WickedEye's Quotient

12/05/2009 at 06:56

Grown-up Gift Lists: e-Cards, Body Balm, Heifers and Chocolate

With the advent of Black Friday and the mad stampede of those who nurse a secret passion for melee warfare (please don't kid me that the feeding frenzy spurred by the chum of Black Friday deals is anything else), those of us less inclined to physical battle go online for our gifts.

This also, not coincidentally, marks the beginning of the “season of giving”—a time when many pay far more attention to the marginalized and less fortunate than they do during the rest of the year. So this is also a great time for paying attention to organizations who do wonderful work, desperately need money, and offer either products or tokens of remembrance which make wonderful gifts. Everyone wins—you, your gift recipient, and others in need of help.

Thusly, I present for your delectation a list of organizations (in no particular order) which do extremely valuable work, and which offer appealing merchandise and/or commemorations. Please consider them as possibilities for your gift-giving this holiday season.

1. Magdalene House.
This is an organization which provides a 2-year, residential rehabilitation program for prostitutes. I've written about Magdalene before; it is extraordinary. The women it serves usually start life with every possible disadvantage, and their stories—told without an ounce of self-pity—are literally enough to make rooms full of upper-middle-class, rather self-satisfied, people weep.

Its success rate is remarkable, both because it is run with intelligence and discipline and because the program (unlike other 2- and 4-monthers of its kind) relies not on religious or other indoctrination but on a 2-year long program of education, therapy and job training. The program is dedicated to giving these women the tools with which to realize that they have something worth giving to a world which has treated them as worthless—and the skills with which to give it.

Their shop is called Thistle Farms, and its products—candles, bath oils, lotions, and other such products—are handmade by the residents of Magdalene House, out of the highest-quality ingredients. I both use them and give them as gifts (their Citrus Vanilla scent is a particular favorite). They're a wonderful value, the equal of anything I've ever purchased at The Body Shop, and a great deal better than Bath and Body Works products, both of which retail for the same prices.
Indulge your (or your recipients') senses and soul here: http://www.thistlefarms.org/inventory

On the off chance that you don't know what the United Nations' Children's Fund does, it is the biggest financial source for help—whether nutritional, educational, residential or medical—to children in every country in the world. Founded after World War II to help children in regions devastated by the War, dedicated to the welfare of the children it serves and to an avoidance of political affiliation, it has continued its work for more than 50 years.

I personally buy the Christmas/holiday cards almost every year, and generally send them to my favorite people (forget Hallmark; for greeting cards, UNICEF is the very best). Many of the cards' designs are based on art created by children whom the fund has helped; the gifts are a lovely selection of items from jewelry to calendars, all based on designs by people who have benefited from the program (both child and adult). It is an exotic collection, lovely and vivid, and when one considers prices for similar items in specialty boutiques and even department stores, the items in it represent a wonderful value.
Send the very best from here: http://www.shopcardsandgifts.unicefusa.org/

3. Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)
As the wording of the name implies, Doctors Without Borders was founded by a group of French doctors with the goal of providing medical care to persons without access, regardless of race, sex, religion, or political boundaries. The organization of the group is a model of associative decision-making, and their funding is without governmental or political influence (80% of their funding comes from private donors, much of it in the form of volunteer work by medical professionals).

MSF's accomplishments are legion; they rehabilitate infrastructure and train personnel as well as staffing clinics and providing emergency care. It also works with local authorities to provide clean water and sanitation; indeed, in many regions of Africa they remain the only source of medical care, food, and water. These and other accomplishments were acknowledged by 1999's Nobel Peace Prize.

Because of their adamant refusal to ally with any commercial or governmental entity, they do not offer products in commemoration of donation, but acknowledge donations on behalf of others with both e-cards and letters.
Make more borders vanish here: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/donate/

4. Adopt-A-Classroom.
This organization is very nearly unique in my experience; its time and expertise are all donated, and it sends 100% of your gift to the teacher of your choice. It is aptly named; you may choose a classroom on the basis of personal knowledge of need (fill in the name of the school and teacher to whom you'd like your donation sent), or look at classrooms in various areas (including your place of residence—I picked a classroom in the population-of-2,000 village of DeSoto, IL this year), or allow Adopt-a-Classroom to choose for you. Given the fact that education in America is desperately (and I do mean desperately) underfunded, and that (horribly underpaid) teachers spend an average of $1,200 of their own money on classroom materials every year, this is one of the best ideas I've heard in ages.

Though the organization itself recognizes donors only, the teachers who receive donations have their classes send cards or letters or drawings to the donors and their gift recipients, who are welcome to visit the classrooms if they choose. Any amount you send will be welcome—and used for classroom supplies.
Books, crayons, and posters ahoy! The voyage starts here: http://www.adoptaclassroom.com/adoption/

5. Modest Needs.
This (aptly named) organization is a small charity which helps low-income but self-sufficient families and individuals, and non-profit organizations, with one-time grants of financial assistance—sums of less than $200. They use the funds to help families defray sudden, unexpected expenses—unusually high heating bills, trips to the doctor, auto repair—which might otherwise cause them to fall below the poverty line financially or through loss of work. They also offer payment to the creditors of community organizations whose programs can be broadened because of the lessened financial burden.

The micro-loan concept (a misnomer, since often the funds are not meant to be repaid), first applied in Third World countries, finds a well-run and compassionately administered home here. Though the organization runs on only $24,000 a year, they were able to fund only 7% of the grant applications they received last year; they need funds, and yours will be very well-used. The founder said that his main goal is “providing a vehicle for human kindness”. This one runs soundly, and with your help, can go further. The site allows you to create “gift certificates” to send to those in whose name you're donating.
Modest Needs' vehicle for human kindness fuels up here: http://www.modestneeds.org/donation/

6. Southern Poverty Law Center.
This organization was started as a small civil rights firm in Birmingham, AL in 1971, by one of my personal heroes, Morris Dees. It offers free legal services to victims of discrimination and hate crimes (largely the latter), and monitors the activity of more than 200 extremist groups (including Aryan Nation and the Klu Klux Klan). Its Intelligence Project offers training for law enforcement officials, including an online course on hate crimes; its Teaching Tolerance program provides free classroom kits to teachers, both for childrens' and teachers' use (the latter primarily with its Teaching Diverse Populations toolkit).

One can judge the Center's success at shutting down and calling attention to the activities of hate groups by the number of times hate group members have been convicted for plans to firebomb or destroy the Center's buildings—or to assassinate Dees and his associates (30 different people; firebombing succeeded once, as did an assassination).

The SPLC does not receive any portion of its clients' judgments, but instead is funded by private donations. You can send e-cards to those in whose name you're donating.
Fund a source of tolerance and justice here: https://secure.splcenter.org/donate/online/

7. The Heifer Project.
This is a simple and elegant concept, and like so many others of its type, a very effective one. Only a farmer, I think, could have realized the amount of difference that owning a single (livestock) animal can make in terms of sustenance for a family; only a person who'd volunteered in relief work and dealt with the frustration of allocating scarce food could have realized what that difference could mean for poor, rural families. Dan West, the farmer who founded the program in the 1930s, was both.

Heifer International provides region-appropriate livestock as well as tree seedlings and training in sustainable farming. Its program requires that recipients donate some female offspring of their livestock to other families they know who are in need, who will then undergo training and donate other animals, and so on. In this way, entire communities can become self-sustaining. It is a beautifully simple concept, one that has been effective in over 125 countries for more than 75 years.

The site allows you to send e-cards and print gift notice cards: there is also an option of personalizing your Christmas cards with special Heifer International themes on Shutterfly, or to order gift cards to be mailed directly to you as you donate.
Give a community llamas (or geese, or cows, or...) here: http://www.heifer.org/site/

8. Human Rights Watch.
The first step in addressing a problem is realizing that one exists; and it's there that HRW comes in. Founded in order to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki accords, it's stuck with its highly effective policy of “name and shame” ever since.

HRW's mandate is research into human rights violations, including identification of root causes, means of perpetuation both domestic and foreign, and aggravating factors both internal and external. The same set of criteria is brought to bear on every country and every possible rights violation: unlawful imprisonment, torture, genocide, persecution.

Their reports are published and disseminated to governments, treaty organizations, major NGOs... in other words, any entity with possible power over or an interest in rights violations. Their reports are lengthy and detailed, including analyses of political, economic, social, and historical backgrounds of conflicts and abuses—scholarly and thoroughly documented research, which is often published in academic journals. They are the free press of human rights organizations: the ones who recognize, analyze, document, and report problems.

Your recipients can be informed via e-card of gifts made in their honor.
Fund recognition of rights gone wrong here: https://www.kintera.org/site/c.nlIWIgN2JwE/b.4546833/k.471F/Give_a_Gift_in_Someones_Honor

9. Habitat for Humanity.
This organization has built more than 300,000 houses in its 33 years of operation (the 300,000th was in Collier County, FL and the 300,001st was in Zacapa, Guatemala). Volunteers and future homeowners construct the houses Habitat builds; the homeowners repay mortgages for the cost of construction, with no interest—and their payments are used to build other Habitat houses. As with many wonderfully simple ideas, this one works beautifully.

Habitat is one of the highest-profile nonprofits in the US; it has an enormous amount of support from corporations, celebrities, and the general populace. I'm not recommending it because it's desperately in need of money; I'm recommending it because human beings need places to live, and as fast as Habitat builds, there are never enough homes to meet the demand. I'm recommending it because the simple dignity of owning the place in which you sleep—in having a stake in the place in which you live and a specific part in the lives of your neighbors—is one of the best, and least accessible, ways of building families and communities. Habitat builds houses, yes. And lives, for the people who build them, live in them, and surround them.

HFH's site has a store with merchandise from soup cups to stationery to stepstools; all profits go to Habitat.
Build and bestow here: http://www.habitatstoreonline.com/

10. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.
Begun by an NYC court clerk in 1904, this is one of the oldest continually-operated charities in America. It is also one of the most highly rated and successful—and, in my view, unique. Many programs are able to give a great deal of help, much of it invaluable—as witness the rest of this list. But this is the oldest of very few organizations that support the establishment of one-to-one relationships between people who need help and people who give it—in the most potent form possible, that of sharing parts their lives and selves.

This is the most direct response to human need, the currency in which we deal with other human beings on the most basic level. We are social animals, and we learn by watching and by doing. Big Brothers Big Sisters knows that, and that the best and most lasting way to learn a lesson is to have a teacher focused on giving a single student whatever s/he most needs—whether that's arithmetic, or valuing oneself and others enough to make good choices. The organization works in every one of the 50 states, offers its services upon request and free of any charge, and thoroughly vets its volunteers. It is the first mentoring program, and it is also a model of its kind.

'Tribute' donations are acknowledged by a card sent from the organization to your gift recipient.
Contribute to the socialization of young humans here: 

Note: All of these organizations' 'vital stats' can be checked on Charity Navigator at http://www.charitynavigator.org/ .

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