All I Want for Christmas
When I was a kid, I remember hearing stories about the greater meaning behind Christmas, and what the spirit of the season is supposed to be about. But in between our frantic shopping and obsessive decorating, we somehow forget the bigger picture. Despite this seasonal spell of unavoidable hype, there are ways to calm our busybody habits and put them to good use.
The power of philanthropy was something I discovered when visiting El Salvador in 2001. Staying at the Hogar del Niño hospital for handicapped and abandoned children, it was my first experience in a developing country. I travelled with a group of volunteers to provide aid and relief after a major earthquake, experiencing aftershocks everyday. It was probably one of the most altering experiences of my life. I remember seeing people who still managed to smile after their homes were devastated by landslides, and meeting children who wanted nothing more than loving friendship. The visit offered living proof of how rewarding the gift of charity can be.
Reminding ourselves that the Holidays are about others can be an eye-opening way to celebrate the season, and is easily a click away. Reaching out to people on the other side of the globe is now possible from your living room, thanks to Kiva.org, the first ever person-to-person micro-lending website. Users can lend money to specific entrepreneurs in Third World countries, allowing their businesses to grow and lifting them out of poverty. When lenders get their money back, they can choose to help someone else in need, or withdraw their funds. And one of the reasons I like this idea is because the gift becomes a personable experience – lenders can see their beneficiary, know their name, and communicate through e-mail about their business’ progress.
There’s a multitude of organizations that work along similar lines. If you visit World Vision Canada’s website, you’ll notice its Gift Catalogue, offering anything other than typical presents for underprivileged children and families. Some categories include animals, education, healthcare, water and shelter. For a certain fee, you can stock a medical clinic, supply a classroom, plant 10 fruit trees, and provide warm clothing to a freezing child. I was surprised to learn about some of the initiatives already taking place all over Canada. In Edmonton, Alison Mones and her co-workers are pooling money to drill a well for an African community. A Grade 9 geography class from Alexandria, Ont., is buying chickens and rabbits for families needing a source of food and income. In St. John’s, Nfld., the Cole family is saving loonies and toonies to furnish Third World classrooms.
If there’s one trend we’re noticing, it’s that more people are using the Web for philanthropy. GiveMeaning.com offers another creative fundraising idea with unique options. With over 1,200 initiatives to choose from, users can provide shoes for South African children, give plane tickets to missionaries, and support special sports such as wheelchair tennis. I think the variety of projects offers a chance to better ourselves, and after all, saying yes and taking action is what makes a true humanitarian.
Of course, we don’t have to go far to find living examples of good Samaritans. Simona Flumian, a 15-year-old student and volunteer, has been giving back to her community since she was in senior kindergarten. “Volunteering brings a smile to the people I meet,” Simona says. “Given that I’m fortunate to live such a good life, I try to share with people who are less fortunate.”
Simona is no stranger to charity, donating her time to initiatives such as Hospital for Sick Children Telethon and the Unicef fundraiser. Her list of community and school awards is long enough to provoke an envious four-star general. She recently received the St. Thomas of Villanova College Honour Society Principal’s Award, and was nominated the youngest volunteer in the city of Vaughan, after selling over 1,500 Christmas cards for the Hemoglobal Charity – translating to five children whose lives have been saved.
I was definitely captivated when I realized how many adolescents are giving back in the same way. With a passion for music, 17-year-old Andrew Mizzoni has spent six months recording a hip hop album to raise money for SickKids Foundation. After battling cancer firsthand, the young Woodbridge man of Italian descent formed M.I.C., a non-offensive band creating “hip hop with a conscience.” Other youths like Andrew can be seen doing good deeds abroad as well. When I spoke with 11-year-old Jaako Polkki about his accomplishments, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Nothing was the same after the Grade 6 student met a missionary from Guatemala and saw first-hand the living conditions of the poor. “It just triggered something inside me, and I felt like I had to go do something for the world,” Jaako says. Travelling with his family in search of a place to start, Jaako discovered a profound love for the people of Malawi. “The greatest thing is that Malawi is called the ‘warm heart of Africa.’ And it’s called that for a reason – the nicest people I’ve ever met are from there.” Jaako’s persona struck me with deep impression, revealing a young man of profound tenderness.
So nice, and yet so stricken with disease, the people of Malawi desperately needed a medical clinic – something Jaako set out to do. His fundraising efforts gathered enough money to begin construction for a small hospital. Named a Maxwell House Brew Gooder, Jaako received a $10,000 reward that recognized his philanthropy. Jaako used his prize to complete the building. When I asked him about his future plans, I couldn’t help but feel astonished at how young he is to be such a strong-minded individual. “As we keep on doing more and more, it’ll become bigger. Every single year we go, we’ll make Malawi a better place,” the determined Jaako says.
Jaako’s story is one of many that puts Christmas into perspective. Whether we’re spending the Holidays nestled comfortably at home, toiling busily at work, or unwinding peacefully in a tropical climate, we can perhaps remember to give to someone else.
Something as simple as purchasing an Ethos Water bottle while you sip on a gingersnap latte at Starbucks will help clean up water. Since 2001, Ethos has donated part of the profits to funding clean-water initiatives in developing countries. The conscious company hopes to extend $10 million to safe-water projects in the near future.
Or try putting a smile on someone’s face. Operation Smile provides surgery in as little as 45 minutes for children with cleft lips and cleft palates. You can make a donation, help fundraise, and volunteer as a medical assistant or guest speaker. There’s no limit to what you can do. Thinking about our mistakes and the times we forget about one another, I realize there’s a renewed awakening in helping people. And through the examples of Simona, Andrew and Jaako, we can learn with our children to be a little less greedy and a lot more compassionate. After all, the only thing anybody really wants for Christmas is to feel loved and appreciated – something that comes without a price tag.