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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Day of Giving

This year at the Carver Thanksgiving we had a family conversation about Christmas and having, giving and appreciation.   I was sitting there realizing that in many ways I prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because the focus in on spending time together, rather than on mountains of gifts.  We all agreed that none of us needed anything and that our kids have so much stuff that we don't know where to put it all.  All the adults were concerned about how much the kids love to receive and that they don't always know how to really appreciate what they have.  

I like giving my kids gifts, don't get me wrong.  Whether right or wrong, it is an amazing feeling as a parent to create a Christmas morning full of surprises that lives up to a child's hopes and dreams.  However, I also have a true need for Christmas to be more than about gifts and managing credit card statements.  I need for there to be meaning and depth, awareness and appreciation, goodness and love.  

A few years ago we began a tradition with my side of the family to make Christmas gifts to exchange.  This brought a new level of mindfulness to our Christmas celebration and involved the kids directly in the giving.  I like how this has transformed our traditional celebrating and focused us more on time spent together and being generous in spirit rather than an over focus on what, for the love of everything holy, is inside that wrapped box.  Our families have exchanged homemade doll quilts, fleece blankets, scarves, photo gifts and one year I got the best wooden helicopter from my nephew. 

So this year we decided to do something a little different with Sandi's side of the family, especially to better help shape the minds of the children.  We decided to do a family Day of Giving.  Sandi and the girls and I did this as part of a different local group a few years ago and not only was it great fun, it was also deeply touching to our kids to experience directly giving to people in need.  (A massive shout out to the Bangor Elves for the inspiration and for all your amazing and wide-reaching generosity!).   

We are generous people but to our children, most of our giving is rather abstract.  We talk about the kids who don't have toys and encourage them to donate their toys to these unseen, unknown children (and they have done this all their lives) but the loop is never really closed.  All they see is me take their donations and put them in my car and they forget about it.  They know we write out checks for different charities but there is nothing for them to relate to in that.  

We tried to focus our family Day of Giving around fulfilling true local needs as well as just spreading good cheer.  Ella and I came up with the idea to make gift bags for the people at the homeless shelters.  Calls to the adult and teen shelters in our areas let us know that the items these folks most need are personal hygiene items.  So, as part of homeschool, we made a lengthy and multi-cart trip to the local Dollar Store to purchase enough items to fill 58 bags.  Ella helped me count and add 58 tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, pairs of socks, gloves or hats, Chapstick, deodorant, ear plugs and of course, some candy.  

What a wonderful lesson that day was.  It made me love homeschool.  It would be impossible to categorize and compute all that was learned and, to me, that is the essence of homeschool.   

Brevan and Ella sorted the stuff into piles so we could fill the bags assembly line style.  

The checklist

It was so heartwarming to hear the two of them talking as they worked.

"Oh someone will love to get these!"
"This girl is going to get the cherry Chapstick AND this yummy lotion."
"I wonder how long this toothpaste will last."
"Is it okay to put a few more pieces of chocolate in this bag since it seems kind of small?"

I was SO proud of these kids.  They worked nonstop for 2 hours.

The next day we made our way to the Bangor Homeless Shelter and the kids actually got to hand out some of the bags to the folks who were there having lunch.  They were so proud to do it and the people were so gracious and thankful in receiving them.

Now I tell you all of this not because we want any sort of props or kudos for it.  I tell you because it meant so much to us and, more importantly, to our children.  If you are combating some entitlement and material demands from your children this time of year, or any time for that matter, this physical involvement in giving is profound. 

No parent wants to hear their child say, "Is that all?" when they are given a present.  And what I have found is that even though we have taught our kids not to utter these vile words, what we really wanted was to change their entire way of thinking.  No small task.

We have spent so much time actively sheltering our girls from much of the harshness of the world, sometimes to their benefit and sometimes to their detriment.  We have certainly tried to teach about people being less fortunate and of sharing when you have all and more than you need.  We have always been a family to donate but I think in some ways by not directly involving them we have done them a disservice.  They are old enough now.   It did them so well to have a day that wasn't about them, where they didn't ask for anything or get anything.  It was so real to them to understand that some people don't have a roof over their heads, a family or even their own tube of toothpaste.  

Giving feels so very, very good.   And it is just plain fun. 

The rest of our Day of Giving was made up of a random acts of generosity.  We had made up about 50 bags with some candy and a note sending love and happy holidays to people and gave them out.  We took about 10 of those bags and put in half a roll of quarters and gave them out at a laundry mat.   The kids took around a bag of small toys and stuffed animals and gave them to other kids they saw.  We all shopped for items from a couple of angel trees and some general donations to another local agency for the homeless.  

We focused much of our time at one local store where we felt people who are trying to stretch their dollars might be shopping.  We gave out gift cards to the store to people in line.  One woman was so touched she began to cry and told me that recently her food stamps had been decreased by $170 a month and she was struggling.  When I wished her a Merry Christmas she told me that she appreciated our kindness so much because she was alone on Christmas now that her mother had died.  I felt such compassion for this woman, such gratitude for my busy, messy, chocker-block-full-of-love life and a certain level of shame that I would ever take a speck of it for granted (even when keeping up with feeding and doing the laundry of 4 people is a bit much).  

It is very humbling to buy for people who need diapers, clothing, a bouncy seat for their infant.  Specifically for Maya, we shopped for a 4-year-old who adored Elsa (from Frozen) and wanted anything Elsa to open on Christmas morning.  Maya also adores Elsa and covets the same things.  It was so touching to watch both our girls get excited for what they could give this little girl.  It was something they could so deeply relate to.  

I took the girls with me to drop off the Elsa dress, shoes and magic wand and we talked about how happy this would make this child.  They gratitude from the staff at the agency who received the gift was so heartfelt and I know my kids left feeling good about what they had done.  

That night Jingles hid in one of our goody bags.  (Please try to get past the asphyxiation worry here.)

Giving at this level felt so good I found that it was all I wanted to do.  When I was out shopping, I wanted to pay for the groceries of the person next to me and buy a new winter coat for someone else whose coat looked worn.  Like anything, generosity is its own habit.  

Without a doubt, this day will be one of the best of our holiday season and will become a new family tradition. What you give matters less than that you give.   Buy a stranger's coffee.  Give a homeless person a pair of warm gloves.  It doesn't have to cost a lot.  What I learned most from this experience it that the best way to teach kids generosity and gratitude is to involve them directly.   I was amazed by how this experience impacted them.   

Whether your arms are around a person or a hot cup of tea, may you spend more with your heart and less with your credit card, may you find some light and warmth in this cold, dark season and may you love and be loved.  May you find the movie "Elf" as funny this year as in every year before.  If you celebrate love and light or the baby Cheez-its, may your heart be filled enough to share.   Merry Christmas to you all!

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