Real Simplereaders share their goodwill ideas.

By Real Simple
Updated January 22, 2009
Plate of Christmas cookies and sheet musich
Credit: Kate Sears

Making Special Deliveries

After many years of hearing the sad stories from my mom, a third-grade teacher for more than 30 years, about some of her students’ lives, I decided I wanted to do something for them last Christmas. I work for a large company, with about 140 people in my office, and I thought that if each person donated a gift, large or small, we could provide Christmas gifts for several families in need. I took the idea to the human-resources department, and the response was amazing. We had so many gifts that we added a few families to our list. I had the pleasure of playing Santa and delivering the gifts to the families (while the children were not at home, of course!). Many parents cried, some were as excited as the children at the sight of a doll or a pair of roller skates, but they were all so grateful for our help. It was an incredible experience, and I look forward to doing it again this year.
Lindsey Mahler
Langhorne, Pennsylvania

When my very good friend was in Bahrain working in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was bummed out by the thought that he (and every other soldier) would be away from family and friends over the holidays. After much thought, I held a package-making party for soldiers abroad in my dining room with my children and a bunch of my girlfriends. We included all the basics that the crew needed, along with some fun decorations. We took pictures of our silly party antics and stuck funny Post-it Notes to things like toothpaste and foot spray, hoping to cheer the guys up. We figured that our troops have a stressful-enough job, and that words cannot be found to express our thanks to them and their families for their bravery and integrity. Although my friend is home safely now, making his old crew a holiday package is a yearly event that will continue until their ship reaches her home port for good.
Christine Schaefer
Newton, Massachusetts

Since my husband’s family is all grown up now, we’ve decided to forgo buying gifts for one another and instead adopt a family for the holidays through a local Salvation Army branch. The family creates a wish list, which we receive early in the season. We have greatly enjoyed shopping for the items on our adopted family’s list, imagining their surprise when they receive the items they had hoped for. It takes the pressure off holiday shopping because we avoid the agonizing chore of buying one another useless gadgets year in and year out, and we all admit that we enjoy our new tradition much more than our old gift exchanges.
Kathleen Arnini
Brattleboro, Vermont

At the end of each winter clothing season, I try to purchase as many gloves as I can to donate to children. In November, I go to a needy school and simply drop them off in the principal’s office with rolls of gift wrapping.
Carolyn Pelzman
Smithfield, Rhode Island

Offering Movable Feasts

I provide a warm meal to a needy person, and the greatest joy of this gift is that it can be given year-round. Instead of adding a few coins to that ever clanging change cup whenever I can, I try to buy a meal instead. Something as simple as a sandwich has brought the brightest smiles to some of the saddest souls I’ve ever encountered.
Haley Hastings
Winnetka, Illinois

I gather together as many widows in my community as I can find and host a big brunch for them to encourage and uplift them and help them remember they are not forgotten. Thankfully I’m not a widow myself, but I like to see how this get-together fosters networking among the ladies as they share experiences and deepen friendships.
Elizabeth Baddour
Covington, Tennessee

Every Christmas my husband and I pack up the kids and head to a McDonald’s to order 100 cheeseburgers (which always throws the staff for a loop). Then we bring the cheeseburgers down to a local homeless shelter that’s always overcrowded and hand them out. The homeless in and around the shelter love it, and the smiles on their faces are a wonderful gift to us.
Courtney A.E. Messenbaugh
Lakewood, Colorado

My husband and I like to give back to our family by hosting a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner, complete with table-creaking platters of hot and cold antipasto, seven types of fish, pasta aglio e olio (with garlic and oil), and enough desserts to put my dentist’s kids through college. Everyone brings something to the table, and the feast begins at 2 P.M. with the colorful antipasto platters. We take a break for 5 P.M. Christmas Eve Mass, then return to more food, a visit from Santa for the children, and dessert. We feel great saving the family tradition (with some additions of our own), keeping everyone (all 23 of us) together, and knowing that for that afternoon and evening our family truly has peace on earth.
Risa Lamia Baghdadi
Brooklyn, New York

My Rotary Club identifies families in our city that are in need of some help during the holidays. We work with our local grocery store to assemble turkey baskets with everything needed to feed a big family for the holiday―turkey, vegetables, stuffing, bread, dessert, etc.―and deliver them early on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We do the same at Christmas and include gifts for the children so they have presents to open on Christmas morning. My husband and I have done this with our club for years, and we pair up with good friends of ours and take our daughters. It’s a way for us to teach them that we’re all here to help each other out―especially at a time when we’re so grateful for having such an amazing family and a network of friends, our health, jobs, and a roof over our heads.
Maura Webster
Marlborough, Massachusetts

My husband and I lead a juvenile-prison ministry. Every Christmas we invite friends, family, and our volunteers to bake Christmas goodies for the prison guards and staff. They work hard every day and even harder when guests like us are in their facility. They are often overlooked and unappreciated. We want to say “thank you” and “God bless you” for trying to make a difference in the lives of those who are America’s future. The response to this simple gesture is overwhelming, both from the recipients and the families who participate in giving. The preparation and baking time provide a great opportunity to teach our own children the value of family, the blessing of obedience (obeying the law), the need for discipline, and the joy of giving to others―things most incarcerated youths have missed. We tell the students in the prison what we’ve done for their guards, which sets an example of respecting and honoring authority―another life lesson often missed. Everyone involved is blessed.
Jennifer Castro
Plano, Texas

Creating Personal Touches

When I’m in line at a coffee shop, I tell the cashier I’m paying for my order and the one behind me. Although it’s a simple gesture, it makes me smile, and I’m certain the person behind me smiles, too.
Amy Schomacker
Indianapolis, Indiana

After succumbing to a brain injury in 2001, I lost my career and life as I knew it. I’ve been slowly regaining the use of my brain and my motor skills for the past 16 months. During that process, I realized that I was a photographer. Eventually I realized that I was a very good photographer, and this was a major facilitator in my healing. I often think of the people I love when I’m walking in nature, taking hundreds of images. When they tell me their favorites, I often spend many weeks working on those images to make them perfect and beautiful. After signing them electronically, I put photographic images on a disc and present them to my loved ones and friends as gifts.
Valerie Johnson
Tumwater, Washington

I like to give back to my grandma during the holidays by doing the cleanup after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. She has done so much for me, from the way she raised my mother to the ways she has encouraged me to follow my passion for education. Cleaning up after meals so she has more time with other out-of-town family members is my way of giving back to one who has given so much to me all year long.
Beth Portice
Stevensville, Michigan

So many people say, “I just don’t have time to do Christmas cards this year,” but I always make sure to send a card to the important people in my life, and I always add a personal note. It’s my way of giving back to the people who give me so much of their love, time, and friendship throughout the year.
Samantha McKenna
Alexandria, Virginia

Making Charitable Donations

The most significant gifts I’ve ever received over the holidays have been charitable donations made in my name. Every year, my husband makes a donation to the National MS Society on my behalf, and although we don’t talk about my disease every day, his gift lets me know he thinks of me and cares. The best present my mother has ever given me and my sister was a scholarship for a girl in East Africa, and this Christmas I am planning to do something special for my two daughters as well.
Heather Seal-Breslin
Hartsdale, New York

I try to do little things that may make a big difference in someone’s day. For example, last year during the chaotic holiday season, I left a hardworking waitress a $20 tip for a $5 lunch bill. Her joyful response made me as happy as she was.
Lindsay Coppens
Worcester, Massachusetts

I always try to make sure I have dollar bills or change in my purse for the Salvation Army buckets.
Heather Anderson
Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota

My kids and I always go through the toys they’ve received over the past year. If there is anything that they haven’t played with or are too old for, we donate it to a local church or mission. This way, the kids have room for anything new they get and another child can use the toy as happily as they did.
Nicole Elliott
Kansas City, Missouri

My husband and I have seven nieces and nephews and no children of our own. Every year at Christmas, we buy animals in their names for poor families living in Third World countries through a charitable organization called Heifer International. Sometimes we buy chicks; other times, bees or rabbits. The kids love reading about which animals we have selected each year and hope to someday have enough money to be able to buy a cow in their own names. It has become a tradition, and we love that it puts the focus back on the holiday spirit of giving.
Molly McCaffrey
Bowling Green, Kentucky