One would think that reflecting on generosity and charity during the “season of giving” would be an easy task, as November and December are rich with examples of people stepping forward, opening their wallets and supporting the many causes that bring holiday cheer into the lives of the less fortunate. But simply sharing a few examples of how to help doesn’t really seem to communicate the whole story.
As an idea, giving is pretty straightforward. Consider the following definition: giving — to present voluntarily and without expecting compensation. Again, a convenient, but somewhat inadequate description, especially when you bring charitable need into the equation.
In my world, the act of giving is often the end result of a “process.” We identify needs, brainstorm solutions, discuss the topic at length, perform lots of research and evaluate specific asks. This approach is well-suited to complex projects with multiple constituencies and big budgets.
With that said, there is a much more human side of the equation — one that requires only one individual seeing a need and opening their hearts to help. These quiet, nearly anonymous, acts of charity resonate with me, especially this time of year.
A few days ago my mind drifted to Christmases past, and I began to think about those December gift exchanges I participated in as a child at school. These would happen every year, as we would draw names from a shoebox and busily prepare for the hotly anticipated gift exchange, usually on the day before we adjourned for Christmas break. I always remember these as joyful occasions, full of cookies, cake, fruit punch and Christmas carols. I remember that some years I was happier with my gift than others, but, all in all, my memories were pleasant ones.
As I grew older and became more aware of the world around me, eventually becoming a parent myself, I realized I had taken many aspects of this simple gift exchange for granted. What about those kids whose families could barely afford food? What about those children whose parents couldn’t afford presents for their own children, let alone a fellow classmate? I was lucky not to have to deal with such weighty issues as a young student, but others around me were not so fortunate.
I had the chance a few years ago to speak to my third grade teacher Mrs. Kissling about my time in her class and I asked her about Christmas — specifically about the kids I mentioned above. I remember her demeanor hardening a bit as she reminisced a little. She confirmed that for as many years as she taught, it was a given that teachers would buy tiny gifts for these children so they would have something to exchange. She admitted that it was tough to watch every year, but accepted that sometimes "you had to do, what you had to do."
Mrs. Kissling and her fellow educators were daily philanthropists — quiet, thoughtful and often generous beyond their means.
So this year, as I reflect on the generosity of the season, I urge everyone to remember those tiny acts of philanthropy that make hard situations a little better and remember that giving takes many forms. Teachers have been asked to do so much this year and their efforts continue to be heroic. While a great example, it is, by far, not the only one. The police officer who coaches youth basketball at night and on weekends, the business executive who volunteers at the Humane Society and those wonderful souls who give a few dollars a week to their local United Way campaign — there are so many examples of giving.
We can’t forget that the most powerful acts of generosity don’t have to be large, or particularly complicated — just rooted in the understanding that we all have gifts, and sometimes the tiniest things can make the biggest difference.
David Aft is the president of the Dalton-based Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia. He has worked in the nonprofit field for over 25 years.