The heat in our home recently broke during what happened to be the first freezing week of the season. We had to wait a short time for it to be fixed, but it was so uncomfortable that I was counting the days until the repair. In the meantime, we dressed in layers, consumed lots of tea and hot soup, and piled on blankets to sleep. I kept checking on my son during the night to make sure his double-pajamas were covering his wrists and ankles and he hadn’t wiggled out of his cozy blanket cocoon. We did a dance of joy the moment our heat was fixed and we got our first whiff of a heating system that was vacationing all summer. I have never been so thankful for something that I normally take for granted.
Throughout this brief but freezing experience, I couldn’t help but think of people whose discomfort isn’t temporary. I thought of how particularly difficult the cold months are for people who routinely go without enough — enough food, enough clothing, enough of anything that keeps their bodies warm and content. As a mother, I can’t imagine how it would feel to regularly worry about my child’s comfort, nutrition, or health.
Whenever I’m moved by a situation that feels helpless, I can’t just ignore it. I am compelled to at least look into how I can help, even if my contribution is a small thing. Because if each of us just does a few small things, it adds up to big changes.
This piece is my one small thing. It’s a guide to giving — a mini handbook of some worthy charities that help those in need at this most challenging time of year. Although there are people in need 365 days a year, the cold months present additional challenges. And there’s something about the spirit of the holidays that motivates individuals and even big businesses to share some of their resources with neighbors who lack them. In fact, this year marks the 10th anniversary of “Giving Tuesday,” an annual movement started to encourage support for nonprofits following the notoriously commercialized spending spree of Black Friday. Regardless of the charity you choose to help, everyone deserves some extra cheer during the holiday season.
If you or your family are looking for ways to help spread some of that cheer, read on. Below are some of my favorite organizations that I’ve encouraged my son to join me in helping. They’re reputable and committed to serving the needs of the most vulnerable, in the cold winter months and all year long. These nonprofits were founded on simple ideas and their unique missions are truly inspiring.
One Sandwich at a Time
The inspiration for One Sandwich at a Time, a small but impactful grassroots nonprofit based in New York, came when co-founder Erin Dinan shared her sandwich with a homeless man in Grand Central Station. After being moved by the encounter, Erin talked to her friend George Kontogiannis about it and the pair went on to found the nonprofit organization.
We say that we are spreading hope through our sandwiches.– Erin Dinan
One Sandwich at a Time aims to combat hunger and homelessness through “kindness, compassion, and volunteerism.” The concept behind the mission is a simple one — that everyone has the ability to help alleviate another’s hunger, even by using just their own hands. One Sandwich at a Time organizes sandwich-making events where volunteers assemble donated sandwich ingredients. The sandwiches are then delivered to neighbors in need and shelters such as City Harvest, Bowery Mission, and NY Common Pantry. Since its formation, this powerful grassroots operation has provided more than half a million sandwiches to New Yorkers in need.
Dinan has seen first-hand how food insecurity and homelessness have increased since 2020. “The work we do has always been important and is especially important this time of year,” she explains. But in these stressful times, she has also seen an increased need for human connection. “I think it’s important both for those to whom we provide sandwiches, but also for our volunteers. The holidays can be a lonely time for many, and I think our events help bring community members together. We say that we are spreading hope through our sandwiches.”
So how can you help?
Visit the One Sandwich at a Time website to make monetary donations, coordinate food donations, and inquire about becoming a volunteer at a sandwich-making event or hosting an event of your own. The organization brings their compassion-filled assembly line to schools, sports teams, foundations, and businesses to multiply the power of giving hands. Some of the companies that have partnered with One Sandwich at a Time include Morgan Stanley, LinkedIn, and Kith, whose team recently assembled 1,000 sandwiches in one company-wide day of service.
It’s been more than 20 years since Genevieve Piturro, a successful New York television executive, began volunteering to read to children at a homeless shelter. It wasn’t long before Piturro’s weekly visits made her feel connected to the children who were staying there while their mothers were in prison. The soothing bedtime stories Genevieve read provided much-needed mental rest for kids who were burdened with thoughts of their trying days.
While the stories were helpful, Piturro realized that the children were missing an integral part of bedtime — they didn’t have pajamas. Instead of experiencing the cozy bedtime routine of being safely tucked in by a loved one, staff members helped these kids onto surfaces where they slept in their street clothes. The shelter was grateful when Piturro asked if she could bring pajamas to the children on her next reading visit. She began bringing more and more, which gradually led to securing donations, which led to helping shelters throughout New York. And before long, the national nonprofit organization Pajama Program was born.
The cold winter months, and the holiday season in particular, are naturally a great time of need for an organization like Pajama Program. “When I started Pajama Program, I was a bundle of emotions trying to give these children all the love and attention I had in my heart,” Piturro recalled. The cold weather compelled her to do more at the toughest time of year for the kids. “When winter came, all I wanted to do was keep them bundled up in the warmest pajamas I could find and read them story after story to keep them cozy and protected.”
This is not just another charity collecting clothes for the needy. Pajama Program works to improve the physical and psychological well-being of children, and strives to educate our communities about the long-term benefits of a safe and nurturing night. As their trademark tag line reminds: “Good nights are good days.”
To date, Pajama Program has provided nearly 6 million good nights to children. Its current corporate sponsors include household names like Carter’s, Scholastic, and Target. It now has more than 60 volunteer chapters in more than 30 states as well as Puerto Rico.
So how can you help?
There are several ways you can help provide children with good nights that lead to good days. Pajama Program accepts monetary donations on their website and even offers corporate gift matching. My son and I enjoy doing the annual Pajama Walk, a personal walkathon that helps raise money for the organization. You can start a pajama and book drive in your community, and teachers can register their classrooms to participate in Scholastic Book Club’s annual Great Bedtime Story Pajama Drive. There’s even opportunities for people to volunteer at the nationwide chapters or to read to visiting children at one of Pajama Program’s Reading Centers.
Feeding America is a trusted, national nonprofit which collects and distributes food to people through local food banks. As the country’s largest food rescue organization, Feeding America partners with restaurants, grocery stores, food manufacturers, and farmers to rescue food and deliver it to food banks.
According to Feeding America, unemployment and food insecurity rates have soared since the pandemic, which led to 53 million people turning to food banks and community programs in 2021.
Between the effects of the pandemic and recent skyrocketing grocery prices, more people are affected by food insecurity than most realize. Food banks are not just for the homeless, but are often necessary for working families to put food on the table.
So how can you help?
Feeding America accepts monetary donations on their website and ensures that every $1 it receives provides 22 meals to people in need. People who wish to make in-kind donations (small amounts of canned or other shelf-stable food) can find their local food bank through Feeding America’s list.
In my experience volunteering at food banks, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when making food donations:
- Don’t donate anything that is damaged, like dented cans, ripped boxes, or expired items. As a rule, if you wouldn’t eat it, others shouldn’t eat it either.
- Consider foods that are simple, nutritious, and shelf-stable.
- Don’t forget the babies! Baby food is an essential, and it’s shelf-stable. Many food banks accept baby formula too.
- If you have non-food items, such as personal hygiene products like deodorant and soap, check with your local food bank first before donating it. Some accept these, but others don’t, and may direct you to an organization in your community that can use it.
- Diapers are a wonderful donation but similar to personal products, only some food banks accept them. Read on for more about what to do with diapers!
The National Diaper Bank
The National Diaper Bank Network works to provide diapers to babies who need them all across the United States. Many parents are in need of this very expensive baby essential, and at the same time plenty of families have excess diapers that their children have outgrown.
So how can you help?
Simply check the National Diaper Bank’s list of local diaper banks in every state to learn where to donate your unused diapers!
Alliance for Period Supplies
The Alliance for Period Supplies is a program of the National Diaper Bank Network. Its founding sponsor, U by Kotex, together with its retail partners, have donated more than 40 million period products to women in need since 2018.
So how can you help?
To learn more about how you can donate or start a period product drive of your own, visit the Alliance for Period Supplies website.
Not sure what to with new or gently used clothes or blankets? Wondering how corporations can focus on more than just profit in their communities? Delivering Good is a nationwide nonprofit that aims to connect retailers, companies, and individuals with families in need throughout the country. Things like coats and clothing are collected through a network of retail partners and then distributed to at-risk families, children, and individuals.
So how can you help?
Delivering Good’s partner brands include big names like Burlington Coat Factory and The Children’s Place. Helping is easy. At Burlington, bring a gently-worn coat to a store to donate to Delivering Good and you’ll even receive 10% off your new coat purchase. Children’s Place offers the option to pack up hand-me-downs and ship the box for free to Delivering Good. Visit the Delivering Good website to donate or learn more about their partner brands.
Whichever organizations strike a chord with you and however you choose to help, remember that your “one small thing” adds up to a big wave of generosity. Happy Holidays, and Happy Giving!