The do-gooder holiday gift guide 2015

US & World News


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(CNN) — It’s that giving time of year, when chain stores and downtown districts hang up their Christmas ornaments to convince us to buy an endless list of presents for our loved ones.

Do you feel a disconnect this year?

Buying lots of stuff may seem at odds with the suffering of those who have nothing or are struggling to live their lives in peace.

Instead of denying the suffering, why not focus on doing some good? Whatever your traditions, it’s never a bad time to make the world a better place. Think about your family, chosen community, faith, beliefs about helping others and struggles that move you, and do something for people near or far away.

CNN’s Do-Gooder Holiday Gift Guide will help you make the word a better place. You don’t have to fix the entire world in one holiday season; just pick one concern to start.

Here are some of our favorites this year.

Refugee services

Welcoming people who need asylum is definitely in line with the theme of the season. In a nation of immigrants, you can find many groups that have been doing this work for decades. One is the U.S. branch of the European-based International Rescue Committee. The U.S. office was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, and it’s still hard at work helping refugees.

Want to build bridges and meet the people you’re helping? Volunteer in one of the committee’s 26 resettlement offices across the United States, or find a local nonprofit to help. Global Growers, for instance, helps refugee farmers and U.S.-born low-income farmers in the Atlanta area.

Cross cultural lines

Consider the gift of a book about someone whose life experience differs from yours. There’s no book report due. Our suggestion is to take into account someone else’s perspective and not automatically challenge it because it’s not a familiar experience.

I am not African-American, a refugee or Muslim, so I picked “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called a “a searing meditation on what it means to be black today” by the New York Times. For more on the refugee experience, try Warren St. John’s “Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.” To better understand Islam, how about “No god but God” by Reza Aslan?

Veteran’s services

Hate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or think they were exactly the right military moves? Either way, U.S. service members and veterans are coming home wounded in body, mind and spirit, and they need your help. Consider donating to the Fisher House Foundation, which has homes near military and VA medical centers across the country. Families stay at the homes for free while their military or veteran family members are receiving treatment.

Feed people

More than 48 million Americans live in households in which getting three meals a day isn’t always guaranteed, including 32.8 million adults (4.6 million are seniors) and 15.3 million children, according to Feeding America.

As you shop for groceries this holiday season, cut a check to Meals on Wheels or your local food bank or homeless assistance program. The Meals on Wheels network delivers 1 million meals a day to homebound seniors, serving 2.5 million seniors annually. (About 500,000 of them are housebound veterans.) Visits by the network’s 2 million volunteers and staff also serve as safety checks for housebound seniors. But thousands more are on waiting lists.

Teach your child to be giving

No doubt kids are excited about getting gifts during this time of year, but they’ll get a lot more in the long run by thinking of others. Start with family: They can make presents for their parents, siblings and whichever relatives are coming to visit. They can also put aside part of their allowances to give to causes near to their hearts. (At my house, we have “spend,” “save” and “gift” allowance jars, and the gift jar is going to a local pet rescue.)

Give experiences

Rather than buying stuff, consider spending money on an experience you can share with beloved family or friends. How about tickets to a basketball game with your future WBNA star daughter or seats with your future pop star to his favorite band? Or a vacation to the place where you met your wife? Schedule a free hike at a nearby state park, and pack a picnic lunch. These kinds of gifts help you feel closer to others, according to San Francisco State University psychology professor Ryan Howell.

You can still buy stuff

Patronize your local stores, school and religious arts and crafts fairs, and stores that support artisans around the world. Buy a World Vision goat or a Heifer International cow and change a family’s life, or adopt a Farm Sanctuary farm animal to make a vegetarian or vegan happy.

Simply getting a family member a gift they really want could be an act of kindness, so ask them what they want!

Don’t give to a cause they hate

We repeat this “giving don’t” this year because it never gets old. Don’t deliberately give to a cause you know a family member despises in their name. No passive-aggressive gifts. And no books about dating, losing weight or dumping that loser husband — unless they’ve asked for them. Bite your tongue, give those donations on your own time, and give yourself a book on not telling other people what to do. (Yes, we can see potential irony here!)

Reduce your footprint

Consider all the stuff you have and the stuff you need. Do you need more, or do you actually need less than you already have? There are different ways to experiment with living better with less stuff. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Japanese organizer Marie Kondo is a personal favorite. Her KonMari method for reducing the clutter in your closet is magical.

Want to keep the clutter from coming back into your house and taking over your life again? That’s where Scott Dannemiller’s book, “Year Without a Purchase,” comes into play. First proposed by Dannemiller’s wife, Gabby, a “stuff fast” helped get rid of the distraction of physical things and allowed them to focus on who they wanted to be as a family.

The goal isn’t really to spend less, Dannemiller says, although that will happen. It’s to learn what’s important in your life. In his case, it’s all about focusing on their family mission statement, which is written on a piece of art hanging on a wall in their house.

Wait. A family mission statement?

That’s right. The Dannemillers, who have two children, know who they want to be as a family. Former corporate types who spent a year as Presbyterian missionaries in Guatemala, they say their mission is “to tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to build a world without need.”

You don’t need to be Christian missionaries or followers of any faith to give yourself and your family the gift of a family mission statement. “A way to start is to come up a list of three to five things you truly value,” Dannemiller said.

“Any time we’ve got a tough decision, we have that accountability on the wall,” he said. “Making the vision statement visible helps to hold you to it.”

Baby steps, please

That sounds like too much to you? How about taking the small step of focusing your intentions this holiday season? Try asking yourself these questions as we head into December: “Who do I want to be today?” “Are my actions today helping me fulfill that intention?” If not, “what can I do differently?”

Don’t freak out. This exercise can be fun, especially in my house when we decide our intention — at least for the day — is to spread happiness through frying and baking. It’s incredibly delicious, and it feels joyful when we do it.

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