DEAR READERS: Over the years, I have documented my fondness for tacky sweaters, dancing candy canes, bus stop nativity scenes, mechanical reindeer, any drink with "nog" in the name and all things Santa.
These delights are merely the colorful trappings of the holidays, because what really illuminates the world during this otherwise dark season is the generosity of individuals and the miracle of community.
Times are tough. If we lighted a candle every time we've heard this in the past year, we wouldn't need daylight saving time. Unfortunately, because of the economy, charitable giving is down. Way down.
According to Charity Navigator, my favorite source for research on nonprofit organizations, 86 percent of nonprofits surveyed in 2009 reported that the economy was having a "negative" or "very negative" effect on the services they provide.
I'm urging readers this year to dig deep and support organizations and causes that provide the basics: food, shelter, warmth and companionship. Below are some ideas for holiday giving — all except the Salvation Army have received a "four star" top rating by Charity Navigator, ensuring a great value for your dollar (the Salvation Army is a faith-based organization and is not rated).
Please use this list as an inspiration. There are many organizations worthy of our generosity, and the smartest givers do their own research and donate to causes reflecting their own passions.
Charity Navigator has a very handy database of hundreds of organizations, categorized for easy searching: www.charitynavigator.org.
SERVING WOUNDED MILITARY AND THEIR FAMILIES
Fisher House Foundation: www.fisherhouse.org. Fisher Houses are attached to military hospitals. These comfortable and beautiful homes are free to the families of wounded soldiers so they can be close to one another during hospitalizations and rehabilitation. Frequent fliers should donate airline miles to the "Hero Miles" program, providing air travel to bring service members and their families together.
Disabled American Veterans Charitable Trust: www.dav.org. The DAV Trust has one mission: to provide services for America's wounded veterans, offering housing, transportation, programs and grants to vets.
FEEDING THE HUNGRY
Feeding America: www.secondharvest.com. The most recent numbers are staggering. 49 million Americans are hungry — this is up 36 percent from last year.
One dollar can buy nine pounds of food for a hungry person. Feeding America is a network of local food banks across the country. Please donate money, host a food drive or volunteer time to a food bank in your community.
Salvation Army: www.salvationarmyusa.org. Simply stated, the Salvation Army goes where the need is and offers the most basic services — food, housing, rehabilitation and fellowship — to the neediest among us. Shop at or donate to an Army store, drop some money in the famous red kettle or donate in the virtual kettle online.
City Year: www.cityyear.org. City Year employs college-age people for one year of service as mentors and educators in schools and communities, bringing youthful energy and idealism into the lives of kids who could use some inspiration.
Mr. Holland's Opus: www.mhopus.org. This organization is a favorite of mine because its mission is so simple: to donate musical instruments in good condition to schools. As a lifetime band geek who believes in the power of music to transform lives, this cause is very close to my heart.
First Book: www.firstbook.org. Since 1992, First Book has provided 65 million free or low-cost books to kids and schools, helping children to gain basic literacy skills and discover the magic of imaginative storytelling.
GIVE IN YOUR COMMUNITY
All of these national organizations — and so many others — are worthy, but I'd also like to make a plug for supporting your local humane society, public library, arts organizations and social services. Celebrate your own blessings by sharing them with neighbors.
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