Giving Well to Those in Need, This Christmas

In Acts 20:35, the apostle Paul tells us, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said:  ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”  

At this time of year, it’s not difficult to find a place to give.  There are toy drives, food drives, and clothing drives galore.  I’ll bet each of us have given to one of these causes at least a few times in our lives.  But, have you ever really stopped to think about what and how it is that you are giving?

If you’ve never really been in a place of need, it can be difficult to know.

Until our family went through tough financial times, I never fully understood how to best help meet the needs of “the weak” – the homeless, the jobless, low-income wage earners, or those who are just plain down on their luck.  Now that we’ve experienced a few bouts of unemployment, including a couple that took place during the Christmas season (yep, that was us, just last year), I feel like I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of charitable giving, and it has opened my eyes to how I can be a much better giver. 

So, If you’re looking for ways to be a better giver, this year, stay tuned as I share a few of the lessons I’ve learned during our time of need.  I hope they will inspire you to think a little differently about your giving and make a great impact in the lives of those you bless through your giving, this year.

Wooden Christmas ornament

Head back with me to a time not too long ago, when my husband, Matt was out of work.  There was very little money coming in, and because we owned too many assets (more than one car and our wedding rings), we couldn‘t qualify for food stamps –we literally didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.  Thankfully, someone pointed us to a local food pantry where we could go, weekly, to stock up on food.  Available at the pantry were  fresh produce “seconds”, and whatever else had been donated from the community that week.  It was set up like a grocery store, which was lovely, because we were able to pick and choose from the different foods that were offered.  It was my first experience having to rely on this type of assistance, and I have to say (I hope this doesn’t sound snobby) I was greatly disappointed in the types of foods that were available, which are probably your standard run of the mill at any pantry, things like Spam, Vienna Sausages, and — ewww — sardines. Okay, maybe those were the worst of the worst, and maybe there are people who actually enjoy those types of foods, but – ugh.  Here I was, a mom striving to feed her family with healthy, wholesome, real  food during a time when we had no health insurance, and literally couldn’t afford to get sick.  It was frustrating  to find so much junk, and I do mean JUNK at that pantry.  Week after week I brought home less than a third of the foods that were made available to us.  I know that the people who gave had wonderful intentions, and really thought that they were helping poor families, like mine, who were in need, but –don’t you agree? —  We can do better.

How do we do that?  Well, here are just a few suggestions I’ve come up with to help get the ball rolling…

  • specifically set aside some time to shop for the project — don’t just quickly grab whatever’s leftover in your cupboard or pantry (especially if it’s about to expire!)
  • don’t just buy whatever’s cheapest or on sale at the store — determine to give high quality foods, regardless of the price
  • only give foods that you’d enjoy eating, yourself (even if sardines are one of your favorites, you should probably think twice about donating them to a food drive ;))
  • purchase high-quality foods that are nutritionally sound, with as few ingredients on the label as possible
  • purchase organic foods, when possible
  • give items that can be used to help make a fresh, healthy meal, as opposed to items that already are the meal
  • better yet, create and give a food gift basket:  organic flour, baking powder,  salt, baking soda,  organic sugar, pure maple syrup and instructions for making your favorite pancakes, or:  jarred organic tomatoes, organic tomato sauce, dried herbs,  salt, organic sugar, cooking wine, onions, garlic, dried organic pasta and instructions for making a homemade spaghetti meal — now you’re talkin’!
  • If you must give boxed or canned meals, try to make them the organic varieties.  They are much more nutritionally sound, and don’t have all of the icky preservatives and chemicals that their conventional counterparts contain.
  • give luxury items, like local, organic honey, pure maple syrup, organic jams and jellies and nut butters, organic, free-range chicken stock, specialty organic coffees and teas,  100% fruit juice, and non-dairy milks, like almond or rice milk, that don’t need to be refrigerated.
  • think outside the can and instead give dry beans, and peas, which taste much better when made fresh, and won’t have any preservatives or excess salt.
  • give produce that has a long shelf life, like onions, garlic, and winter squashes
  • For healthy treats, again, think about the gift basket idea, and give ingredients for making homemade quick breads, muffins, or cookies, instead of the boxed varieties.  Give popcorn kernels, instead of the unhealthy microwave variety, organic fruit snacks and protein bars that are made with fruit juices and whole grains, as opposed to ones with high fructose corn syrup, grains that have been stripped of all their nutrients, and are loaded with other fats and hydrogenated oils.
  • Give a wide variety of healthy grains, like Old Fashioned and steel-cut Oats, as opposed to quick oats, Pearled rice, as opposed to the converted variety; Pearled barley and farro and maybe even Quinoa (which reminds me – there are probably going to be some people who are gluten intolerant, so you could even include some gluten-free flours in your giving)
  • give common staples that people quickly run out of – vegetable oil (grapeseed or walnut is best), organic sugar, organic flour, real vanilla extract, garlic powder, onion powder, various herbs and spices, salt, pepper, beans, toiletries — think about the items you are continually running out of, and purchase a few extras to donate, the next time you go to the store.
  • find out what you can about the types of people who will be served by the food drive.  What ethnicity are they?  What are their ages?  Are they families, or individuals?  The more you know about who the food is going to, the better you can tailor your purchases.

Now, can I challenge you to even go beyond this?  Giving to a food drive is a wonderful way to give, but can be cold and impersonal.  If you want to take your giving up a notch, get involved with a local charity or church that works directly with individuals or families and give specifically and directly through them.

In our case, last year, an anonymous donor from the community dropped off a stack of gift cards at our church and specifically asked that they all be given to a family who was in need.  I can’t tell you how blessed we were to receive those gift cards!  To this day, we do not know who the giver was, but it was such an incredibly personal gesture!  We spent time, as a family, praying for, thanking, and asking God to bless whoever it was that gave us such a amazing gifts – allowing us to have presents under our tree on Christmas Day.

So, this Christmas season, why not go beyond dropping coins in a bucket,  and toys or cans of food in a box, and instead go out of your way and find someone – some family – who is in need,  and then surprise them with your targeted giving?   — A word about anonymous giving…I understand why people want to do this, but if it is at all possible, let the recipient know who the gift is from, even if it’s just “Mr./Mrs. So and So”, or “The _______ Family”.  A name or picture is important – so that the recipient can thank you,  even if only in their prayers.

At a loss for what to give?   Here are a few suggestions…

  •  A gift card to a local grocery or specialty food store.    Grocery store gift cards were a welcome sight for us when Matt was out of work because they allowed us more freedom when it came to food.  Instead of being relegated to whatever  unappealing food was at the food pantry, it put us more in control of our food choices, and we were able to eat more “normally” once again — that was a big deal for us, as it will be for anyone else who is struggling to put food on their table.
  • Gift cards to restaurants.  I can’t tell you how incredibly amazing it is to get to eat out when all you’ve been eating are beans and rice for days on end!
  • Gift cards to department or toy stores.  Again, there’s just something about being able to go out and do the Christmas shopping yourself.  It creates a sense of normalcy that you just don’t get when other people do the shopping for you.
  • Gift cards for pure pleasure or entertainment.  When you’re barely scraping by, the last thing you’re going to spend your money on are pleasure items, like gourmet coffees and movies.  Movie tickets and coffee shop gift cards work wonders because they force the recipient to take a break and just relax for a bit, and they allow them to fully indulge in the pleasures of the season, without feeling guilty that they are robbing their family of other necessities.  (insider alert:  cash is great, but probably won’t be used on pleasure items, even if you say, “Now I want you to promise me that you’ll spend this money on something indulgent for yourself — it’ll probably be put towards paying the electric or gas bill).
  • make a payment on one of the family or individual’s bills: telephone, gas, electric, maybe even their mortgage.  One year we came home to find our propane tank filled completely to the brim by an anonymous donor!
  • provide wood to heat with
  • give a “date night” for the parents, including dinner at a fancy restaurant and a movie with all of the trimmings.  Typically, we think about the children who are going without this time of year, and we fail to remember that the parents are struggling, too.   They are the ones who are having to hold everything together and be strong for their children.  They are the ones who sacrifice it all to give what little they have to their children so that they can have even just a little Christmas.  A night out alone will do wonders for couples who are struggling financially and need time to just focus on each other, for a change.
  • give gas cards so the individual or family can get around town, or bus passes if they don’t have a car

…Are you starting to get the idea?

Well, don’t stop there!  Dig in a little deeper, step out of your comfort zone, and really commit to this giving well thing:  Get involved, long term, with a person or family who is in need.  This goes beyond just giving money, food, or gifts.  It involves the giving of your time.  When people aren’t working, they have a lot of time on their hands.  They get lonely.  They need contact with the outside world, since they are no longer participating in many of the ordinary, daily things that the rest of the world is participating in this time of year,  like Christmas shopping and decorating their homes, and baking Christmas cookies, and …the list goes on and on.  I loved it when people would show up at our home with a bag of groceries, or a home-baked meal, or a sack of cookies, and then stay and visit for a while, and ask us how we were doing, and pray for us, or when people would invite us over to their homes to have dinner and spend the evening with them, or make a batch of homemade cookies or jelly that we could take home with us.  Those were times that we’ll never forget!

Taking time to show people that you truly care about their well-being – beyond just the giving of your finances – is priceless!

The Bible tells us that we are to mourn with those who mourn – we are to enter into the pain of others – empathize with them…love them in a way that is unexpected.  It can be as simple and free as a conversation, or as complex and expensive as a gourmet dinner invitation.  If you’ve never done it before, this year get out of your comfort zone and, as Nike says, Just Do It!  Give of yourself, bless someone with your presence.  

So, this year, let’s all be excellent givers when it comes to giving to the needy.  Let’s make a difference in someone’s life by giving well, this Christmas season.  Truth is…we’ll probably never be the same!

Have you been on the receiving end of excellent giving when you were in a time of need?  Do you have special ways that you like to give to the needy, this time of year? I’d love to hear your story.  Have  some other great “giving well” tips or suggestions?  Please share!

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