‘Tis the Season for Giving Back

These holiday heroes make time to teach their families — and remind themselves — what really matters.

Gary, Alex, and Debra Danoff share their love of cooking with the needy.

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Heather Jack and her family spent the Christmas holidays preparing a feast — for others to eat.

Last Christmas Eve, Heather and her family, including her two children, ages 3 and 7, prepared a full-course dinner for an elderly housebound neighbor and her son, who has muscular dystrophy. Heather made a rack of lamb with green beans and potatoes that her kids helped mash. They stayed for an hour and chatted before heading home to prepare for a visit from Santa.

“I think it’s that kind of direct experience, where you can sit down and talk to people, that many find so meaningful,” says Heather, president and founder of The Volunteer Family (thevolunteerfamily.org), a Boston-based organization dedicated to matching families with volunteer opportunities, both during the holidays and year-round. “It’s a great way for parents and grandparents to involve the kids.”

In a holiday season that stretches from before Thanksgiving to just after the New Year, it’s nice to hear stories about people giving instead of receiving, especially when Christmas isn’t even a holiday they celebrate. Last December Gary and Debra Danoff and their two teenage sons drove to the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (JCC) and spent Christmas morning in the Center’s kitchen preparing a feast for homeless shelters. Everyone pitched in to cook large quantities of lasagna, chicken, and vegetables for delivery to area shelters.

The Danoffs were in good company. Across the city, at least 1,000 volunteers fanned out across the region to provide food and gifts to the Capitol’s neediest residents as part of the D.C. JCC’s annual “December 25th Day of Service,” now in its 22nd year.

Heather Jack brought dinner to neighbor Alice Cook.<br />Photo by Art Illman.
Heather Jack brings dinner to neighbor Alice Cook.
Photo by Art Illman.

“It’s a great feeling to watch volunteers come in and out of the building,” says Erica Steen, director of the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service at the D.C. JCC.

“We draw an amazing smorgasbord of people from all ages, backgrounds, and races. We get grandparents and grandkids, entire families, young professionals, senior citizens. Anyone can participate.”

By choosing to prepare meals for the homeless, the Danoffs bring together a belief in community service with their love of cooking. “It’s gratifying to prepare food for other people,” says Gary. “We want our kids to understand the full range of living conditions in this world. We want them to know that many people don’t have the ability to go to the supermarket and pick the foods they want to eat and pay for them.”

Secret Santas

Sometimes, the joy of giving is that much sweeter when the gift is anonymous. That’s what Linda Forte-Spearing has learned.

On Christmas morning, she wakes up with her husband, Tony, and tries to imagine the wide-eyed surprise of children in another household as they unwrap the presents she carefully chose for them. Linda has never met the children or their parents, but that’s all part of the joy of giving, she says.

“It’s an incredible feeling to buy gifts on an anonymous basis,” says Linda, a freelance writer. “It brings a whole new meaning to the holidays.”

Linda and Tony are an American couple living in Toronto, and Linda got involved in charitable work as a member of the American Women’s Club of Oakville in Ontario. As the name suggests, members are U.S. citizens living in Oakville, who join together for fellowship and community service.

To find her “adopted” family, Linda goes to the local schools and requests a wish list for a family that’s struggling to make ends meet. Last year she and Tony helped a single mother with three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. The mother, a Jamaican immigrant, works as a cleaning lady in a nursing home.

“The list is always heartbreaking. They have an opportunity to ask for anything and do just the opposite, asking for basic clothing articles or simple toys like puzzles or crayons,” she says. “We always buy the kids a new winter coat, hats, gloves, and a scarf.” She also buys gifts for the parents, including a gift certificate for the grocery store.

Last year Linda asked the principal to go back to the mom and ask her for a second wish list — one that didn’t involve the basics. “Every child should have a Christmas that sticks with them for a lifetime.” She purchased iPods for the two older children and a Nintendo DS video game system for the youngest. “I have learned a very valuable lesson in all of this,” says Linda. “Pay attention to what’s going on in your own backyard — no matter where you live.”

Linette Laureano would second that emotion. For the past six years, this single mom of three has been working hard to make sure that poor kids in her Orlando, Florida, community don’t miss out on the joys of Christmas morning.

Last year her toy drives and a partnership with Toys for Tots brought Christmas morning magic to more than 400 children. To pull off such a large toy exchange, Linette sets up a temporary toy “store” within the Protestant church, where her mother is senior pastor. Linette and her family work late into the night, then curl into sleeping bags on the church floor in anticipation of the day ahead.

Parents arrive at a pre-arranged time to shop for three free gifts per child, plus stocking stuffers. “It’s humbling,” says Linette. “You learn to be grateful for what you have. So many people have so much stuff that they don’t even appreciate it, while others have lost all of their belongings or can’t afford nice things. Those are the people I want to help.”

At St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Cleveland, Ohio, you’ll find a similar “store,” but this time it’s the kids who get to do the shopping. And these are schoolchildren who know what it’s like to do without. At least 91 percent of the 225 students at this K-8 elementary school live below the poverty line. Many students come from single-parent homes.

Times are undeniably tough. But one day a year, students get to shop like millionaires let loose on Rodeo Drive. That’s when parishioners from Holy Angels, an affluent suburban Catholic church in nearby Bainbridge Township, set up a Christmas boutique within the school and sell upscale gifts to students at below bargain-basement prices. Nothing costs more than a quarter for the cash-strapped kids, not even Lenox crystal or a warm designer sweater.

But the children aren’t buying presents for themselves. They’re buying gifts for their parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members. Selections are taken
to the gift-wrap station, where they’re wrapped and tagged by volunteer teen workers from Holy Angels, who also
help younger children carry overstuffed bags of presents back to the classroom.

“The day is just amazing,” says Principal Sister Michelle Kelly. “Parishioners at Holy Angels collect all year for this sale so that our children can buy nice gifts for their families.”

Ringing the Bell

Every holiday season, Christian Millman and 15-year-old son, Lucas, are a two-man Salvation Army band.<br />Photo by Richard Swearinger
Every holiday season, Christian Millman and 15-year-old son, Lucas, are a two-man Salvation Army band.
Photo by Richard Swearinger

For some, charitable giving is a private matter. But for many, volunteering is a family affair.

Five years ago, Christian Millman, a media manager in Des Moines, Iowa, and his wife, Michelle, started a family tradition of ringing the kettle bell for the Salvation Army. In split shifts, they bring one or more of their three children for an evening of bell-ringing, hot chocolate, and neighborly greetings in front of a local supermarket. Lucas, 15, brings his clarinet and plays Christmas carols to serenade passers-by.

“I’ve been impressed by how much they enjoy it and look forward to it each year,” says Christian. “It also gives me precious one-on-one time with my children during
a busy season.”

Many people stop and say “thanks,” adds Lucas. “They’re sometimes surprised to see a kid ringing the bell.”

Sometimes, people also share stories about how the Salvation Army helped them through rough patches in their lives. “It’s really moving for me and the boys,” Christian says. “All of the sudden, they’re not such disaffected young teens. They stop being tough and cool and realize that this really matters.”

Holiday giving made simple

Want to spread holiday cheer but don’t know how? Here are a few ideas:

Warm Up America! Volunteers create handmade afghan blankets, clothing, and accessories to help those in need. Call 704-824-7838 or visit warmupamerica.org.

Trees for Troops. From December 4-6, buy a tree at participating farms for the troops and their families. Call 636-449-5060 or contribute online at treesfortroops.org.

Soles4Souls. Donate new or gently used shoes to this charity that distributes footwear to the needy. Call 866-521-SHOE or visit soles4souls.org.

SALVATION ARMY. Ring the bell and collect donations in that trademark red kettle. Contact your local Salvation Army office or visit ringbells.org.

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