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Holiday Hard Sell: Exchanging the Wish List for Volunteerism

by on November 17, 2010 6:33 AM

Last Saturday when I was picking up a book at Barnes & Noble, I noticed the signs encouraging shoppers to donate a book to a Second Mile child.

“Remember when we did that last year, and you picked a book out for a child?” I asked my son.

“Please don’t tell me we’re doing that again,” he replied.

I don’t mean to sell my son out. His response, along with the accompanying teenager-like eye roll, had more to do with being 6 than selfish. Most of the time, he’s extremely considerate. (He never finishes a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup without offering a bite to his sister or his parents.)

Still, the comment bothered me. I have a love-hate relationship with the holiday season. In the calendar my son keeps, Christmas begins Halloween evening. On Nov. 1 he’s making his list; meanwhile, I’m taking stock of what we can give away.

I constantly tell him that the holiday season is really about spending time with family and giving back to people less fortunate. But in the Barnes & Noble holiday display (since when did they start carrying toys, too?), in the catalogs that come to our house and even in a routine trip to the grocery store, a competing message screams that Christmas is about getting stuff.

So while visions of Star Wars figures dance in my son’s head, I’m thinking about balancing consumerism with altruism.

In our relatively comfortable lives, we don’t see the families in Centre County who lack the luxuries we often mistake for necessities. I’m talking about new books from Barnes & Noble, jars of Tait Farm blackberry jam, and Toy Story 3 on DVD. Those are the type of items we sometimes have to forgo when we’re cutting back on expenses. For other families, a tight month could mean going without food.

In 2008, the earliest year accounted for on the U.S. Census Bureau website, 14.8 percent of people in Centre County were living below the poverty line, compared to 12.1 percent for all of Pennsylvania.

More than 2,000 people receive food from the State College Area Food Bank. But here’s the statistic that truly hit home for me: approximately 40 percent are children under the age 18.

Yesterday I spoke with Linda Tataliba, executive director of the food bank. She pointed out that the number of people who must choose between buying food and paying a bill is greater than ever. In the month of October alone, the food bank served 290 families, up 33 percent from last October. The food bank is also seeing more single people, who are realizing that the safety net isn’t just for people who have kids. “People come in here literally in tears because they can’t believe how much food they get from us,” she said.

The holidays make the lack of food, especially the type of food that’s inextricable to our Thanksgiving memories, sting more. For the past few weeks, my mailbox has been stuffed with food magazines (my weakness) featuring dozens of ways to cook your Thanksgiving turkey. Those magazines, and the recipes that fill their pages, are yet another luxury in my life. Should I smoke my turkey? we wonder. But for many of our neighbors the question is Can I even afford a turkey?

Tataliba said the food bank is one of the only ones in the area that gives out turkeys and bags packed with Thanksgiving-themed food like mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. She encouraged people to donate items for the bag, as well as any free turkeys they may have received from shopper rewards programs.

People can also donate to the Thanksgiving Holiday Campaign: $25 provides a bag of holiday food for one family. As I was interviewing Tataliba, a representative from a local restaurant walked in and wrote out a check for $300.

While the food bank receives an abundance of volunteers throughout the regular school year, it needs volunteers to stock shelves and pack bags over major holidays. (Check out the website for information on how to donate or volunteer.) Sometimes, she said, entire families come in to help out. Tataliba can think of ten such families who are volunteers and recipients. “They feel they absolutely need to give back.”

I realize this kind of information can be lost on a 6-year-old. But hopefully if we start teaching him now, the holidays will eventually mean more to him than opening presents.

According to Tataliba, over the past year, 15 children ranging from age 2 to 16 have asked friends who attended their birthday parties to bring a can of food instead of a gift. My son’s birthday falls in the holiday season, so maybe I’ll see if he’s game. (But I may tweak the idea so people can bring a can of food and a small gift.)

As for his Christmas list? This weekend I’m making my son put it aside (at least for a few hours) so we can make one for someone else.

Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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