Family holiday tradition: Christmas giving

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, poet, and leader of the mid-19th century Transcendentalist movement

On Giving Tuesday, December 2nd, I was on a business trip in Dallas. Despite meetings and keeping up with my projects, I was hoping to find a local nonprofit services agency to make a donation. That didn’t happen, so my back-up plan was to make an online donation. But the day ended before I could take action. Doing something the next day wasn’t going to work and the moment was lost anyway, so I decided to wait until I got home and include an extra donation when my family and I planned to gather one evening in front of the fireplace and partake in our own season of sharing. As is our tradition, we each have $50 to donate, but because there were so many worthy causes that came to our attention, we all chose to donate $25 each to two different organizations.

Isabella greeting rescue dogs at Picnic Day, UC Davis, April 2014.

Isabella greeting – and falling in love with – the puppies in training to be sight-seeing dogs at Picnic Day, UC Davis, April 2014.

Isabella: Protecting animals and our environment
I received a first-time solicitation from The Humane Farming Association (76 Belvedere Street, San Rafael, CA 94901, 415.485.1495), an animal protection organization that also runs the country’s largest farm animal refuge. I’d never heard of HFA, whose tagline is “campaign against factory farming,” but upon reading its literature I was brought back to my college days of supporting various Greenpeace initiatives, particularly the one against eating veal – “no veal this meal” – because of the inhumane practice of crating calves to keep their muscles from developing. This is one of HFA’s major campaigns. Given Isabella’s commitment to protecting animals, I expected her to pick HFA as one of her recipients, which she did without hesitation.

Isabella also chose the Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (2290 North First Street, Suite 101, San Jose, CA 95131, 408.372.9900, help line 800.272.3900). As we announced each organization in our pile, David and I explained to the kids what problems the organizations were addressing and what solutions they were employing. Isabella explained that by funding this organization now, she hopes they will find a cure in the near future. Luckily, she doesn’t know anyone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, though I have seen it up close and through my friends’ eyes. It’s an awful disease, devastating the sufferer and family and friends, and I share in Isabella’s hope that one day we can find a cure.

Jacob: Supporting our vets and ‘passing on the gift’
As I read the holiday solicitation letter from The Wounded Warrior Project (4899 Belfort Road, Suite 300, Jacksonville, FL 32256, 904.296.7350), a nonprofit organization that supports veterans and their families with programs, services and events, I figured that Jacob would gravitate to its mission. His interest in WWII and war genre movies has given him an understanding of the traumatic impact of war on soldiers and communities in war zones. WWP serves veterans who were injured in military action following September 11, 2001. In September 2014, WWP released the results of its annual alumni survey taken by more than 21,000 service men and women injured since 9/11. The results are tragic. Seven percent of WWP members are permanently housebound, 75 percent report “being haunted by upsetting military experiences,” and 43 percent reported traumatic brain injuries. Another sobering stat: 75 percent of warriors have less than a bachelor’s degree. By raising awareness, WWP hopes more people will help our country’s returning vets and their families get the support they need and deserve.

Jacob was moved by JFK's grave site and its eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, February 2014.

Jacob was moved by JFK’s grave site and its eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery, February 2014.

The kids have always chosen organizations that protect endangered species, but this year Jacob made a donation to Heifer International (1 World Avenue, Little Rock, AR 72202, 855.948.6437), an organization founded in 1944 “to eradicate poverty and hunger through sustainable, values-based holistic community development.” Heifer International provides livestock and training to struggling communities, promotes women’s empowerment, provides basic needs, and supports sustainable farming. Its mission is based on the concept of “passing on the gift,” so instead of giving milk to a family in need, for example, the organization donates farm animals that not only provide food but also provide a means of living and a chance for the family and the community to become self-sustaining and self-reliant. Jacob chose to fund a share in the purchase of a water buffalo under Heifer International’s farm animal donation program. Who knows? That water buffalo could be helping out a family in my father’s province in the Philippines.

Celebrating our anniversary at Tratoria Corso, Berkeley, September 2014. David believes in supporting local organizations. I believe in big hearts.

Celebrating our anniversary at Tratoria Corso, Berkeley, September 2014. David believes in supporting local organizations. I believe in big hearts.

David: Helping locally
David has always chosen local organizations, particularly those that help the homebound elderly and the homeless. This year was no different. Bay Area Rescue Mission (2114 Macdonald Avenue, Richmond, CA 94801, 510.215.4555), which was founded in 1965, provides meals, emergency shelter, recovery programs, and jobs and skills-training for the homeless and impoverished in our local communities. The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties (4010 Nelson Avenue, Concord, CA 94520, 925.676.7543) provides emergency food to two local counties. According to the Hunger in America 2010 report, 28 percent of people needing emergency food are children, 86.5 percent of clients had income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, 71 percent of households did not include an employed adult (an increase of 3 percent compared to the 2006 report), and 35.7 percent of clients had to choose between paying for food or paying for rent or mortgage. This report was the first research study to capture the connection between the recent economic downturn and the increased need for emergency food assistance. According to the study, the number of people in need of food has increased 46 percent since the 2006 report. While the recession has ended, so we’re told, for many families and individuals the struggle continues. For those of us who are fortunate, we must certainly share what we can.

David and I also donated to KQED, the San Francisco-based PBS station on Channel 9, which we have relied on to watch many great programs this past year, including JFK: American Experience and Freedom Riders: American Experience, the latter focusing on the black and white American civil rights activists who traveled on buses and trains in the Deep South in 1961. Oftentimes, we take PBS stations for granted because it’s just another channel on our television. This is a reminder of how fortunate we are to have quality programs on these stations.

Back to my idealistic roots, UC Davis, Picnic Day, April 2014.

Back to my idealistic roots, UC Davis, Picnic Day, April 2014.

Patty: ‘It’s personal’
For me, aside from the Environmental Defense Fund (257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, 800.684.3322), the U.S.-based environmental advocacy group that “protects the Earth’s resources using smart economics, practical partnerships and rigorous science,” my choices were rooted in organizations with which I have a deep or special history. I wrote about Rubicon Programs (510.235.1516, 2500 Bissell, Richmond, CA 94804), whose mission is “to transform East Bay communities by equipping low-income people to break the cycle of poverty,” in a series of blogs earlier this year. My good friend Jane Fischberg is the president and executive director of Rubicon, which places low-income East Bay residents in jobs and housing and gets them access to legal services and healthcare through a personalized, comprehensive collection of services. Last year, Rubicon served more than 4,000 people across Alameda and Contra Costa counties. More than 670 unemployed people secured jobs, thanks to this wonderful organization. When you consider that more than a third of these people have been incarcerated at one point in their lives, it’s truly amazing what Rubicon Programs has achieved. I’m really proud of Jane and the work that her organization does.

The other two organizations I chose for my Giving Tuesday recipients were the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC Main Office 801 St. Paul Street Baltimore, MD 21202, 410.244.1733) and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I joined the JVC in 1988-1990, first as a librarian and math tutor at a high school in St. Mary’s, AK, and the following year as an editor for The Prisoners Rights Union, a 1970s nonprofit co-founded by a Jesuit priest in San Francisco. I participated at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ writers workshops three years back in the late 1990s. I went to the workshops on scholarship twice, so I fully believe in giving back and allowing other writers to attend these workshops, which not only provide wonderful guidance for one’s writing but also life-long friendships. I also believe in helping to fund the college-graduate volunteers who enter the JVC, providing direct service to organizations that serve the poor and marginalized in their local communities. JVC’s four tenets, based on the Catholic, Ignatian values, are spirituality (small “s,” though now it’s called spiritual growth), simple lifestyle, community, and social justice. Though I’m in a completely different world now, those four tenets still resonate with me.

Rejecting complacency
When I wrote this blog the other night, I was watching a late-night news piece on local churches and shelters taking in the homeless during our current cold spell. A recovering meth addict talked about turning the corner when his habit forced him out on the street. A volunteer at one of the local churches who was serving food noted that one ecstatic homeless man told her he hadn’t had a cup of coffee in two months. At some point in the reporting, I stepped back and asked myself why, instead of accepting the growing homelessness as the norm, we aren’t outraged or incredulous by this growing problem. How did we allow so many in our communities to end up on the streets? I realize that it’s a difficult question with a complicated answer, but one thing I do know is that we have to reject complacency and open our eyes and open up our hearts. To me, the holidays are a time for reflection and compassion. Let’s act on that, and discover that every day can be a holiday.

"Teach your children well."

“Teach your children well” (outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, August 2014).