The Spirit of Giving- ideas for meaningful gifts and being of service to others.

Meaningful Gifts – The Spirit of Giving in 2017 and Beyond

For the first 20 years of my life, my family and I were very much into the major holiday celebrations around Christmastime, including the tradition of gift giving. It was a lot of fun those years thinking of what to get for each person months ahead of time. Once I was in my mid 20s though, having not only lost several loved ones but also having traveled the world extensively, my thoughts on holiday gift giving shifted dramatically.

In my travels, I witnessed two extremes- that of people living in dire poverty, with barely a few spoons of rice per day, to that of the privileged few living in inconceivably gargantuan mansions with dozens of expensive cars whose values often exceeded that of the average American home.

This may or may not surprise you- I found some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met in the dire poverty situation. Conversely, I found some of the most unhappy, unkind people living in those mansions. Before I go on, I want to clearly state that this piece is not about deriding one way of life over another or painting the characters of one group of people through sweeping generalizations. I don’t prescribe to the belief that there is inherently anything wrong with living in luxury as long as you have honestly earned the money to do so. I also don’t believe there is some badge of honor in choosing to live in poverty when you have a choice to do otherwise (and yes, I have met such people).

This is about how I arrived at my brand of giving, the spirit I am today and how I hope my experiences will you reflect on what giving truly means to you.

With each passing year in my 20s, I found myself becoming less involved with holiday gifting, obviously not because I loved my family and friends less but because I found that most of them had what they needed, at least in a material sense. The few that “needed” certain things, well, I deeply enjoyed giving them gifts on their birthdays, which to me makes perfect sense because birthdays are about celebrating that particular person’s existence and life.

The holidays though? Eventually, I could not figure out what any religious holiday had to do with rushing to department stores, trampling other human beings and spending copious amounts of money just to purchase things.

By the time I was in my late 20s I had all together stopped gifting during any holidays and gleefully participated in giving gifts only on loved ones’ birthdays (which I do to this day). I created a new holiday tradition, that of being of service to those in need. The first few years, every Christmas I would cook up a storm at home and put together packaged meals in neat little take-out containers. The meals would vary every year, one year it was Chicken Fried Rice; another year it was Roasted Chicken and Veggies. Every year I would recruit family members, boyfriend, friends to help me bring those packages of home cooked meals along with bottled water and soft drinks to homeless people on the streets of whatever city I happened to be living in.

One year in San Francisco, the police were cracking down on anyone feeding homeless people (to this day I don’t understand why) so my group of family and friends and I dressed in black like ninjas, parked our cars in one downtown garage, hauled as many bags of the packaged meals and bottles as we could carry among us, hiding behind pillars and cars to avoid police seeing us and quickly distributed the meals to every homeless person we encountered until we ran out.

And ran out we did because there was never enough food to feed all of the homeless people we came across. I would end those nights with a mix of emotions- deep gratitude and humility for the opportunity to be of service however small it was, and choked back tears because I could not do enough to solve every homeless person’s hunger.

In more recent years in my 30s, I’ve changed the way we do our holiday giving. As much as I loved cooking for the homeless and giving them a nutritious hot meal on a day when much of the world is celebrating warm at home, a friend pointed out that we might better serve them by shifting to care packages instead of just that one meal.

It is easy to feel compassion for those suffering but more complex to truly empathize and understand what they endure on a daily basis. Once we’re able to strip away all the exterior differences, there are fundamental things all human beings share in common. We need food, shelter, basic clothing, a manner in which to deal with hygiene, and on another level, we all need love, purpose and a sense of relevancy in relation to our immediate world.

Once I realized all this, it became clear what the care packages should include (see end of article for ideas). The very things many of us take for granted every single day, such as having clean underwear, access to clean water for drinking and for self cleaning, for women, having access to sanitary napkins or tampons- these are all incredibly basic things many of us don’t even think about. Need a clean pair of socks? No problem, go to your closet. Hands dirty? No problem, go wash them at the sink. Need to pee or poo? Go to your bathroom. Women- have your period? Grab a pad or tampon.

Homeless people have none of these.

Even the ones who are lucky enough to gather a few bucks have to spend on food or cigarettes/alcohol to keep warm. Yes, next time you see a homeless person smoking or drinking alcohol even, don’t immediately jump to the wrong conclusion. In some cities temperatures at night get frigid. Both cigarettes and alcohol keep you warm. You wonder why they don’t just spend the few dollars they have on food? Food won’t matter if you freeze to death. For them, every penny collected is a balancing act of do I eat today or do I not freeze to death.

For those of you inspired to give of yourself this year or beyond, here are a few ideas I’ve implemented through the years.

1. Put together care packages for the homeless people where you live and each package you give out can be in the name of someone you love. Let the person you love know about it.

2. Make donations to a bunch of different charities, again, in the name of someone you love. For example, I’ve many friends who are animal lovers. I make individual contributions to their favorite animal charities. This doesn’t have to be large; whatever fits in your budget. For charities, literally every dollar counts.

3. Maybe you are really stuck on the idea of giving to your loved ones directly, and that’s fine. How about gifting experiences instead of useless things? You could treat them to a dinner at a nice restaurant, or a few months’ worth of movie passes for the movie buff in your life. For elderly people or new parents, the gift of house cleaning services or food delivery can be huge. Giving is about thinking outside the box and stretching to be as thoughtful and deliberate as you can be.

For me, the first two methods of giving hold multiple facets of beauty. Not only are we being of service to those in need but we do so in the name of someone we love, which makes us a conduit of love. Sound corny? Perhaps, but try it and don’t say I didn’t warn you about the tears and warm feelings resulting.

When I first began doing these methods of giving, friends heaped praise upon me, calling me “an angel” or “such a good person.” You’d think I’d enjoy these compliments but instead I felt guilty. While I strive to be a continually improving person with each passing day, when I’m giving to those in need, I don’t feel “angelic” or “good.” I feel the opposite, selfish, because I derive so much more from the giving than the receiving party could ever get from me.

December of 2015 I encountered a vision that will likely stay seared in my memory until my dying day. A middle aged man was lying in the middle of a downtown San Francisco street. He could have been sleeping or dead; we weren’t sure until we approached to give him a care package. As we walked away, I turned to look back at him and witnessed him ripping open the loaf of bread we’d included. He ate voraciously, clearly starving, perhaps, to death. Hot tears rolled down my face as I realized that he had probably been sleeping off the hunger and I suddenly felt profound shame, remembering how I had gotten cranky the previous week waiting for a friend who was late to dinner.

Another year I met a young woman, all of 20 years old who was soft spoken and as eloquent as a Barbara Walters. She was on her way to getting a college degree when her parents passed away in a car accident, leaving her with no other close family relatives willing to take her in, no life insurance on her parents and suddenly having to drop out of school to work a minimum wage job that was barely enough to cover food and gas for a car she once had.  She was grateful for the food and water, looked straight into my eyes as she thanked me in her gentle voice and it was I who had to turn away so she would not see my tears.

So no, I do not feel angelic or good. I take perverse pleasure in extracting humility and gratitude from these experiences of helping people, who in reality, help me far more than I can them, by reminding me to never lose my compassion and humanity, by reminding me just how damned fortunate I am not in spite of but because of the kind of difficulties I have endured.

The act of giving of ourselves turns out to be far more profoundly rewarding than I had ever imagined and even though I still feel selfish, then let that feeling be channeled in a manner that can help others in some way, however small or big.

***Special Thank You: For this past holiday season of December 2016, a very big thank you to the KIND company for generously donating several hundred snack bars, which truly help provide desperately needed nutrition to homeless people who rarely have whole or hot meals. I’ve been a fan of KIND for years now and was thrilled to hear they would be one of our supporting partners this past holiday season.

Care Package Ideas:

  • Undergarments (underwear, regular shirts, bras, socks)
  • Sweaters/sweatshirts (made of material that lasts a long time)
  • Sanitary products for women
  • Bottles of water and vitamin-infused juices/drinks (water is surprisingly the one item homeless people almost never get to have)
  • Loaves of whole grain bread
  • Packages of vitamin packed bars, cookies and snacks (think KIND bars, Oreos, butter crackers, etc.- these are high calorie and help sustain energy)
  • Sanitary wipes or hand sanitizers
  • Flashlights
  • Low cost cell phones with prepaid minutes (you can get these at Walgreens, Walmart, etc. and for some homeless people can mean all the difference between staying homeless or calling a loved one for help)
  • Books/coloring books/magazines (there are a lot of daylight hours with nothing to do for homeless people who need HOPE and who need to feel any connection to the world outside of their nightmare; these items help destress and keep them in touch with reality, preventing the downward spiral into mental illness in some cases)
  • Nail clippers
  • Combs/hair brushes
  • Bus tickets/train tickets (these can often help them get to where family members live in other cities who are willing to take them in but can’t afford to or have no way of sending money)

If any of you have other great ideas to include in care packages or would like to share your own giving experiences, I’d love to hear from you.