There is no limit to the number and variety of solicitations that come through the door during the holidays. Many are worthy, and all need money. But for families wishing to instill a spirit of giving in children, donating a tangible object is more personal and meaningful than writing a check. Whether you want to look locally or go global, these charities are particularly child-friendly at Christmastime:
--Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational Christian humanitarian organization that meets the needs of people suffering from war, poverty, disaster, disease, famine and persecution around the world. Hand delivering approximately 8 million gifts of toys and supplies to children in desperate circumstances, OCC is the world's largest Christmas project.
How it works: From now until Christmas, children, families, churches, schools, Scout troops, civic clubs and businesses will fill shoe boxes with gifts designated for girls and boys in specific age groups. Popular gifts include plush toys, balls, dolls, small model cars, coloring books and crayons and school supplies. And participants are encouraged to enclose personal notes to the children who will receive their gifts. Once the gifts arrive at their destination, Samaritan's Purse volunteers and partners distribute them by bus, train, helicopter, boat, elephant or any other mode of transportation.
To join in: OCC connects children with children, helping givers share the joy of Christmas in a personal way and providing hope and love to hurting children across the miles. To participate, visit http://www.samaritanspurse.org. You'll find instructions on packing a box (note that perishable foods and chocolate, liquids, breakables and war-related items are not included in OCC shipments), where to drop off boxes, how to order materials for your organization to participate as a group, and even how to make a donation online and "follow your box" across the world to its exact destination.
Wish list: OCC will accept any shoe box, cardboard or plastic, but plastic boxes have a secondary use at their destinations, as longer-lasting storage for supplies and food and as a way to carry water. Also, according to OCC community relations manager Rachel Mills, families may designate gifts for boys and girls ages 2-4 or 5-9, but the greatest need is for boxes filled for children ages 10-14. And consider including a toothbrush and toothpaste or soap and a washcloth. Kids are kids everywhere, Mills says, and they all like toys, but even these simple items are very welcome.
--Angel Tree, a project of Prison Fellowship, reaches out to children who are experiencing financial instability, material hardship, anger, hurt and frustration from having a parent behind bars. Individual families wishing to participate purchase gifts of clothing and toys, which are collected by churches, universities and charities and then given to children on behalf of incarcerated parents, who enclose personal messages to the children. Because of the distance between the prison and family home, the Christmas gift note is often one of their few connections all year.
The benefits are widespread and long-lasting. Studies show that if incarcerated parents can keep meaningful relationships with their families, they are much less likely to become repeat offenders, says Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley. The likelihood that children of prisoners will participate in crime themselves is reduced, too. And the gift givers establish connections with real families to support during the holidays, as well as afterward if they wish.
How it works: To learn more, visit http://www.angeltree.org, where you'll find the short "It Starts with a Gift" video, as well as descriptions of other year-round Prison Fellowship projects. To locate a participating Angel Tree group, call 800-55-ANGEL. You'll select a boy or a girl by age, buy a gift of clothing or a toy, and know that you encouraged an incarcerated parent and helped a lonely youngster feel loved and remembered at Christmas.
Wish list: "We always have more children to serve than we have churches that are serving," Earley says. "We need more churches, especially in underserved areas. In fact, only about 22 percent of the eligible children receive gifts. There is a great need." But if participation isn't an option for your church this year, consider making your own online donation. Every $11-$15 gift will ensure that one more child is remembered with a personal gift this year.
--Other ways to support vulnerable members of your community include local food pantries and the U.S. Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. Also, animal shelters and emergency hospitals need food, cleaning supplies and towels year-round.