The coming of this year’s holiday season was heralded with record sales in stores and online. As much as we believe that it is our patriotic duty to pump up our failing economy, this year we cannot help but stop and survey the need around us.
Victims of Hurricane Sandy have joined the ranks of the homeless as they figure out how to move on with their lives. The election is behind us, but the unemployment rate is still high, and there are still too many children who do not receive adequate nutrition.
It is deeply rooted in our culture that children expect to receive gifts at this time of year. But how do we also teach our children the important value of giving? How do we impart values, like compassion and charity? How do we teach kids such practical lessons as the value of money and saving?
There are simple ways that schools try to teach these lessons. They may sponsor a holiday service project. Some schools ask parents to refrain from giving teachers gifts and instead suggest they honor their teachers with a contribution to any number of worthwhile causes. In this way, families can contribute what they are able to afford – or not at all if they are strapped – and the gift is from the entire class. Here are some ideas for a class or family project:
- A gift card to a supermarket or department store for a needy family
- A class collection of non-perishable food items for a local food pantry
- Purchasing holiday gifts for a homeless family
- Providing a holiday dinner for a needy family
- A donation to a charity
There are several humanitarian organizations, many of which would be appropriate for youngsters to help support. #GivingTuesday, a national project started by the 92d Street Y in New York City to remind people about the need to give back particularly at holiday time, was a huge success when it kicked off the week after Thanksgiving. But #GivingTuesday is continuing the rest of the month as well.
Donations to CARE can provide school uniforms; contributions to Heifer International provide gifts of livestock and training to help families improve their nutrition and generate income, and Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program screens children for vision problems and provides eyeglasses. Don’t forget your local charities; it’s meaningful for kids to know they are helping those close to home.
One hands-on program was started by Mark Wasserman of Boca Raton, Florida.
Houses for Change is a national campaign to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise funds to help homeless families. Since its launch at the end of 2010, more than 17,000 kids in over 150 cities have created their own unique Houses for Change collection boxes.
The project was conceived as a result of Wasserman’s volunteering with Family Promise of South Palm Beach County, an interfaith organization that helps homeless families with children become independent again.
“The values kids learn from this project,” said Wasserman, “will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Using art supplies and their imagination, children decorate pre-ordered boxes to look like a house. Participants take their boxes home and in the following weeks fill them with loose change. On a selected date, kids bring their filled boxes back to the local sponsoring group for a communal donation to any homeless organization, food bank or related organization.
According to Wasserman, Houses for Change has universal appeal. He noted that it has been adopted as a service learning project by schools and congregations. The decorated boxes have been used at community service days and birthday parties as piggy banks; at churches as Advent, Lenten and collection boxes; and at synagogues as tzedakah (charity) boxes.
Houses for Change is more than an arts and crafts project, Wasserman notes. “It is an opportunity to teach about charity, homelessness, hunger and social action. It enables kids to realize that if they regularly save their loose change, it will accumulate to a large sum; and if they combine their savings with those of others, it can become a significant charitable donation that will help those in need.”
Houses for Change is sponsored by Family Promise, a non-profit organization that mobilizes communities to help homeless and low-income families. At www.familypromise.org/housesforchange there are details about how to organize this project.
Engaging parents, children, and schools in choosing the cause and bringing it to fruition will infuse both kids and adults with the true meaning of giving.
For those in the northeast still feeling the after effects of Hurricane Sandy, the Thanksgiving holiday is bittersweet. It is indeed an opportunity to count our blessings – of life, health, family, community, and freedom – at the same time we survey the damage and rebuild. It recalls the first Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims offered thanks for surviving a harsh winter and for a nourishing harvest.
The parallel that comes to my mind is the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. How did a shocked and grieving nation celebrate Thanksgiving and move on following this man-made tragedy? Murdered on November 22, the new President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation on Thanksgiving Day, November 28. I believe it might have been the most inspiring speech Johnson ever delivered. He said:
“All of us have lived through seven days that none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom to answer why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world, for the cause we lead, for all the hopes that live in our hearts.”
While acknowledging the tragedy, Johnson then focused on reasons for gratitude.
“More than any generation before us, we have cause to be thankful, so thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day. Our harvests are bountiful, our factories flourish, our homes are safe, our defenses are secure. We live in peace…”
How do entire communities devastated by Sandy observe Thanksgiving this year? As always, families will join together for the traditional feast and camaraderie. In areas like Long Beach, N.Y., there will be community meals for those who have lost their homes. And – as in 1963 — there will still be gratitude for the blessings that are often taken for granted.
But what is our “human duty” in the wake of Sandy?
The debate about whether the holiday buying season should begin on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday seems crass, frivolous, and insensitive to those who are still suffering.
A more fitting alternative is the 92Y’s new initiative to inaugurate a national day of spending that emphasizes giving back. Giving Tuesday, which will be launched November 27, is bringing together charities, families, businesses and individuals in an effort to transform the way people think about, talk about and participate in the giving season.
Find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to join this national celebration of our great tradition of generosity. You can help by spreading the word about the importance of giving back and joining in the conversation at givingtuesday.org, or on Twitter by following the hashtag #givingtuesday.