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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Alternative Giving: 9 Ideas To Make The Holidays Happy And Generous

Some people—like my five-year-old—adore the holidays. Since we celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas in our house, Leone gets a winter two-for-one.

Presents! Treats! Snow forts! What’s not to love?

Then there are the Grinches—like some who will remain nameless but are perhaps writing this article—who hate the holidays. Many of us those people struggle with seasonal affective disorder and financial concerns, don’t get much time off work over the “break,” and come from divorced families where the holiday season was usually an unhappy tug-of-war between estranged and angry parents.

Overspending! Cavities! Cold! What’s not to hate?

But no matter how you feel about the holidays, it’s the perfect time to give back. Not only are any financial donations you make to non-profit organizations tax deductible, but studies show that people’s happiness actually increases when we do kind deeds for others.

It may be awkward. It doesn't matter. The fact that someone stopped and paid attention, instead of rushing by, is a kindness that spreads holiday healing to everyone.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside, has been studying human happiness for twenty-five years. The author of the Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does,Lyubomirsky has found that while improvement in life circumstances (making more money, getting married) leads to short term happiness, people quickly get accustomed to those kind of positive changes, start taking their improved circumstances for granted, and quickly stop feeling happy. In contrast, when Lyubomirsky and her colleagues had students commit acts of kindness (putting change in people’s parking meters, visiting someone in a nursing home) and then keep track of their feelings, the researchers found that performing positive acts for others just once a week led to the most lasting happiness. But there’s a catch: according to Lyubomirsky’s research, anyway, performing a variety of grateful and kind behaviors was more effective in boosting happiness than repeatedly performing the same act of kindness.

'Tis the season to be kind and generous. And the more varied your acts of kindness and generosity, the better you’ll feel too. You can always write a check to your favorite charity or starving artist. Or try one of our nine best ideas of ways to give back...

1. Turn Your Trash Into An Artist’s Treasure.

The beads, fabric scraps, bits of yarn, old magazines, toilet paper rolls, cardboard boxes, scrap paper, and jigsaw puzzle pieces that are cluttering your house may seem like trash to you but can be veritable treasures to your area artists and artist-wannabes. Elementary schools and non-profit arts centers are often in search of supplies and materials, both for their art classes for children and for professional artists. If you bring materials like this to a resale store they mostly get thrown away (and cost the store money in dumping fees) but you can donate them to a public school or art center where they will be put to good use in an aspiring Picasso’s next masterpiece.

Who knew beauty lurked in a bottle cap?

“Classroom teachers really appreciate any donation or any help,” says Karen Ditzler, who works in Educational Services at the Redding School District Office in Redding, California and recommends that people who want to support the music and art programs in Redding make a tax- deductible donation to the Education First Foundation. “If you have someone who donates just a little bit, it makes a difference.”

When I call Sycamore Elementary School in Redding, they tell me that even though they don’t have a designated art room the school gratefully accepts donations of art supplies and materials and then divvies them up to individual classroom teachers to use for art projects.

2. Support Kid Sports

Though his SAT/ACT scores initially weren’t high enough to get accepted at an academically rigorous university, Ashland High School graduate Jamie Flynn has been studying hard and getting straight A’s in junior college, where he was also playing baseball. The coach from an Ivy League school that Flynn first met at a summer baseball camp several years ago stayed in touch with him and with his coaches. This year Jamie Flynn is a freshman at Cornell University, where he’ll also be playing baseball. Though only a fraction of athletes who are competitive in high school will have a high enough skill level to play in college, Jamie’s father Kevin Flynn says supporting children to play organized sports can be life changing in many ways, giving at-risk teenage boys especially a sense of purpose and a safety net.

“We love sports,” says Flynn, who worked as a police officer for 18 years in both Hawaii and Oregon, and who is now works as a code compliance specialist for the City of Ashland. “We think it’s a way to keep kids active and out of trouble.”

Flynn argues that if you want to make the most impact for the least amount of money for a child during the holidays, you should donate to a volunteer sports organization that has little or no overhead costs. “It sounds corny when I’m talking to an adult but it’s true: when kids do sports we end up with people who have sense of fairness, good sportsmanship, and who learn to treat each other kindly. It’s so good for our young people to be involved in these programs.” He recommends the Ashland High School Booster Club, which uses donations for small stuff like football cleats for kids who can’t afford them and for big projects like building the weight room in the new gym; Ashland Youth Baseball, which offers full summer scholarships for kids in need and is currently raising money to build a second baseball and softball building at North Mountain Park for indoor play during inclement weather; and American Legion Baseball, which uses donations to cover the cost of uniforms, umpire fees, baseballs, and travel to away games.

“There’s a lot more free time in the winter where kids don’t have the option of being outdoors. Winter kind of closes in on them and they tend to be drawn to the party scene and can start making the wrong decisions,” Flynn says. “If they’re in sports—you can play basketball, baseball, and soccer all year round now—it keeps them connected to coaches. If they don’t have a mother and father at home, the coaches can be a valuable resource.”

Flynn remembers one youngster who turned to drugs and alcohol after his parents went through a hostile and difficult divorce. The coaches talked to him, made sure he kept coming to practice, and used donated money to buy his equipment. When things went from bad to worse and he was kicked him out of the house, another baseball family took him in. “I look at a lot of kids who grow into young men and I wonder what would have happened to them if they hadn’t been involved in sports? I’ve been around in Ashland for 20 years and see how sports have impacted their lives in positive ways.”

3. Pay For Someone Else’s Coffee

On a dismal afternoon in late November an eight-year-old girl felt she could nothing right. Ceaseless rain pelted against the living room window as black tree branches clawed at the electric wires outside her house. Her parents seemed tired and discouraged, her older sister mopey. Even the cat was in a bad mood. Suddenly her father, who was trying to do homework, announced that the family was going out to dinner, something they had not done in months and something they really could not afford. We’re going to have a good time, he announced through clenched teeth, even if it kills us.

Credit Bigstock.com
Performing acts of kindness at least once a week can lead to greater happiness.

They all felt better after they sunk their teeth into their hamburgers.

Then something surprising happened. The waitress told them their bill had already been paid:

The Quimbys looked at her in astonishment. ‘But who paid for them?’ demanded Mr.Quimby.

‘A lonely gentleman who left a little while ago,’ answered the waitress.

‘He must have been the man who sat across the aisle,’ said Mrs. Quimby. ‘But why would he pay for our dinners? We never saw him before in our lives.’

The waitress smiled. ‘Because he said you are such a nice family, and because he misses his children and grandchildren.’ She dashed off with her pot of coffee, leaving the Quimbys in surprised, even shocked, silence.

This is a fictional story from one of our family’s favorite books, Ramona Quimby, Age Eight, by Oregon writer Beverly Cleary. But it does not need to be. You’ll be astonished by how much joy it will bring you to sneakily treat someone you don’t know to a meal, or even just a cup of coffee.

Try leaving an extra ten dollars next time you go through a drive-through and tell the clerk that you’re picking up the next person’s tab. You’ll spend the rest of the day smiling. And so will the recipient of your unexpected and unasked for kindness.

4. Give The Gift Of Time

Some people hesitate to volunteer their time because they are worried about making a long-term commitment. But there are plenty of volunteer opportunities where you only donate an hour or two of your time. And just do so once. Or twice. Or as many times as feels right for you.

It’s true that you usually have to go through a training at the pet shelter and make a weekly commitment in order to hold kitties and clean litter boxes, but you can usually join a neighborhood clean-up, plant trees, pack holiday baskets for the homeless, or clean the shelves at a food bank just one time. No contribution of your time is too small. Spending a couple of hours with a young family’s children so the grown-ups can go for a walk or to a movie is another wonderful way to make others happy at the holidays.

5. Be Kind to Your Mother

It’s easy to get stressed around the holidays. If you’re an introvert, the holiday cheer and endless talking can get to be too much. If you’re allergic to Christmas music, you’re walking around with your fingers in your ears. As much as it is nice to have family time, families push our buttons. And when we’re stressed, we often take it out on the people we love the best and who drive us the most crazy: our parents. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or fifty, you may find that your mom has that uncanny ability to make you revert to your worst, whiniest, and least generous self. But holidays are supposed to be about kindness, not impatience and frustration, so doing your darndest to find positive ways to be with your parents may be the best way to give back.

Count to ten before answering questions. Learn to meditate. Humor helps.

My friend’s dad is 90 and suffering from dementia. He gets so confused during mealtimes that he holds up the fork and asks in a wobbly voice what to do with the food. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s also very frustrating for my friend. No matter how many times my friend explains to his father to eat the food, his father anxiously asks the question again. Finally he changed tactics, “Dad,” he suggested, “how ’bout you stick it up your nose?” His father burst out laughing. It didn’t cure the dementia but it made mealtimes a lot more pleasant.    

My mother died of a massive brain hemorrhage a month before Christmas. I wish I had been a kinder and more patient daughter. If you aren’t kind to your parents while they’re alive, you don’t get a second chance.

6. Show Some Love to a Family Affected by Autism

Chances are you have a family member or friend whose child has been diagnosed with autism. California, acknowledged as the state that keeps the most robust figures about autism and other developmental disabilities, reports that are now over 76,000 school-aged children with autism in the state, and autism cases continue to rise. A similar trend is happening in Oregon. “I’ve been teaching special education for ten years,” Dannae Laqua, a special education teacher at Bellview Elementary School in Ashland, said in a recent interview. “I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in students in school affected by autism. Ask any teacher and they’ll say the same thing.”

"Instead of spending fifty bucks on a fancy shirt or nose-hair trimmer, we can be helping someone go to school." -Leslie Becknell Marx

  Families affected by autism often feel isolated and alone. They are usually spending most of their energy and financial resources caring for their children, going from one specialist to another as they try to understand their child’s atypical brain and accompanying physical ailments (like severe gastrointestinal problems and sleep disturbances).

When Roseburg-resident Kendra Pettengill’s daughter was diagnosed with autism, she was told to make a long-term plan to have her daughter institutionalized because Keely had no hope of recovery. Severely disabled children are rarely invited to parties or play dates. Pettengill found support on-line and read every book she could on autism. The one that helped her the most at the time was Karen Seroussi’s Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder: A Mother’s Story of Research and Recovery. Though she had day-to-day help from her mom, it is easy for families to feel lonely and alone, especially during the holidays. Change that this season by inviting a family you know with children with autism into your home. “Include our kids, even if it is awkward or uncomfortable,” Pettengill suggests. She thinks of the children who have befriended her daughter over the years as her “little heroes.”

“One of those kids is going to graduate this year,” Pettengill tells me. “She is going to study early childhood education and disabilities because of her experience with Keely.” Today her daughter, though still affected by autism, is on the cheerleading team and a straight A student. 


7. Take A Homeless Person To Lunch

Instead of giving a street person cash or food, invite him or her out to lunch with you. Carve out some time and say to the next beggar you see (or to the one whose story you’ve been wondering about the most), “I’d love to buy you a meal. Is now a good time or should we make a plan for another day?” Don’t be offended if you get rejected—just try again with someone else. Go for fast food or splurge on a nicer restaurant. You may end up learning a lot about his life, or you may find yourself having a quiet meal. It may be awkward. It doesn’t matter. The fact that someone stopped and paid attention, instead of rushing by, is a kindness that spreads holiday healing to everyone.

Credit Laura Schroff
Sept. 1, 2011: Laura Schroff and Maurice Mazyck in the McDonalds where they shared their first meal together in 1986.

  On a lark a successful 30-something career woman named LauraSchroff turned back around after she passed by an 11-year-old panhandler named MauriceMazyck one day in New York City. She offered to take the boy, who looked ragged and hungry, for a burger. Their chance encounter began a lifelong friendship, which ended up being healing for both of them. Maurice successfully got himself out of the cycle of poverty he was born into. Schroff details their friendship in her book, An Invisible Thread (which makes a lovely holiday read.) Don’t misunderstand me, you’re not signing up for a lifelong commitment by taking a homeless person out for a meal (see #4), but you will be doing a good deed that will make you both feel good.

8.  Give The Gift Of Education

My friend Leslie Becknell Marx decided to give her husband an unusual gift this holiday season. Leslie made a donation to the Ashland-based non-profit, Acción Esperanza Partnership for Hope, to sponsor a 6-year-old boy in Nicaragua to go to school on her husband’s behalf. When Adam opened the gift, he was touched to be helping a little boy the same age as their own son. Leslie, who recently joined the board of directors, tells me she is impressed by how little overhead Acción Esperanza uses and how much of the donated money goes directly to the children who need it most.

Founder Lucy Edwards (former JPR News Director) travels often to Nicaragua, paying her own way each time she goes. She explains that Acción Esperanza only helps as many families as she and other Oregon-based board members can personally visit in a week: usually about thirty at any given time. The money donated helps children buy school uniforms, shoes, school supplies, and even food. “You can invest in someone’s dream,” Edwards explains. “The other person is doing all the work.” Edwards says a little really goes a long way. “We just had a student graduate from a pharmacy program. She is now licensed to be a pharmacist. She came from a cardboard house with a dirt floor. She has so much confidence, joy, and investment, now, to give back to her community, because someone invested in her.”

For Leslie the gift was a win-win for everyone, and much more satisfying than a material present.

“Here we are around the holidays spending money that doesn’t need to be spent on things we don’t really need,” Becknell Marx points out. “Instead of spending fifty bucks on a fancy shirt or nose-hair trimmer, we can be helping someone go to school.”

9. Tread More Gently On Mother Earth

When we’re kind to Mother Earth, we ensure a better, healthier future for ourselves and our children. And most environmentally friendly activities are actually as good for your health as they are for your pocketbook. Plus you get to feel holier-than-thou around all your friends for being such an eco-conscious holiday reveler.

Walk to do gift shopping instead of driving (or if that’s not possible, park several blocks away. That way you avoid holiday parking hassles and get some exercise to boot, possibly allowing someone who physically needs to park close to shops the chance to find a spot). Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Wrap holiday gifts in old maps or old calendars. Make the switch from paper napkins and paper towels to cloth napkins and cloth rags, which you can buy for pennies at a resale store like Goodwill. Catch the shower gray water in a bucket and use it to water the house plants. Put two metal spoons in your purse or wallet and pull them out to the astonishment of your friends next time you go out for ice cream. Put your family’s trash—now that there is so much less of it—directly in the bin, forgoing the plastic trash bag (turns out you don’t need one. Who knew?). Turn off lights when you leave the room. Wash your laundry in cold water. Channel your inner farmer by building an urban chicken coop or planting a winter garden. The possibilities are endless. So are the rewards.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and the author/editor of six books, including Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family. She has worked on a non-profit child survival campaign in West Africa and taught literature classes in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal and also produces radio features for JPR. She's a former senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.