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8 ways to help someone in need

Last year around this time, I read a blog post about how to help homeless people. It gave a list of items they could use, like soap and combs and toothbrushes and washcloths, and suggested carrying Subway gift certificates and a list of agencies that help homeless people in your car. I wanted to put bags together and take them to my local shelter, but with a 1 year old and a 3 year old, I didn’t have time. I donated to Heifer International instead, and it was gratifying to give half a goat to a family in need, but this year I wanted to do something more hand’s on and to get my children involved, too. Now four years old, my son is old enough to understand that it’s important to give to others and not just buy toys and gifts for ourselves and each other.

So I googled shelters in Berkeley. I found the Berkeley Women’s Shelter, and I called. I asked the director if my list of items would be useful (Yes, she said, and added a couple of items). Then I sent an e-mail out to friends asking for donations. Many of them dropped bags of toothbrushes and shampoo and wash cloths on my porch over the following week. One friend enlisted her other friends to make donations, and we quickly had two toys for each child at the shelter. Then Sunday of this week I spent the day making soaps (our latest family craft project obsession) and English Toffee. My son helped put twisty ties on the snack bags and dropped one in each gift bag. He was more excited about this project than I expected. He asked me to “give him another job,” so I handed him a bag of travel-sized conditioners and shampoos and asked him to put one of each in every one of 28 gift bags. He was very proud that he could tell the two apart (“The conditioner has the black top and the shampoo has the white top”). He took his job very seriously and asked for another as soon as he had finished. He was disappointed that one of the kids was going to get Transformer toothpaste when he is stuck with Sponge Bob, but he was excited to donate four of his (least favorite) spaceship soaps to the kids.

Thursday we will deliver the bags. I plan to take the kids with me (or at least my son because my two-year-old daughter has no idea what’s going on and will probably drop half-eaten oranges into the bags before we drop them off). Dropping them at the office won’t be as gratifying as hand-delivering them, but I don’t think we’ll be allowed access to the residents. And that’s what charity is all about—giving without receiving anything back. It’s more fun to see the smile on your daughter’s face when you give her that doll house, or the excitement of your son when he rides his new bike for the first time, but we have to imagine what it means to people who get nothing on Christmas Day (or for Hanukkah, or whatever holiday they celebrate), who can’t just go out and buy whatever food they feel like eating for dinner every night, who don’t have a room of their own let alone a house or a car or a computer.

Here are a few ways you can help someone in need this holiday season:

1. Like I mentioned above, Heifer International is a fantastic organization. Their website seems to be down at the moment, but last year $60 bought half a goat, and lesser donations bought chickens.

2. Donate a new, unwrapped toy to Toys for Tots. Our local YMCA has donation barrels as do all Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores around the nation. But hurry, our local Toys for Tots campaign ends tomorrow, December 21, and doesn’t begin again until next October.

3. Your local supermarket. Our local supermarket has $10 bags of food we can purchase at checkout to be donated to the county food program as well as people out front collecting food and toys for another organization. Check your local supermarket. There are likely people collecting food or cash donations this time of year.

4. To donate used children’s books in Northern California, check out Books for the Barrios. They ship thousands of books, school supplies, puzzles, athletic gear, computers, and more to the Philippines every year. If you’re not in Northern California, you can donate money.

5. The Red Cross is always in need of donations. Check out their Holiday Gift Buying Catalog.

6. Habitat For Humanity is a great cause. For $10 you can donate a box of nails to help build a house for someone. For $50, you can buy a low-flow toilet.

7. Kiva has $25 gift cards you can give to a friend or family member that allows them to choose an entrepreneur to support through a microloan. Or you can support someone yourself.

8. Call your local homeless shelter and ask what is on their donation list. Most shelters have a list of specific items they need. Find out what yours needs and make a donation.

There are many ways to give! What is your favorite?

17 comments to 8 ways to help someone in need

  • Great suggestions Meghan and thanks for these. Good reminder this time of year that so many have so little. You made it easier to incorporate helping into a busy holiday schedule.

  • We invite single friends with no place to go to our house for Christmas dinner. Thanks for the great suggestions.

  • What a fantastic set of suggestions. And what a great lesson you're teaching your kids!

    • meghancward


      I hope to do this every year and let my kids get more and more involved. It's good for me, too, since I spend so much time buying stuff for my kids and so little time thinking about people who are in need. It's so easy to put blinders on and go about our business. Sigh.

      • Kmt

        Im no eprxet, but I suppose you just crafted an excellent point. You naturally know what youre talking about, and I can really get behind that. Thanks for staying so upfront and so straightforward.

  • R.J. Squirrel

    But what can those poor people do with half a goat?

  • It's wonderful you are able to do this. The women at the shelter will appreciate it. In another life, I worked in a DV shelter. The holidays are difficult for moms and kids. Thanks you!

    • meghancward

      What's a DV shelter, Stacy? And I do hope they enjoy their bags! I have no idea what they get from agencies, etc. during the holidays.

  • I'm a big fan of Beyond:Emancipation, which helps foster kids in Alameda County between the ages of 18-25 who have "aged out" of many federal/state support programs. It provides help with housing, education, and even food through its Emergency Food Pantry. They're thrilled with monetary donations to support their program but also have a list of specific needs at (Full disclosure: after I learned about B:E a few years ago and blathered on about it at home, my husband ended up joining their board.) Thanks for the reminder and have a wonderful holiday!

  • Kristan

    Meghan, you and your kids are officially awesome.

    My mom and I volunteer every year at the big downtown Christmas Feast (and at Thanksgiving too), serving food and sorting clothes/gifts. It's a tradition I really value.

  • mainecharacter

    What a great tradition to start with your kids, and it goes right at the core of who the holiday's for, as well.

    When I was in high school, the Student Council made fruit baskets for the people at the old folk's home, and yet my friend couldn't get anyone else on the council to help deliver them. So he roped me into it, and I went along, and when that first door opened and the lady saw what I had, she bloomed with so much joy and gratitude that I've carried that moment ever since. Delivering those packages was the highlight of that holiday, and you've brought it all back and got me to thinking what I can do here.

    • meghancward

      Mainecharacter – I'm so glad I've inspired you to do something like the fruit baskets again! I have been wanting to some kind of volunteer work/donations for years and haven't had time or haven't made the effort. I think now that I've dipped my toe in those waters, it will be much easier to dive into future projects. This may sound corny, but my life feels a little more complete now.

  • Red Cross is a big one as well. They help so many people in need over the years.