The self-proclaimed book elf

Books at Christmas Connection

When I was a freshman in college, my speech professor was very community-oriented. Our class was required to deliver a talk on a worthy local charity — and that assignment was a chance to flex our persuasive muscles. The goal? Convincing our classmates to help in whatever way they could. And inspiring us to lend a hand, too.

Helping others is close to my heart, and I chose an organization easily. That Christmas in 2003, I volunteered to help distribute toys to needy families in Southern Maryland. The gratitude, spirit of giving and generosity were so inspiring — and it was an unforgettable experience.

I’ve always wanted to go back and help again, but . . . well, in the past nine years, life has just happened. Every fall I get a letter from Christmas Connection asking if I can help by donating toys or time. Though I always chip in with merchandise, thinking that’s the fun part (shopping!), I decided it was high time to get back into the nitty-gritty of the program. A few months back, I signed up to help distribute toys on Dec. 18. My sister joined in, too.

It’s been a crazy few days, obviously, and the holidays are definitely sneaking up on me. Despite being in the Christmas spirit since October and having this event on my calendar for months, I’m struggling to get myself together since the presentation of my sparkly new accessory! But Kate and I donned our Santa hats Tuesday night and rolled over to the church to help.

A volunteer addressed the group soon after we arrived. “Thank you all for coming!” she called. “Okay — I need some volunteers to distribute books.”

Books? Say what? I hadn’t realized there were books. Recalling last time I helped, I figured there would be toys, toiletries, stockings. But books?

I was on the book table in no time. You’re shocked, I know.

While Kate shopped with individual clients, helping choose gifts for 2- and 3- and 15-year-olds, I manned the books with a teacher. It was easy to channel my bookselling days: who are you shopping for today? What types of stories do they like? Can they read on their own? Are they into chapter books? Do they like princesses or animals or history?

I felt like a self-proclaimed book elf, my jingle-bell necklace bobbing with every step I took.

We tore through some books on Tuesday, let me tell you. Two hours passed in the blink of an eye. Most of the books on our massive table, pictured at top, were donated by individuals or businesses. But even the used ones were in good shape — and plenty of gems could be found. I delighted in finding perfect reads for youngsters, thinking about how the right story can unlock the imagination of a child. In the overflowing stacks were books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, R.L. Stine. I found Goosebumps, Ramona and Beezus, Black Beauty.

“Did you read this when you were little?” I asked, over and over again. The parents’ delighted smiles were the constant response.

Many smiled widely, gently taking my offerings. Four books per child — and some moms and dads could barely narrow down their stacks. While just a few people bypassed the books completely, nearly everyone devoted time to choosing just the right reads. And they took my recommendations seriously.

“My son loves history. He reads so well — really well. Do you have anything on American history?”

“Do you have any dictionaries?”

“Have you seen an atlas? Or anything on the presidents?”

“What would you recommend for a 13-year-old boy who loves adventure?”

The boys were the toughest — but I love a challenge. I’m happy to say no one left empty-handed — and I know every novel will land with the right person.

Any stereotype regarding parents who turn to charity to supply their kids with Christmas gifts could be dismissed after spending just ten minutes at a program like this. While there will always be folks taking advantage of the system, that’s never been my personal experience. Everyone I met was happy, grateful and warm. The mood was festive. When we left, we felt uplifted.

And I wasn’t thinking about it as charity work. I wasn’t there because I had to be. Nothing buffs the spirit to a shine like helping others — and I was thinking about matching a child with the perfect book for him or her. So many parents delighted in telling me how much their kids love books, which surprised me — especially in this era. But there we were.

And I hope there are plenty of happy kids with the Wimpy Kid and Berenstain Bears on Christmas morning. I’m thinking about them all.

Lending a (written) hand: Holiday Mail for Heroes

Every Thanksgiving morning, my sister and I get up early to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and honor a new but very fun tradition: addressing our holiday cards. As the bustle of Christmas really ramps up and we found ourselves long on things to do and short on energy and time in which to do them, it’s easy to let simple craft projects — like card-making — fall by the wayside.

I’m a strong believer in the power of mail and connecting through the written word. I’m an active member of Postcrossing, an international postcard sharing site, and trade handwritten notes with friends and fellow bloggers as often as possible. In our increasingly high-tech and high-powered world, the art of letter-writing — any writing, really — appears to be less relevant. Teens talk and write academic papers in LOL- and text-speak. Facebook groups annouce engagements, babies, travel plans. We communicate through Twitter and texting. We don’t even pick up the phone.

And look, I get it — I’m pretty plugged in myself. It’ll be a cold, dark day before you pry my smartphone from my limp fingers or get me to shut down my social media or this blog itself. But I don’t think those channels should replace things like real, honest-to-goodness mail. In 100 years, will anyone be looking through family heirlooms to read old love tweets between their great-grandparents?

Well, I mean — maybe. Who knows. Look how much our technology has changed in just a decade. In two decades. It’s unrecognizable.

But you’re following me on this, right?

Last year while snacking on breakfast foods and waving to Santa on his sleigh ride through New York City, I did something simple: while writing out my usual batch of cards to friends and family, I added a few cards for Holiday Mail for Heroes. I used my regular Christmas cards, most of which I buy in boxed sets for less than $10. I added a personal note thanking a service member for their sacrifice and shared news about my corner of the world, trying to spread holiday wishes and cheer.

It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s very easy. And it makes a difference.

Operated by the Red Cross, the Holiday Mail for Heroes program asks volunteers to send holiday cards to be collected and distributed to military service members in December. Now through Dec. 9, send your cards — any holiday card you like — to help make someone’s season brighter.

“The process is very simple and takes no time at all,” the Red Cross writes. “All you need is a pen and piece of paper to share your appreciation for the sacrifices members of the U.S. Armed Forces make to protect our freedoms. … Sending a ‘touch of home’ to American men and women who serve our country is the perfect way to express your appreciation and support during the holiday season.”

Holiday cards can be sent to:

Holiday Mail For Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

For more information and card guidelines, visit the Holiday Mail for Heroes website — and check out the video below. See if it doesn’t warm your heart.

Gather the family and make card-sending a new holiday tradition. You won’t be sorry you did.

The email that got me hungry — to help others

At work, I get a lot of email. Press releases (cars, medicine, summits, children’s products), email telling me I’m great, email telling me I’ve screwed up, email from friends and coworkers and forwards from all of the above. Microsoft Outlook is always up, always ready — and always streaming messages. They never end.

I read all of them, of course, even if I don’t respond right away — especially if I’m on deadline. But every now and then, I get a note that stops me completely and forces me to minimize the Internet (unfathomable). As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a columnist. I write biweekly stories that run in three local newspapers in my hometown and neighboring counties, all in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Over the past year, the column has (wonderfully!) begun to grow — so I get more messages than ever before. Sometimes folks want me to cover things for them; sometimes they’re just being kind and sharing compliments. I like those.

But one email? Well, this Tuesday morning email got me. It got me good. A local woman and acquaintance forwarded information about a food drive her husband is conducting on behalf of a local food bank — and divulged that this year, donations are way down. With the recession and everyone tightening their purses, of course, that seems inevitable. But very disappointing.

I’m big on charity. It doesn’t take much for me to spring into action — a sad story; a personal outreach — and for some reason, Karen’s note had me spluttering at my desk. People hungry — and at Christmas. No one should have to go hungry in a country that is still so prosperous. One of our neighboring counties was recently recognized as the sixth wealthiest in the United States. You’re telling me we can’t all spare a few cans of food?

I went crazy. I went on a mission. I was so anxious sitting at my desk, reading about the disappointing turn-out for the food drive, I defaulted to one of my new favorite phrases: “Okay — I got this.”

My heart: it’s easily broken. And touched. When I hear something upsetting and I think that I can do something, I want to. Badly.

And, when I can, I do.

After perusing forums for the best foods to contribute to pantries, I wrote myself out a little list and drove to a grocery store on my lunch break. In twenty minutes, I had my cart loaded and brimming and looked quite the sight. In my dress slacks, pearls and heeled boots, I paid for my loot and drove straight to the site of the food drive. My entire backseat was loaded with bags — rice, canned meats and vegetables, jarred fruits, powdered milk, pudding snacks, tuna — and I ran in like a tornado, introducing myself and wielding my bags like trophies.

That poor man running the drive probably didn’t know what hit him.

My Friday column is about our local food banks and the importance of giving. Toys at the holidays are important, yes, and goodness knows I don’t want any kid waking up to a barren Christmas tree on Dec. 25. But more than that? I don’t want to think about any child going hungry — or any adult sitting with a grumbling stomach so their kids can eat. Eating is a necessity. It’s a basic right. It’s something I take for granted every day of my life, but as I told Karen by email earlier this week, her husband’s food drive already changed one person’s life: mine.

And I was so touched by the email, going to the food drive and the absolute high I got from helping that I’m organizing a canned goods contribution at work to benefit that food drive! So I’ll be rolling up in my Toyota bearing bags again once more.

It’s cliche, friends, but it’s true: if you’re having a bad day, assist someone else. Look at the smile and gratitude on someone’s face when you tell them that you’re going to help. The man organizing that food drive woke up Tuesday dejected that he wouldn’t be able to assist the food bank the way he had in years past, and you know what? I helped him — and realized I have a platform in which to reach the community. When I write things, people might listen. Maybe they take it to heart, maybe they don’t, but hey — they heard me.

And if that means Ray gets a few more cans to send over, I feel like I can rest easy tonight. On a job well done.

I hope this wasn’t a PSA. More than anything, this experience has brought me a few quick lessons:

A) Doing something “small” for someone else probably isn’t small to them.
B) Good writing has the power to change lives.

I don’t know if anyone will read my column or if, in reading that, people will feel moved to bring food to the drive. I hope they do. But even if they don’t, maybe I’ve planted a seed — the same seed Karen planted with her email to me. It pulled me out of the hustle-and-bustle of my everyday life, especially at the holidays, and got me thinking about how I can do more to help my fellow (wo)man.

If we’re not doing that, what are we doing?

Find a local food bank in your area and see if you can help out — even if you’re just dropping off a bag of food at the holidays. It probably won’t be “just one bag” to someone else.

We got this, y’all.

Crafting hope one stitch at a time

I have a serious love affair with the Internet — and things like Twitter. And furthermore, I love bloggers who become friends — and share their inspiration with the rest of us! I was innocently tweeting away the other day, as I often do, about the crochet projects I’m working on — for customers on Etsy and to appease my own creative energy. The lovely and talented Lexi of Tea and Crumpets responded to one of my tweets about crochet by asking: “Have you heard about the Red Scarf Project?”

“The wha?” was my initial reaction, but it didn’t take long for me to get myself over to Google and investigate. The Red Scarf Project is a “unique initiative to warm the hearts (and necks) of college-found foster youth.” A charity drive by the Orphan Foundation of America, the Red Scarf Project is rather simple: knitters and crocheters are asked to simply make and send red scarves to the foundation, which distributes them via care packages to their students in college as reminders of those who are cheering them on and thinking of them as they study, work and live. Even if we’ve never met them.

Sounds awesome, right? And as someone who has a hard time even watching TV in the evenings without a hook and chunk of yarn in my lap, this sounded like the perfect project for me. I like charity! I like helping! I like making scarves!

Only problem? The deadline for this year had passed. The scarves collected through Dec. 15, 2009 will now be distributed to the college students on Feb. 14. With a sigh of dismay, I closed out the 10 million browser windows open on my computer (seriously, multi-tasking is in the blood) and slunk away to find a Diet Coke and drown my misery in caffeinated, fizzy and noncaloric goodness.

Enter Lexi — and Craft Hope, a crafting website and community dedicated to helping others through crafts! Their sixth project is for — you guessed it! — the Red Scarf Project, and Craft Hope got special permission to extend the deadline for submitting red scarves to the initiative! YES!

You’d have thought someone handed me a multi-book publishing deal, I was so excited. And I made my first scarf this past weekend, with plans to make at least one more before the new Feb. 14 deadline. The group asks that the scarves be unisex — or as close to unisex as possible — and I can’t really see any gentlemen rocking the little number I have on at left! Therefore, I’m making another red scarf — wider, a little darker in color. Hopefully a young man won’t feel too awkward sporting it. Or, at the very least, he’ll make it his own!

In all seriousness, I think this is such an awesome project — and I’m so glad to have discovered it from Lexi! I really, really love to crochet and had no idea there was such a world of charitable crafting. Being all Internet- and blog-obsessed, I suppose I should have figured that out sooner, but I’m really happy to have learned about it now!

If you’d like to get involved, please do — Craft Hope has all of the information on the project. You can also see more about the Orphan Foundation of America or learn about the ways Craft Hope is now helping Haiti through crafts.

Crafters are such a devoted, generous crew, and I really feel like nothing beats handmade. At the risk of sounding cheesy (but it’s never stopped me before), there’s a little bit of love in every stitch. Aww.