Although I now make my living as a writer, I was once a teacher... of incarcerated teenage boys. Rest assured, I didn’t do it for the salary (of next to nothing) or for the glory (of facing a room full of apathetic adolescents each day). I did it because I enjoy giving back. I did it because, in changing just one life, the world is forever altered. Let’s face it: We all need a little help from time to time, and, on occasion, we all need a soft place to fall. Read on for some simple ways to give back this season to make your holidays a bit more meaningful and bright. And don’t worry. None involve standing in front of a classroom.
1. Write Your Own Toy Story
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Michael Cremin is a man on a (non-military) mission. He runs the Rhode Island Toys for Tots Foundation program. One day, Cremin was sorting through toys in the warehouse when a woman walked up to him, a man and a boy trailing behind her. “She asked if I had any toys her son could have,” Cremin recalls. “Her son was an older child, 16 or 17, and very shy. Immediately, I knew there was something special about this kid. I found a beautiful acoustic guitar that had been donated and handed it to him. He clutched the guitar and started crying. The mom broke down in tears too, thanking me over and over. The man leaned in and told me that the boy’s dad, a musician, had just passed away. ‘How did you know?’ he asked me.”
Unlike toy drive programs where you buy specifically requested items for individual children, Toys for Tots will accept any new, unwrapped toy. “We have toy drop off points throughout the state, including Cardi’s, Toys “R” Us, even mom and pop shops,” Cremin says. He and his Marines then distribute the donated toys to non-profits, such as the YMCA, Crossroads, and battered women’s shelters, and directly to families in need. “The people who give truly want to help and those who receive are very grateful. I meet the best people in the world.” Cremin notes that his team is really struggling this year. “Whatever support we can get – donations, toys, etc. – we’d be very grateful.” Toys for Tots. 529-6092, firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Accent the Holidays
As someone with a great number of friends who hail from different parts of the world, I have a soft spot for International House of Rhode Island. Each fall, students arrive in Providence from all over the world to study at Brown, RISD, and JWU. The International House sponsors the International Friendship Program, which matches students with community residents who act as hosts. Hosts can invite a student into their home for the holidays, giving them a bit of American culture and warm hospitality. International House of Rhode Island, 8 Stimson Avenue. 421-7181, www.internationalhouseofri.org.
3. Create a Keepsake
East Side parents Lorne Adrain and Ann Hood have filled their Christmas tree with hundreds of “stories.” During the year, Adrain collects keepsakes from his travels to use as tree ornaments. Stones “from the summits of the world’s highest mountains,” coins, and even fallen teeth are just some of the remarkable items dangling from Adrain’s tree. According to Adrain, “A trip to Rome or China or Peru results in coins, currency, and little pieces of historical places that have fallen to the ground, ending up in my pocket for use in ornaments.”
4. Set Up Your Own Charitable Foundation
Everyone knows the really big Foundations: Bill Gates, Ted Turner, the Rockefellers, the Fords. But thanks to our own R.I. Foundation, you can create your very own foundation here in Rhode Island for a surprisingly mod- est amount. According to Carol Golden, executive vice president and chief development officer at RIF, you can have your own named fund for as little as $10,000. Cement your legacy, support an area of charitable giving that’s meaningful to you, and teach your children to think philanthropically, all with one grand gesture. Contact Carol at email@example.com or call her at 427-4027.
5. Give the Gift That Keeps On Giving
Long time East Side native Ted Loebenberg divides his time between Providence and Louisville, Kentucky. Remarkably, he has donated blood to the Rhode Island Blood Center for 46 years. Loenenberg says he donates a pint of double R cells every 16 weeks. His generosity earned him a plaque at the old blood center, which was located in University Heights Plaza on North Main. “I was one of the first gallon donators,” he recalls. The center has grown considerably since then, moving its Providence branch downtown and adding four others. In May, Loenenberg reached a milestone: he donated his 18th gallon. Now that’s a lot of blood. “This isn’t about me,” he’s quick to add. “I donate because I can and because it helps the community.” Founded in 1979, the center has 55,000 donors. Still, the holiday season presents challenges as folks get wrapped up in the chaos of buying gifts, cooking meals and caring for the kids. Although schools may close down for winter break and adults may take time off from work, the demand for blood never takes a vacation. “There is no greater gift you can give,” says Frank Prosnitz, the center’s communication manager. “When you save a life, especially the life of a child, you make a difference to future generations.” Loebenberg, who has undoubtedly saved many lives thus far, asks “Where would our community be if every adult who could donate one hour per month actually did? Think about it. Where would we be?” Rhode Island Blood Center, 405 Promenade Street. 453-8360, www.ribc.org.
6. Heal the World
Every day 35,000 children in the developing world under the age of five die due to substandard health conditions and otherwise treatable infectious diseases. A major cause is the lack of doctors. Adopt A Doctor, whose mission is to “stop the brain drain that is drawing experienced physicians away from the poorest countries in Africa”, seeks to remedy this issue. This brain drain is mainly related to extremely low salaries which are typically less than $100 per month. Adopt A Doctor uses one hundred percent of donations to provide financial aid and critical resources to doctors working in areas where people need care the most. Adopt A Doctor, 101 Dyer Street. 421-0606, www.adoptadoctor.org.
7. Fall in Puppy Love
Adopting a homeless animal, either for yourself or as a gift, seems like a wonderful idea come the holidays. Sadly, many dogs and cats are returned as soon as the allure of red bow collars are replaced by the reality of soiled carpets and early morning walks in the snow. If you’d like to help animals in need but aren’t ready for the commitment of adoption, attend a Providence Animal Rescue League monthly volunteer information session to find the opportunity that’s right for you. From fostering felines to walking pups, assistance is always welcome. Providence Animal Rescue League, 34 Elbow Street. 421-1399, www.parl.org.
8. Respect Your Elders
One of the simplest reasons to live on the East Side is because here we have wonderful neighbors. Part of that camaraderie lies in our various neighborhood groups, each of which strives to make their slice of the city a safer and more pleasant environment for all. The Summit Neighborhood Association organizes snow-shoveling assistance for the elderly, proving again how lucky we all are to live where we do. If you’d like to volunteer to shovel this winter, simply contact the SNA. Summit Neighborhood Association, 99 Hillside Drive. www.sna.providence.ri.us.
9. Bank Here
Many of the people we walk past every day are living with HIV/AIDS. AIDS Project RI provides education and services to those living with or at risk for contracting the disease. The organization is always looking for donations and volunteers. While their two largest fundraisers, Dining Out for Life and AIDS Walk for Life, take place in the spring and fall, respectively, interested parties are always welcome to help out with office work and to provide assistance at their food bank. AIDS Project Rhode Island, 404 Wickenden Street. 831- 5522, www.aidsprojectri.org.
10. Play Santa...for Real!
A few years ago, an anonymous East Sider got word that “some guy out West” was giving out hundred dollar bills to strangers and a light bulb went off. “I knew I couldn’t do that,”he says, “but then I started thinking that even though we are in difficult times, we are all really quite lucky and have so much to be grateful for.” He decided to don a Santa suit and go downtown to hand out one dollar bills, the idea being that it’s less about the denomination than simply the act of giving. “If a person is given some small token that asks them to think about some stranger on the street for whom a dollar might really help, what would they do?” He’s emblazoned a stack of ones with the simple phrase: “Please give this (and another $1 if you can) to someone who needs it. Merry Christmas.” While he’s only roped one of his children – the youngest, who doesn’t yet call him stupid – into accompanying him in his annual task, his hope is that she remembers that they did it together and recalls the idea behind it. “Hope that the act might inspire a ripple-down effect through space and time,” he says, “making the spirit in our community just a tiny bit better.”
11. Decorate Your Halls
Decorate the halls of your house, your gingerbread house, that is. Head south, to the Artists’ Exchange, in Cranston, on December 1 for the eighth annual Gingerbread House Decorating Contest. Participants are supplied with a simple graham cracker construction, boatloads of frosting, heaps of candy, and a 30-minute allotment. Winning houses take home prizes, which include free art classes worth up to $200. There will also be holiday crafts, grab bags, raffles, and face painting. Providence photographer Nicole Gesmondi will be on hand taking photos of attendees in all their glory. 50 Rolfe Square, Cranston. 490-9475, www.artists-exchange.org.
12. Keep Everything Kosher
Chanukah begins on December 8. Here are two things you can do to add meaning to the festivities. The Jewish Federation of RI is looking for help delivering Kosher meals Mondays through Fridays, over the holidays and beyond, since many of their regular volunteers go south for the winter. Contact Neil Drobnis at the Federation (421-4111 x107) or Susan Adler at the Kosher Food Pantry (351-4750) if you can help.
Another way to put a spin on the holiday (without resorting to dreidels of course) is to invite Fishel Bresler to your next party. A well-known East Side musician, Fishel is known for his local public performances, drawn from klezmer (“the heartfeltinstrumental music of Eastern European Jewish life”), bluegrass, and the hypothetical Great American Song- book. He has played at so many celebrations, schools, synagogues, parades, malls, grange halls, and events, his wife reports that anywhere they drive he seems to be constantly saying, “Oh! I remember playing there... “ Trust us, he will definitely add some magic to your Chanukah celebration. Find Fishel Bresler on Facebook.
13. Give the Gift of Date Night
As much as parents adore their little ones, they occasionally need a break. Why not scoop your nieces and nephews up for the night and bring them to a holiday show? Festival Ballet puts on a wonderful Nutcracker and we can always look forward to Trinity’s unique spin on A Christmas Carol. Because children should be introduced to cultural experiences as early and often as possible, and because you hope that someday your sibling will return the favor. Festival Ballet, 825 Hope Street. 353-1129, www.festivalballet.com. Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street. 351-4242, www.trinityrep.com.
14. Go Undercover
Forty thousand children under the age of six in Rhode Island live below the poverty level. For these children, lack of undergarments is a real concern, both for health and emotional reasons. Project Undercover collects and distributes diapers, underpants, and socks to needy area children. Project Undercover relies upon businesses and organizations holding on-site drives to collect items of underclothing in order to continue their mission. If you would like to organize a holiday drive at your workplace or community group, contact Abby McQuade. Project Undercover. 244-5466, www.projectundercover.org.
15. Buy Nothing at All
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the busiest shopping day of the year. People flood malls and stores to take advantage of the deep discounts. In an attempt to fight back against this tide of over-consumption, thousands of people participate in a national phenomenon called “Buy Nothing Day.” In Rhode Island, we hold an annual coat exchange. This year marks the 16th Buy Nothing Day Winter Coat Exchange. Folks are invited to visit a designated exchange site between 10am-2pm on Black Friday to donate or take a coat. The focus point of the sites, and the onefortunately closest to the East Side, is on the State House lawn. What makes the experience so meaningful, is that it is one of the few coat ex-change efforts where the donor and donee meet face to face. Hundreds of donors, volunteers, and recipients all congregate in a communal celebration of giving.
The exchange began when East Sider Greg Gerritt and several friends were thinking of ways to point out the pitfalls of rampant consumerism having a positive effect on the community. While Gerritt is glad he’s helping, he’s also quick to note the flipside: “People need coats because they’re poor and we haven’t done anything to really solve the problem.”
In addition to spearheading this project, Gerritt is well known for his environmental efforts as well. “In much of the world, the only thing that ends poverty is ecological healing. If you go to Africa and the people are hungry, the best thing to do is create agro-forestry there; when you heal the ecosystem and restore the forest, people eat better.” How does this translate to a small city like ours? “We need more community gardens in Providence,” he says. Gerritt’s goal is to get all our food scraps composted so we can grow more food. While he hasn’t yet created a way for you to donate your food scraps, he has done a really great thing here with the coat exchange. Swing by the Providence site, on the State House lawn, to buy nothing. www.prosperityforri.com.
16. Walk Kids to School
Last year, Family Service of Rhode Island’s Providence Children’s Initiative began working with families in South Providence who were having difficulty getting their children to school due to physical health or parental work issues. After discovering that most of these families lived within a mile of the school, the Initiative began recruiting adults to walk these children to school as part of what’s called The Walking School Bus. If you’ve got some time to spare, get out there and get walking. Family Service of Rhode Island, 55 Hope Street. 331-1350, www.familyserviceri.org.
17. Clean Your Closets For the Greater Good
Feed the hungry, house the homeless, and free people from addiction, just by ridding your house of the items you no longer use. Providence’s Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center relies on community donations to achieve their mission. They’re currently in need of appliances, automobiles, children’s clothing, furniture, men’s and women’s clothing, suits, and more. Donations are tax deductible and drop-off is as easy as swinging by on your way to neighboring Eastside Marketplace. Salvation Army, 201 Pitman Street. 421-5270, www.salvationarmyusa.org.
18. Help Low-Income Families Keep the Heat On This Winter
In 2005, Bishop Thomas Tobin arrived at the home of a North Providence couple that had fallen behind on their gas utility payment. The Bishop presented the family with a check for $2,700 to pay the late bill, an event that marked the beginning of the Keep the Heat On Assistance Program. By donating to the campaign, your gift could be the difference between life and death this winter, particularly for the elderly and those with infants in the home. If you’d like some musical accompaniment with your donation, you can attend a special concert on December 3 at 3 p.m. at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, located downtown, to benefit the Bishop’s fund. Keep the Heat On, 1 Cathedral Square. 421-7833, www.heatri.com.
19. Find the Volunteer Opportunity that’s Right for You
If you know you want to give back but you’re just not sure how, consider utilizing Serve Rhode Island. It matches interested parties with nonprofit organizations looking for help. The online database is user friendly and contains a vast array of listings from knitting or crocheting a shawl for a hospice patient to teaching basic etiquette to disabled adults who are seeking employment. They also offer employee volunteer programs and opportunities for seniors, youth, and families. Serve Rhode Island, 655 Broad Street. 331-2298, www.serverhodeisland.org.
20. Go Caroling
Mike Ritz, of Leadership Rhode Island, encourages everyone to “spread warmth and merriment during one of the coldest times of the year.” East Siders are invited to head across town as folks gather to go caroling through the historic streets of Providence’s West Side, an event held on the Sunday before Christmas each year. “We lubricate our voices at Loie Fuller’s from 5-6pm,” Ritz says, “and then venture out into the night, bringing good cheer door to door from 6-8pm, returning for milk and cookies at Fertile Underground.” This free festive event, to be held on December 23, is sponsored by Connect Providence, Fertile Underground, Hudson Street Deli, Kidoinfo. com, Leadership Rhode Island, Loie Fuller’s, the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) and WestSide Stories. Contact Leadership Rhode Island. 273-1574, www.leadershipri.org.
That’s how they do it. But why not round up your own group of East Side carolers and start a new tradition right here in our own community?. And can you think of a better way to meet your neighbors? In the past, the Providence Preservation Society’s Benefit Street Stroll served as a way to jump start the holiday season. But alas, there’s no Stroll this year. So warm up those vocal cords, pick out that favorite scarf, and brush up on those carols. With planned stops along the way for bathroom breaks and warm drinks, a new East Side event like this easily would score a ten on the holiday merriment scale and spark a new holiday tradition.