By Sally E. Smith
Selecting the perfect gift for each person on your list is truly an art, particularly when the person for whom you're buying already has everything they could want or need. Add into the mix the sometimes overwhelming materialism of the season, and even the most jolly gift giver can feel a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge.
There exists a happy medium, though, where the gift giver can feel good about spending money and the gift recipient can feel honored, with no bauble or tchotchke ever being exchanged. Many charities have programs whereby you can make an online donation in your gift recipient's name, and the organization will send them an acknowledgement. Relatively small contributions can make an enormous difference in the work of many charities, and you can gain the satisfaction of knowing that your action is not only a thoughtful gift for your recipient, but also can help to improve our world.
As you shop online, check out some of these gifts from the heart:
In the 1930s, Spain was in the midst of a civil war. As Dan West was ladling out cups of milk to hungry children on both sides of the conflict, it dawned on him that what these families needed was "not a cup, but a cow." He asked his friends back home to donate young cows, and asked the recipient families, in turn, to help another family become self-reliant by passing on to them one of their gift animals' female calves.
Such was the inspiration for Heifer Project International (www.heifer.org; 800/422-0474), which today offers a variety of animals to hungry families around the world. You can "buy" not only heifers, but rabbits, llamas, bees, dairy goats, sheep, ducks - even water buffalo! A gift of $20 can buy ducks, which will provide eggs, down, feathers, fertilizer and meat to a family. A llama ($150, or $20 for a "share" of the animal) will be a pack animal and give a poor family fleece, fuel and fertilizer. Bees are a bargain at $30, and can lead to better crops, beeswax candles, pollen for medicine and honey.
When you give a gift from the Heifer Project, your recipient will receive either a Web-based gift card (announced via email), or you will receive printed gift cards to distribute yourself.
Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org; 1-800-HABITAT) specializes in new beginnings, particularly for families whose dreams of home ownership are just that - dreams. The organization selects homeowner families on the basis of need, their ability to repay the no-profit, no-interest mortgage, and their willingness to work in partnership with Habitat volunteers. Best-known for their Jimmy Carter Work Projects, Habitat has built 100,000 homes in 60 countries, including 30,000 in the U.S., since 1976.
A gift to Habitat can help families achieve their dreams. Ten dollars can buy a floor joist, $20 will provide a 50-lb box of nails and $40 will purchase five gallons of paint. When you give an online gift, Habitat will send up to four e-cards to your recipients, or send printed cards via regular mail.
Books for Kids
First Book (www.firstbook.org; 202/393-1222) has a single mission: to give disadvantaged children the opportunity to read and own their first book. Working with community-based tutoring, mentoring and literacy programs, First Book distributes new books to children who, for economic reasons, have little or no access to books. This year, the organization expects to provide hundreds of thousands of children in more than 300 communities with more than four million books. According to Communications and Marketing Manager Chandler Arnold, "In short, our goal is not to fight illiteracy but to end it."
Due to deep discounts First Book has negotiated with publishers, even a small gift can make a big difference. A donation of $15 provides five books to children, while a $30 contribution means ten books for low-income kids. Your recipient will receive a gift card from the organization.
Binkies, Binkies, Binkies
Perhaps a child is ill, abused or in foster care - whatever the trauma, the Binky Patrol (www.binkypatrol.org; 949-499-BINK) is there to help. Binkies are homemade blankets given with love to any child or teen in need of comfort. Made by volunteers, the blankets are crocheted, knitted, sewn or quilted, and are anywhere from 36" square to the size of a twin bed. According to Binky Patrol Founder Susan Rouch, "Not every teen will admit that a binky helps, but we know they do - they've told us later, when their friends weren't around."
A contribution of $10 will make one large binky for a teen in a shelter or ship six binkies to an area that doesn't have a Binky Patrol chapter. A gift of $50 will set up a new Binky Patrol chapter (each chapter makes an average of 360 binkies each year). Your gift recipient will receive a gift card from the organization.
Adopt an Acre
Tropical rainforests are considered the lungs of our planet, yet much of them are destroyed each year. The Nature Conservancy's Adopt An Acre program (www.tnc.org; 1-800-84-ADOPT) chooses imperiled sites and provides critical rainforest acquisition and management funds. With its in-country partner organizations, the Conservancy achieves its mission of protecting biological diversity.
When you adopt an acre of rain forest ($40) in the name of your gift recipient, The Nature Conservancy will send them an honorary land deed, specifying the location of their adopted acreage and the local conservation organization managing the rainforest area.
Using volunteer health professionals, Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres) (www.doctorswithoutborders.org; 1-888-DWB-0-DWB) provides international medical relief to victims of wars, epidemics, natural and man-made disasters, and others who lack health care because of geographic remoteness or ethnic marginalization. Each year, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning DWB sends more than 2,000 volunteers to 80 countries.
Your gift of $20 can provide infection-fighting antibiotics for ten seriously wounded people, while $100 vaccinates 100 people against meningitis, measles or polio. Your gift recipient will receive a gift card from the organization.