Saturday, October 6, 2012

Holiday gift giving to charity

My birthday was yesterday, which of course spawns the question: what do you want?  While most people are not yet Christmas ready, I have vowed to begin my preparations early this year in an attempt to not screw up like I have the last 2 years and confirm everyone's assumptions that I am a schmuck... :-) (hmm am I allowed to use a Jewish term to describe my lack of Christmas gift giving?)
All this birthday Q and A got me to thinking about my charitable gift requests.  I am the typical American adult: If I want or need something, I go buy it (or in my case, possibly make it).  I love giving handmade gifts because it is something that people would not or could not get for themselves.  However, in the spirit of Christmas in particular, we are inspired and expected to help out fellow man.  So what better to give someone than the gift of helping others?  I want to both give and recieve this way, at least in part, this Christmas.  With any luck, everyone on my list will get a small home made gift AND a charitable gift.  The best of both worlds!  Well, wish me luck!

My list of charitable gifts:

Donate blood.
I can't donate blood (weight restrictions) so this is something I always ask my husband and close family to do.  It saves lives and it takes a little planning which makes it really special to me.

Heifer international
I LOVE LOVE LOVE this organization.  They have a shopping catalog where you can choose animals to send to countries in need.  My family has done this at Christmas for years.  We pool the money in the center of the table (so no one can brag about how much they gave versus anyone else), one of the kids adds it all up (bonus: math skills) and then we thumb through the catalog and choose what to buy as a family. Its a wonderful way to help others, and make charitable giving part of your ritual.

Meals on wheels/Food pantry volunteering or donations
I have always had a soft spot for the hungry.  As a kid, things were not always easy with my mother, who did her best.  Lucky for me, my parents had shared custody and my dad actually paid my mom child support, so things were not SO bad, but we still had some tough times.  Thinking of the millions of hungry people right outside my door breaks my heart, and since I love to cook, this one is near and dear.  I always want to feed the world!  Donating is a great and simple way to help others, and you can pick out stuff in the grocery store with your kids to teach them how to give.  Or even better, give your time on a holiday or just on a weekend to package or sort canned goods or serve at a shelter.  There are TONS of places out there to do this, so don't be limited by the ones I linked to above.  The best part: this way of giving directly impacts YOUR community, making your neighbors and friends happier and healthier, even if you don't know they are in need.

Adopt a child - World Vision
My dad did this with me as a child from about 5 years old - I had a sponsored child that was about my age and we exchanged letters and school progress reports as we both grew.  Over time, her letters went from being written by someone else, to being translated, to being written in English.  It was amazing to see her grow and learn and I was inspired to be as good a student and as strong as her.  What a great gift for a kid!

There is no specific organization for giving your time.  But local churches, soup kitchens, animal shelters, thrift stores, or any number of charitable organizations are ALWAYS strapped for volunteers.  Ask at your church (if you have one) for a list of shut ins, and go have tea with someone who could use the company.  Since I don't have a car, I write letters to two of our church shut ins once a month.  I hardly break a sweat (and I brag about my baby; win-win!)!  Gift someone a scrapbook of photos from the day(s) and a handwritten note about what happened and what you did, and dedicate your donation of time in their honor.  This is especially good for parents or grandparents.  Take your kids and have them write about what they learned and how giving made them feel - a guaranteed tear jerker!

Give used items like coats and toys
When little man gets older, I plan to have him donate old clothes and toys that are in good shape to local charities on birthdays and Christmas to remind him of how little others have.  We are so consumed with greed in this country and to remind us of the true reason for the season, I plan to both shop for a new toy together for something like Toys for Tots, and give away some of our favorites that we have outgrown.  Just make sure nothing is broken or recalled and that the items are in good shape so they can be used.

Habitat for Humanity
Thus far I have not gone on a build, but I did donate to them a few years back in honor of my dad.  He is a handyman/contractor, and he often donates his time to this organization since he has that particular skill set.  I am all thumbs with a hammer, but I hear they are GREAT at teaching, as a friend of mine (also a girl) said she discovered she was a natural with a table saw!  This idea would be great for adults and teens, where the real meaning of community involvement hits home.  This organization does more than just sell people affordable homes.  It helps to turn questionable neighborhoods into lovely communities by making residents have pride in their property and take action when sketchy stuff happens where they live.  Home ownership does something to people... its almost like magic.  We don't want weeds in OUR flower bed!  Another great opportunity to help improve your immediate community!

Rescue an animal
Lots of people get a pet during the holidays.  Instead of buying an animal at a pet store, try your local shelter or humane society.  Don't let the cost deter you.  Pet store animals are often mistreated and come from puppy or kitten mills where the parents are treated like money makers, not pets, and purebred animals are often inbred and result in genetic defects that will create lifelong problems like hearing and vision issues, hip problems, and a shortened life span (read: higher vet bills).  Also, pet store animals usually are not spayed or neutered and don't have their shots.  Rescue animals will be put down if not adopted in a reasonable amount of time (except at no kill shelters) and are fixed, up to date on all shots, and will not be adopted out until they are completely healthy (no eye, respiratory, or urinary tract infections, which are common in pet store animals).  Typically, they are already housebroken as well.  If you have your heart set on a particular breed, most have organizations specific to finding homes for that breed, both purebred and mixed (Google search!). If you don't want to get a pet, or want to see how your family does around animals first, volunteer your time and walk or play with the dogs, or pet the cats in the cat rooms.  Its SO much fun and doesn't even feel like charity!  I volunteered to play with the cats as a teen, and I begged to stay every time!

These are just a few of the causes nearest and dearest to my heart.  Of course there are TONS out there.  Find a cause that means something to you and ask for donations of time or money as a gift, or find something you think a friend or relative would like and make a donation in their honor.  Many places will send a card to your recipient saying that you made a monetary donation in their name, and you can donate online in most cases.  Doesn't get any easier than that!  No fighting lines at the mall! And you can do it at 11:59 on December 24th with no issues!  And of course, for those interested, there are tax benefits to donating to charity.

SO, fight the commercialism of the holidays this year and inspire yourself and your family to be more giving-centered and less getting-centered.

Monday, October 1, 2012

These are a few of my favorite things... Dutch Oven

Le Creuset, eat your heart out.
I so badly wanted a dutch oven.  I NEEDED a dutch oven.  I had to have something that I could start on the stove and transfer to the oven to finish without worrying about what temps were okay and handles that might melt off.  Not to mention a large pot that wasn't non stick.  I needed to create a fond once in a while, like for a soup or something, but I just can't bear metal pans that I burn everything to.  I wanted an enameled version instead of the traditional cast iron, so I didn't have to worry about acidic foods reacting with the metal and making an icky taste.  At the size I wanted (5.5 or 6 quarts at least!), a Le Creuset would run me about $300.  Even at the discount "seconds" store. Ouch.  So I did some sleuthing and found another company that has made the cast iron version for a long time, and recently did an enameled version.  I actually bought it at Walmart for $50 (not available there anymore, but amazon has them on prime) and I have fallen in love.  It may not last for 4 generations as the famed french version, but I can afford to buy 6 for the cost of one frenchie.  The Lodge Color dutch oven has worked amazingly well, and I have not been kind to it.  Against the manufacturer's recommendation, I even took it camping and used it over an open fire.  I have had it at least 3 years now, I use it at least once a week, and no chips.   There is some staining and the enamel has crackled inside, but it is only cosmetic.  At first, the cracking of the enamel on the bottom worried me.  I wasn't thrilled at the idea of chunks of enamel coming off in my food.  However, it has had all that for at least 2 years, and it doesn't affect performance at all. I think its just the look of the finish that has cracked and not the actual enamel.  Bottom Line: a must have for every home cook, I swear! (I also broke down and bought a traditional cast iron version for about $30 I think, and it rules, too!)