(This is a cross-post from my other gig at BlogHer.)
The family received a challenge this year from my stepmother, 'Squirrelly Shirley': Spend just $10 per Christmas gift and donate the rest. "I believe our money could help others and that is the real spirit of Christmas," she wrote in her email. She had other ideas, such as sending gifts to soldiers abroad, but her simple plea was this: "Let’s get creative with Christmas this year and give our hearts." And so, Shirley and a few lucky others will be getting baby chicks and bees for Xmas.
At Thanksgiving last week, my family and I discussed the implosion of
capitalism and agreed that Americans have become a nation of acquirers
... and look where it's gotten us. We all have too much stuff and don't
need more. (Okay, so I still want that guitar upgrade and a new Mac but other than that, I'm done. I SWEAR.)
I spent many years giving bits and pieces of my income to various charities and getting my name on every bleeding heart list on the planet. Ultimately, I decided to focus on something personal to me, choosing Smile Train as my favorite monthly cause. However, this year, I'm starting a new annual tradition and zeroing in on Heifer International as my official holiday cause.
Heifer International is a nonprofit charitable organization built on the long-view philosophy: "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; you have fed him for a lifetime." Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, their mission is to relieve global hunger and poverty by providing gifts of livestock and plants, as well as education in sustainable agriculture, to the world's poor.
It is certainly better to provide a goat that will give milk for years rather than just hand over a bag of food that will only last days. Not to mention the feeling of empowerment that a family or individual can retain with the responsibilities of caring for that animal. And let's face it, who doesn't love a goat?
A friend told me recently:
"I have to give business gifts -- as a consultant -- to my clients. These folks have enough desk sets. I started giving Heifer gifts as a business gift. They LOVED them, and I stood out -- after all, how many people get a sheep, a goat, a flock of geese or a llama for Christmas? I had one corporate client say that he was dead tired of getting useless expensive office items that he could never use. He was thankful that good had been done in his name and was going to try to suggest giving to charity as gifts in his own company."
As with most world-changing ideas, it began with one person. The founder of Heifer International, an American farmer named Dan West, was a Church of the Brethren relief worker in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). With too little rations for distribution, West realized that a long-term solution was needed. Once home, he founded Heifers for Relief, an organization focused on providing families livestock and training so that they "could be spared the indignity of depending on others to feed their children." With this strategy in mind, West also conceived the brilliant slogan "Give not a cup, but a cow."
And so, it began in 1944 with a shipment of seventeen heifers (young cows that have not given birth) from York, Pennsylvania, to Puerto Rico. Each heifer would be a continual source of milk, offspring and fertilizer to each participating family. In exchange for these animal gifts, West required each participating family to take classes in animal husbandry. Also, they had to agree to donate any female offspring to a neighbor who has undergone Heifer's training. In the truest sense of that oft-repeated phrase, West wanted these animals to be the gifts that keep on giving.
Heifer International, as it is known today, gifts cattle, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs, honeybees, pigs, llamas, water buffalo, camels, alpacas, yaks, horses, chicks, ducks, goats, geese, fish, other regionally appropriate livestock. (Tree seedlings too!) Instead of shipping animals overseas, HI now purchases them in the designated country which puts money into the local economy, reduces transport costs and promotes better health for the animals since they are already accustomed to the local climate, food and diseases. As of 2006, HI-gifted animals and plants have been distributed in more than 125 countries around the globe.
So, when you're shopping for presents this year, think about it: Does your brother really need that Chia Pet? Wouldn't he like a Water Buffalo instead? Okay, so maybe it won't fit under the tree but ultimately, it will take up less room, require less maintenance and he'll be helping out an entire family and ultimately, an entire community.
And, like a wise stepmother once said, this looks and smells an awful lot like the true meaning of the holiday season.