Dec 282014
Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa's workshop!

Not quite what you might picture when you think of Santa’s workshop!

My husband has been bugging me to clean out our basement for some time now. There are a lot of things to go through but a large pile of toys was one of the problem areas. These were hard to get rid of for me for a couple of reasons. They were extremely sentimental to me and were given to us by sweet people we love. My children still liked a lot of them and they were all quite nice toys that seemed to me should be worth something to someone. I told my husband that I planned to give them away to needy families for Christmas.

A week before Christmas I had made exactly zero progress on this project (as there were a million other things to get done). I didn’t really have time to do this project but something inside me was bugging me to get on this.

My husband doubted that anyone would even want these old, used toys. If you donate to groups like Toys 4 Tots, you will note that they only want “new” items. Nobody wants used.

I told my husband that I would try a test. I would post a quick list of the toys to CraigsList in the “free” section. If there was no interest, I would round up a donation for Goodwill. So, I went down to the basement and began pulling out a small selection of our old toys. I took a photo, wrote a description and posted to CraigsList. I showed the list to my husband.

"We have new-in-box toys stored in the basement?"

Yes, we did! Mixed in with the old stuff were new, completely unwrapped toys. These were duplicates we had received for holiday or birthday gifts that I had never quite gotten around to returning or the kind of toys that my children just don’t appreciate and never play with.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

An example of the used toys posted to CraigsList.

At first, there was no response. A few hours went by, however, and I had 5 or 6 responses. We didn’t ask anyone for details about why they needed the toys but some volunteered.

Thank you so much,
Living with family.
Husband working three jobs to make ends meet.
Thank you for blessing my daughter

I have a 2yr old little girl and would like to get whatever you are willing to give.

My grandson will be very happy. I’m taking my hubby to get surgery tomorrow. He has stage 4 throat cancer.

It seemed like most of our recipients were hardworking, resourceful people. They were the sort of people you are happy to help out!

The new toys were of course the most popular. I was gradually whittling my list down. I took items off the posting list as they were spoken for. There were a few used baby toys left and I went to bed with the listing up.

I awoke to 6 or 7 responses wanting the baby toys! I took the posting down and wrote everyone who had responded by then telling them I had more toys to go through and would probably be able to come up with something for everyone.

I spent the day washing and tidying up the used toys. I sprayed them down with my favorite orange-scented Lysol to remove any dirt or germs. I rounded up all the tiny pieces for each set that my children often strew throughout the house. I packed them up into boxes or bags, wrapped them and bagged them for delivery, writing each person’s name and address on the bag.

"You want me to drive where?"

I needed my husband’s assistance on the last leg of this project. Even though every person I interacted with seemed like a kind, decent person, I realized that I still needed to exercise caution when interacting with random strangers on the Internet. These nice people had all trusted me with their addresses and the fact that there could be children at each address.

The first group of deliveries.

The first group of deliveries.

Just to be extra safe, I sent my “muscle” (a.k.a. husband) to do the delivery work. I let everyone know that my husband would be dropping off on their porch and gave them a rough time window. My husband ended up in some interesting places, including unpaved county roads.

This experience made me wonder if Mrs. Claus isn’t getting short shrift to Santa. Would it surprise anyone to know that Mrs. Claus might be the driving force behind the legend? Sure, Santa gets all the photo ops driving around in the sleigh and filling the stockings but is it really Mrs. Claus’ kindness toward children and her goading of Santa that makes Christmas happen at all?

My husband was so thrilled to be finally getting rid of stuff out of the basement, that he gladly drove our used stuff all over town. When I had the first shipment ready, I told him we might want to wait until the next shipment was ready to do the delivery.

"No, let's do a first round and I'll go again if necessary."

Since this was our first “Santa” experience, this ended up being an excellent idea. For the first test run, we were delivering to 4 houses. That evening I heard from two of our recipients who indicated they did not get their shipments.

At first, we feared that someone might have taken the presents but some investigation showed that Santa had a few delivery errors—in one case delivering to the house across the street and in other to the house next door. My husband was disappointed and personally fixed one of the deliveries. The other, seemed to have been fixed by a neighbor who saw the address on my delivery bag and realized there had been a mistake.

It was interesting to learn interacting with some of these families that disappointment is an intense emotion for them. When the deliveries were temporarily missing, one family adopted a mindset of “I’m going to do whatever I can to find this package.” But it was more common to have families adopt a defeatist attitude of “Oh well, things like this always happen to me. I guess we tried.” I can’t imagine how much life must have to kick you in the teeth to want to give up so easily. Fortunately, we were able to find the shipments and not disappoint any of our families.

I went back into the basement the next day looking to find deliveries for the remaining 6 families. Somehow, yet again, we came up with something for everyone. We washed up toys, put in fresh batteries, tested everything to make sure it worked, wrapped and packaged. Out went Santa again—two days before Christmas — this time with a 100% success rate.

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

Round two of our Santa deliveries!

In the end, we gave away about 39 packages of toys, helped out 10 families and roughly 17 children. It cost us nothing other than our time.

Our recipients were so grateful:

We received your gift wrapped toys! Thank you so much! Happy holidays once again.

Thank you so much again for the gifts. My kids are gonna love them.

Just want to say thank you again. He really enjoyed everything.

But these families gave us a lot in return. They gave us a more peaceful and serene home with less clutter. They gave me the motivation to start cleaning out the basement! They also helped us to remember our blessings and to think more kindly of those in need. Many times in the news, the needy are portrayed as a kind of drain on society. This project helped us to remember their humanity and see how wonderful these people can be as well.

This project made a huge impact on my children. When we were deciding which toys to give away, our kids had a much easier time letting something go when they realized that it might be someone’s entire Christmas present. They also stopped whining about their own first world Christmas problems immediately when I reminded them of the children we were helping who would be glad to have as much as they did. I even think my husband had at least a little fun dropping off the deliveries.

"We should do this every year!"

I was surprised to hear my husband say. For him, it honestly has nothing to do with the charitable aspect of this project. He just likes to see the stuff go out of our house and me cleaning out the basement!

I now have a better appreciation of how wasteful it is for me to have extra, unneeded toys in my house when there are many people who would gladly give them a good home. As we go through the year, I will have a better eye for what might be better off blessing someone else. It will really help me in my decluttering efforts in 2015!

 Posted by on December 28, 2014 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 182012

In November, the call came out from the local Red Cross office that at least 40 people were needed to make sure their Letters to Santa program benefiting needy children was successful this year.

One lesson about charity I have had to learn over the years is that when charities (or individuals) are in dire circumstances and sincerely need help the appeal is often made very subtly and in an understated way. You have to be listening and ready to step in when this type of call comes. If you are used to corporate pitches, where they hound you and hound you with multiple phone calls, emails and letters, and speak with exaggerated language, you won’t see that in charitable situations. The pitch is often so subtle or made in such a small way that it is easy to miss.

So, we stepped in, offering to help one child. The Letters to Santa program is extraordinarily well organized and has numerous rules to help make it run more smoothly. Among the guidelines they give to prospective Santas:

  • Plan to spend between $100 – $175 but not more (if you can spend more, they wanted you to sponsor a second child rather than indulge one fully–probably to keep things fair amongst the children)
  • No used stuff (except for some things like computer games)
  • If you are buying a bike, you have to include a helmet.
  • Wrap all items (or include gift wrap and ribbon so the family can wrap them)
  • Try to honor the child’s requests.
  • “You are this child’s only sponsor. What you purchase may well be all that they receive for the holidays.”

We were assigned a young girl, age 8 who wanted the following:

  • a bike
  • hair accessories
  • clothes
  • art/crafts
  • games

The form also indicated that this girl was in need of a winter coat that we were expected to provide. I knew it was going to be an incredible challenge trying to find a bike, helmet and coat for $150, let alone all of the other stuff! But we did it, and I will show you how.

First, if I had this same list for one of my own daughters, the first way I would save money is to go used with the bicycle. And I can say this confidently because last year, I gave my then-3-year-old a bike for Christmas and we bought it used off of CraigsList for $25! We freshened it up with some new streamers and a zippered bike basket and it was good to go! Yes, the tires were a bit dinged and smudged, but she really didn’t notice and thought it was awesome. We saved about $40 this way. Good used kids bikes are all over CraigsList because they either sit in garages unused or the kids outgrow them too quickly.

My daughter's used (but new to her!) bike from last Christmas.

I often see the “no used stuff” restriction when it comes to charitable donations and it has always puzzled me. Why do these people object so much to used stuff? What if it is in really good condition? I have to chalk my puzzlement up to the fact that I have (fortunately) never been poor enough to know this circumstance.

I only began to understand when I read the book Below Stairs which is the terrific memoir of a 1920’s English kitchen maid that inspired the English dramas Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Consider the contrast between the descriptions of two of her employers below:

Employer 1
“Talk about Christmas! When we got to the Christmas tree we deferentially accepted the parcels that were handed to us by the children and muttered, ‘Thank you, Master Charles, thank you, Miss Susan.’ Oh I hated it all. . . . The presents were always something useful; print dress lengths, aprons, black stockings, not silk, of course, they never gave you anything frivolous; black woolen stockings. How I longed for some of the things they had, silk underwear, perfume, jewellery, why couldn’t they have given us something like that? . . . So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill, and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

Employer 2
“They were the most thoughtful and kind people I’d ever met . . . . [T]he servant’s hall was an absolute revelation to me. This one was comfortably furnished and it had a colour scheme to it. We had comfortable armchairs, a carpet on the floor, a standard lamp, and other small lamps around, pictures and ornaments. Things that you could tell were bought specially for us, not cast-offs from their rooms. . . . Everything was done to make you feel that they really cared about you.”

–Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

Trying to keep the budget of $150 was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I stayed up late Thanksgiving Eve and ended up doing my shopping as my children and houseguests slept. Our Santa child was the first person I shopped for.

I found quickly that no one was beating Wal-Mart’s prices on bikes. Wal-Mart had a Black Friday in-store only deal on a 20” bike (the size I needed) for $39. You could add a helmet for just $8. I knew I had to have this deal to make the budget work. I was trying to figure out who we could nominate to brave Black Friday at Wal-Mart when all of a sudden the deal was available to purchase online! It was really one of those Christmas miracles. For $49.35 with tax, we had the bike and helmet but we also said goodbye to 1/3 of our budget!

Our $39 Black Friday bike deal!

The next major item to get was the coat. Wal-Mart came through on this too and we snagged an all-pink puffy coat for $19.84 with tax. For fun, we also added in a set of Lalaloopsy branded earmuffs and gloves to go with it for $10.39.

The pink puffy coat and the Lalaloopsy earmuffs my daughters covet.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I had the two most important items in hand. I now had roughly $70 to get everything else.

After watching Frontline’s Poor Kids documentary, I knew that basics like clothes were important. I picked up two outfits that I hoped the little girl would feel comfortable wearing to school. I knew my own girls would have no objections wearing them. The first outfit was a pair of jeans with a pink long-sleeve polo shirt; and the second a velour pants and sweatshirt set that came with a cute matching scarf. The clothes ate up about $25 of my budget. I added in a large package of socks for $9.34 since we are always hunting for socks around our house. I had about $36 left to spend.

The outfits and socks we found.

I went back to the little girl’s wishlist. She wanted hair accessories, arts/crafts and games.

After looking at several options, I decided to combine two of the desires and get her an arts and crafts kit to make your own hair accessories for $10.50.

Make your own barrette kit.

I also found a small travel-sized game that contained just marbles and holes but said it came with directions to play hundreds of different types of games in both 2D and 3D spatial orientations. The educator in me thought this would be a terrific challenge for her and would be easy to carry with her as well. $8.89 later it was ours.

The Lonpos Colorful Cabin 066 Brain Intelligence Game at

It was important to me as a homeschooling mom to get her an educational workbook as part of her gift. My kids do a lot of these. I’m pretty sure when she opens it she will groan and think “Geez, what kind of Santa is this?!” but I hope it will impress on her that education for her is absolutely critical. The Poor Kids documentary pointed out that children in dire economic circumstances are often shuttled from one school to the next as they move homes and sometimes are out of school for periods of time. I also hoped that the workbook might help give her something to keep her skills up. I found a thick workbook with reading and math concepts for the third grade for $10.61.

The Santa gift my recipient will likely be least enthused about.

That left me about $6.

I picked up some note cards and some Twistables crayons (for drawing or writing down flashcards for school).

The Red Cross instructions mentioned that we should include some “stocking stuffers.” Since we didn’t have a stocking, I extended our budget by making a stocking out of some spare fabric I had. My 7-year-old helped choose the fabrics and design, informing me that all good stockings have a pocket on the front (like hers does). I embroidered the girl’s name on the pocket with my sewing machine. There was something about adding in a homemade gift that made the whole gift feel a lot more personal and meaningful.

Our homemade stocking, complete with pocket.

To fill the stocking, we stopped by the dollar store to pick up silly string, pencils, a candy cane filled with M&M-like candies and some ring pops, along with a pink cat to peek out of the stocking pocket.

Stocking stuffers from the dollar store.

We also picked up some cute Santa-themed wrapping paper and ribbon to wrap up all the gifts.

Wrapped and ready!

In the end, our grand total was about $159. So, we went a smidge over budget but not too bad considering this was our first time participating in this exercise!

We bagged up our gift per the detailed instructions. Our donations were due by December 8th. We dropped it off to an energetic Red Cross volunteer dressed in reindeer antlers. At least 10 other bikes and gifts were arriving at the same time.

We didn’t get any feedback about how we did and we don’t get to see our recipient open her gifts but I hope we did OK and that we will make someone’s Christmas a little brighter. We will certainly be thinking of her.

How do you think we did? Would you have spent the $150 differently? Could you stick to a $150 budget for your own holiday shopping? Please share in the comments.

*Other than being a donor, I am not affiliated with the Red Cross Letters to Santa program. Other than being a very small shareholder, I am also not affiliated with Wal-Mart.

 Posted by on December 18, 2012 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 132012

This year, our family wanted to inject more charitable giving into our holiday celebrations. I posted on Veteran’s Day about the Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign administered by the Red Cross. I decided to send in a few cards with a unique, military holiday design. My children call them the “military Santas.”

We think they are kind of fun and a great way to learn about our current military leaders and uniforms as well. While the deadline for Holiday Mail for Heroes has already passed and the Red Cross isn’t accepting more cards for this year, you can download pattern templates below to make your own cards for next year or leave off the Santa hats and use them for other military remembrance purposes.

Saluting Santa

Saluting Soldier inspired by General Norman Schwarzkopf

The Saluting Santa was inspired by this photo of General Norman Schwarzkopf. The key for this card was to find an appropriate camouflage patterned paper for the jacket and pants. Surprisingly, our local Michael’s store had no camouflage-patterned paper! So, improvising, I came up with wood-grain print. I am unaware of any military operation where wood grain would be an appropriate camouflage (surveillance of 1970’s wood-paneled basements or lumber yards?) but it does OK as a substitute for the current desert digital pattern.

All of these cards are pretty easy to make, but a little time consuming. Just cut out the pattern pieces and glue them on with a glue stick. You can add additional details if you like or facial features but I liked the modern look with fewer details and blank faces.

All of the parts of the Saluting Soldier Card.

Reverent Soldier

Reverent Santa card inspired by Colin Powell.

The Reverent Soldier card was inspired by a photo of General Colin Powell standing with the first President Bush.

After seeing how the first cards I made came out, my 7-year old wanted to help. The Reverent Soldier card has quite a lot of small pieces to it so I had my doubts but in the end she did quite well! Of course, the soldier’s shoes are a bit askew and his hands were put on backwards but the rest was quite wonderful.

Striding Soldier

Striding Soldier card inspired by Janet Wolfenbarger.

My last card design was inspired when I heard a news report that the first female 4-star general of the Air Force had been appointed. I did not know who this was but felt it would be appropriate to commemorate this milestone achievement with a Santa card. After some research, I found that the new general was Janet Wolfenbarger and this picture of her was perfect for a card design since it showed that she was wearing pumps.

After the cards were done, we wrote a brief note of thanks on the back,

then popped them in the envelope.

and sent them on their way.

Did you participate in Holiday Mail for Heroes? Are you making any holiday cards this year? Please share in the comments.

*I have no affiliation with the Red Cross or the Holiday Mail for Heroes program.

 Posted by on December 13, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,
Dec 202011

One of our alternative gift cards this year. We love it!

Please forgive the erratic posting schedule lately.  In my defense, all I can say is that this is my first Christmas with three children and my own organizational coping strategies need a little tweaking.  🙂

It is the season of giving and giving and giving . . . .and giving.  By now, you may be either worn out from shopping or simply broke but the demands on your money are not stopping.  For businesses of all stripes, this is a busy time of year as they are trying to bring in those last minute sales before the end of the year.  One particular type of “business” is especially busy this time of year . . . charities.

There are a couple of interesting organizational lessons we can learn from this year’s charitable solicitations.  Read on to learn more.

 Posted by on December 20, 2011 General Tagged with: , ,