This holiday season, donate the gifts you would want your own family to receive

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As the novel coronavirus continues to slam the nation, we’ve seen small businesses take hit after hit, unemployment numbers bubble and sizzle, more than 200,000 Americans lose their lives, and countless communities impacted. As photos of cars lined up at food pantries go viral, people with means are increasingly encouraged to donate both items and money to their local food drives. That’s certainly an excellent and important pursuit, but as we’re in the thick of the gift-giving holiday season, many families are feeling the pressure to provide gifts for children and teenagers. 

Holiday gift donation lists and drives aren’t new, but they do feel especially relevant today, as so many are on the precipice of housing, food, and employment insecurity. Some of the most vulnerable among us, including unhoused, incarcerated, and people living in nursing homes, have faced additional barriers and isolations as the United States continues to flounder against the global health crisis. What does this have to do with the holiday gift-giving season? People—even low-income people, even incarcerated people, even unhoused people—deserve thoughtful, useful gifts as much as anyone else. So if you’re lucky enough to donate a gift to someone in need, make sure it’s something you’d also want to give a loved one.

What do I mean by that? First, if you’re in a stable enough position to donate this holiday season, you’re already using your privilege to do a wonderful thing. Second, if you want your wonderful act to go further, stop and really consider what you’re choosing and why. Some organizations or mutual aid funds have specific wishlists of items, often hosted online at a site like Amazon or Target, which makes the process of choosing gift donations simple. Some organizations allow you to be matched with a young person or family where you’re provided with some details—age of children, favorite colors, etc.—so then you can go shopping for them, and the gifts are a surprise. Other organizations welcome you to just drop off what you’d like. All are valid and lovely. But resist the urge to simply unload what your family doesn’t want onto others. 

As Daily Kos has covered before, one frequent issue—even outside of the pandemic—that food pantries face is that sometimes people will donate expired, damaged, or otherwise unusable goods. Why do people do this? Most people probably don’t think to check the dates or quality, or don’t think it actually matters. Some people, sadly, probably see it as an opportunity to clear out of a bunch of stuff at once. Either way, this puts more burden on the organization receiving the stuff. And it’s ultimately not helpful. 

Gifts are obviously a little different, in that a gifted sweatshirt, hat, or children’s toy can’t really “expire” in the way canned food might. This is where I urge people, however, to shop and gift as though you’re buying for people in your life.

For example, does the shelter in your area have a high need for clothes for teenagers? Spend a little time figuring out what brands, styles, or stores are in-fashion right now in that age group. Does a wishlist include winter clothes and accessories? Instead of grabbing the least expensive option, do some searching for brands that have good reputations for longevity and warmth. If an organization asks for educational games, for example, it’s perfectly fine to reach out and clarify which age group has the most need, if kids and teenagers are multilingual, if recipients live with any disabilities, or so on.

Yes, all of this is a little extra work. But it can make a serious impact on how much joy a gift brings—and how much it’s actually used. Growing up very, very low-income myself, my family received holiday gift donations over a number of years. It’s no exaggeration to say that some Christmas mornings, the only boxes I opened came from strangers. For kids and teenagers, especially, it can be so meaningful to receive items that help them fit in with classmates at school. Now, as an adult, I’m not concerned with the name brand of a sweater or how obvious it is that a jacket was fashionable a couple of years ago instead of now. But as a low-income teenager, already worried about being bullied? Being gifted an item that helped me fit in—or at least feel like I fit in—made an enormous difference for my self-esteem. 

This approach can, of course, be applied to adults, too. Especially when it comes to donating traditional work apparel, say, for an interview or a job that doesn’t require a uniform, or sturdy snow-or-rain appropriate outerwear for commutes. Basically, when you drop off a donation for a stranger, select it and gift it with the same consideration you would put into a loved one. The extra care really does make a world of difference. 

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