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Monday, December 13, 2010

Are You Rich?

Do you feel rich? I do, but not in the monetary sense. We may not be among the wealthiest people in the country, but I bet most of us don't have to choose between buying medications and food, or between paying the heating bill and buying groceries.

Do you live in a place that keeps you warm and dry? Do you have food on your plate every day? Do you have warm clothes to protect you from the winter cold? If so, you are better off than millions of your countrymen. Things are worse than usual during these rough economic times, with many people out of work for months or even years. More people than ever are struggling just to get by.

Those of us who have been blessed with a nice place to live, with warm clothes and a pantry full of food, can help our less fortunate brethren. Donating money to a food bank, soup kitchen or agency that helps the poor, homeless or elderly is one way. But even if we don't have much extra cash to spare, there are other ways to help.

Volunteering is one way to be of service, and all it costs is your time. Food banks and soup kitchens are overwhelmed with volunteers during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. But they need help year-round. Or how about visiting a resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility? Many of these people have no one to visit them, to chat with or to play a simple game of checkers or cards with them.

If you're like me and my daughter, your closets are full of clothes you haven't worn in years. Maybe they're out of style, maybe you've outgrown them or maybe you're just tired of them. Whatever the reason, there are people spending the night on the cold streets who can really use your unwanted winter coats, sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves. In Albuquerque alone, between 3,000 and 5,000 people spend the night outside because they have no place to live. Temperatures already are in the teens overnight, and Albuquerque's frequent howling winds make temperatures feel even colder. We went through our closets recently and found six perfectly good winter coats, three sweaters and two sweatshirts that we no longer want. I dropped those off at a store that is collecting warm clothes for the needy, along with six pairs of gloves. Donating these clothes won't cost us a dime, and it will free up space in our closets. If you can knit, crochet or sew, how about making some warm scarves or hats to donate?

When my daughter got a new, larger bed, we were left with six sets of sheets we no longer need. Some are brand new; one set has never been used. Those were donated to  church-run 'free store' that provides household goods at no cost to the needy.

A woman I know in California, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, wrote a song called No Place Like Home. That song, and the video produced in conjunction with it, inspired her to get involved with homelessness organizations. She organized a benefit concert in San Jose recently, at which she collected donations of clothes and easy-to-carry snacks such as granola bars. She also donated proceeds from the sales of her CDs. Since then, she has been asked by homeless groups in Palo Alto and San Francisco to organize concerts in their cities. She is making a difference by donating her time and talents, and by raising awareness.

Take advantage of grocery sales and stock up on non-perishable food items to donate. Many stores have collection barrels at the store entrance. One of our local stores recently featured national-brand canned vegetables at 3 cans/$1. Soup, pasta, cereal, canned stews and chili, juice boxes, canned tuna and peanut butter are all good items to donate. I'm always amazed at how much food I can get simply by watching for sales.

One of my annual traditions is donating money to the Southwest Indian Foundation for a couple of food baskets for needy members of the Navajo Nation. I've done this in lieu of gifts for friends at Christmas. This year, I also plan to donate money to provide Christmas stockings for Navajo children; at $5 each, this is a small price to bring joy to a child who otherwise might not receive anything for Christmas.

Many utility companies offer programs through which we can add a bit extra to our utility payments, to help those on low fixed incomes pay their heating bills. Skip a couple of drinks from Starbucks and donate $10 to help an elderly person stay warm this winter. What a wonderful gift that will be to a senior citizen struggling to pay the heating bill, or suffering in the cold to save money on heat.

We can forgo things we want but don't really need, and use that money to help others. It isn't a real hardship to skip eating out once in a while, and donate the money to an agency struggling to help those who most need it. My daughter and I spent more than $50 a few weeks ago on one dinner (no dessert) at the Lonestar steakhouse. That money could have helped provide a lot of food for others.

Adopt a needy family and provide a holiday meal. I did that a few years ago through my church in Houston. Volunteers were asked to buy everything for a complete Thanksgiving meal for a family. I had a shopping list of suggested items, everything from a cake mix to a roasting pan and a turkey. I adopted two families and provided complete meals for them. I felt good knowing that I had made a difference, if only for a day, in the lives of two local families.

Some stores have 'giving trees' that have basic information about a person in need, such as gender, clothing size, etc., and a short 'wish list.' People are encouraged to 'adopt' someone and buy a Christmas gift for that person.

My daughter and I both love animals, so we find ways to help them during the holidays, too. I recently ordered a new bed for one of my dogs, but it was too small. Rather than hassling with returning it, I decided to donate it to an animal shelter. Shelters and rescue groups always need dog and cat food, toys, pet beds, cat litter, towels and cleaning supplies. Many include a 'wish list' on their Web sites. Volunteers are almost always needed, too.

My message is simple: We don't have to be celebrities. We don't have to be wealthy. We aren't expected to cure the problems of hunger or homelessness or loneliness.

We just have to choose to do something to help those less fortunate than we are. Even a little bit -- money, time, canned goods, a warm coat -- can make such a difference in someone's life. Imagine the impact we could make if everybody did a little something to help, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.