Several years ago, while fighting yet another bout of holiday depression, I took a little time to review the ghosts of Christmas pasts in an effort to try and understand where I got derailed. What was it about those early years that were so fun and so joyous and so hopeful that I've been trying to get that feeling back for 45 years.
Back in the early 60's, charity was taught in the public schools. At least in Kalamazoo, Michigan it was. We learned that no matter how little you had, there was always someone who had less than you. And so I use Kalamazoo, Michigan as mainstream America. If it was going on in Kalamazoo, it was probably going on in Omaha, Memphis, Newark -- you get the idea.
We were introduced to UNICEF through "Trick or Treat for UNICEF." There was great pride in bringing back to school the little cardboard container with the slot in it filled to overflowing with coins that you collected as you trick or treated. We would knock on a door and say, "Trick or treat" and hold out our candy bags. Once the important business was out of the way, we'd hold out the little UNICEF box and say, "Trick or treat for UNICEF." The town expected it and many folks kept a bowl of pennies by the door for that very purpose. I learned at a very early age that NO ONE likes it if you shook the little box of clinking coins at them.
We had canned food drives. A big box was set up next to the teacher's desk. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the teacher would ask if anyone had brought in a can. If you did, you would leap into line, walk up and place the can in the box. You didn't want to be the only one to be left sitting at your desk. When a box was full, the teacher would push it back by the blackboard and start a new box. We had contests with the other classes as to who could be the most generous. My mom hated it. She had four kids who all wanted to bring a can every day of the food drive. Now that I'm old I can see what a strain that must have put on the family budget. But as a child, I had great pride in putting my can of corn in the box. It was directly because of me, that a family that would not go cornless at Christmas time!
In 6th grade, each classroom was given a Christmas stocking made out of red net and were asked to fill it. I don't remember who was the beneficiary. We were given a list of acceptable items and they were to be NEW, not something that you scavenged out of your own life. Wrapped candy, little toys. Janet Ward's dad was a dentist and she brought in tooth brushes and tooth paste, not just for our class, but for every classroom in the school. Robin Lemmer's dad was a doctor and she brought in boxes of Animal Crackers. Marbles, jacks, jump ropes. We weren't supposed to bring Army men, but some did. Mike Taylor brought a pack of baseball cards, but thought twice about it and switched it out for a Super Ball. And Miss McClay, bless her Irish heart, made just as big a fuss over candy cane as she did over a little book.
But here's the thing, left alone and unadulterated, all of us wanted to help. We knew that there were people starving in Ethiopia. We knew that there were kids that didn't have any toys or anything warm to wear. And, instinctively, we wanted to help. It made us feel good if we could. It made us proud that living here in the United States, not only did we have enough but we had a little extra with which to help someone else out.
So I began a mission of watching and listening for charities that I could donated to. I'm not talking masses of money but dibs and dabs -- $10 here, $5 there. I made some bad choices. It's easy to give to the charities that are household names. As I got older, I tried to put my money where I could give the biggest bang for my buck. And then -- while I understand and appreciate the whole global initiative -- I thought I would also like to give locally. And while giving is good, there is also a fun factor -- call me selfish, but I'd rather use my money to buy ducks and bees, then to give prostate exams. I would rather make a micro loan to a woman in Malawi for her farm co-op than fund a gifted artist to go to a private school But that's just me.
So, my point is this, if you are suffering from the holiday blues, try giving some of what you got away. Here are some tips for getting your money in the right place.
- No matter how much you intend to give, check out that charity first at www.charitynavigator.org Every charity is obligated to provide donors with detailed information about themselves such as annual reports, board of directors, mission statements etc..
- What is important to you? While some people think it's absolutely imperative that they spend their charitable dollars to send special needs kids to the circus, I like to donate my pennies to organizations that feed people. I think that anything is possible when one doesn't have to worry about starving.
- Think local. Google a list for "charities in" your area or check out your local news websites.
- How is your donation spent? The gang over at www.charitywatch.org Charity Watch, most of the "highly efficient charities are able to spend 75% or more on programs."
- Do not allow ANYBODY to browbeat or bully you into making any kind of donation.
- In this house if we've got the money we usually don't have the time. If we've got the time we usually don't have the money -- if you don't have any money and still want to feel good? Donate your time. Be aware, however, that many organizations have an over abundance of volunteers at Christmas -- seems like you're not the only one who wants to feel better. So instead of now, make a commitment to help out in January.
- Keep records of you donations. Don't send cash, don't give out your credit card number EVER to any solicitor that calls you. Don't use your credit/debit card on any website that is not a secure site.
- Make sure that the charity you are making a donation to is the real deal. There are a lot of made up, flim-flamming, scamming charities that SOUND like real charity that you've probably heard of. If it sounds a little off, just postpone your donation and check it out at www.charitywatch.com or your state charity registration office.
- Do not fall for the "sob story." Nor the "down on my luck." I'm going to sound like a total bitch, but there is a rash of causes that float to the surface during the holidays. The instigators count on the fact that they are only asking for a couple of bucks. They are also counting on you being to busy to check them out. I'm not saying not to give, I'm saying be a little cautious.
- If you've still got kids at home, get them involved. Let them be the one to drop some change in the bucket in front of the grocery store. Have them help you pick out a toy to donate to "Toys for Tots." Better yet, at a toy drive, let them be the one to carry the toy up and actually hand it over. It is never to early for a child to learn to give. Got a go-getter of a teenager? Have THEM organize a toy drive or a food drive with their friends. It will look great on a college resume.
- Don't respond to those unsolicted emails -- also called spam. Don't click on any link as they might contain a virus. Instead, Google the name of the organization and study it that way. Don't open any attached files as well.
- Do not make donations to anyone that asks for a check payable to an individual.
- And the FBI wants you to know that "legitimate charities do not normally solicit donation via money transfer services." And most legit charities websites end in .org NOT .com.
- And lastly the best piece of advise that I gleaned from www.charitywatch.org: Once you've determined that the charity is worthy and legit, give generously.