinpoint an organization that is perfect for your recipient, don't worry. Be creative! Purchase seedlings to plant in your recipient's honor, donate a portion of your garden's harvest to the Food Shuttle or visit local seniors in a retirement home regularly. Let your recipients know what you're doing. Perhaps they can join you, bringing the gift-giving full circle.

Kathleen M. Reilly is a freelance writer and mom in the Triangle.

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