Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Little Ways to Make a Difference

When this year started, I wanted to issue a challenge to my readers, to “DO SOMETHING” every month that benefits someone else. A lot of the time, we all have great intentions, and WANT to do for others, but we get caught up in our own lives, or just don’t have the money to spare, or the time, or a variety of other excuses. I’m as guilty as the next person. It’s hard not to get caught up in your own little world. But I have, within the last year, fallen in love with Matthew West’s song “Do Something” and since then I’ve been really trying to challenge myself.  Also, our church's mission statement for this year is "Love All, Serve All."  And I wanted to share some of those low-cost, big impact options with you. 

 Collecting hotel toiletries: I’ve mentioned this one before, but it bears repeating. Use your own shampoo/conditioner etc when you travel, and bring the hotel-provided toiletries home with you. Sometimes, if I’m staying at a hotel for more than one night, I’ll leave a note for the maid to please leave some extra toiletries, and they’re usually pretty generous. These complimentary items cost you nothing (aside from the cost of your room which you were already paying for), but provide a big help to shelters and rehabilitation homes that can use all the help they can get. 

 Keep snacks in your car for the homeless: I wasn’t heavily exposed to pan-handlers until I moved to New Orleans, but even now that I’m back in Springfield, it seems like there’s someone with a sign looking for help on every major intersection. Unfortunately I hardly ever carry cash, and even when I do have it, the skeptic in me always feels wary of giving money. Rumors ran rampant in New Orleans that many pan-handlers earn more than I do in a day. The optimist in me always wants to believe that they’ll use the money for food & shelter, but the cynic in me knows that isn’t always true. So, how do you help the needy without worrying if you’re enabling a bad habit? Cut out the middle man & hand out food & water. If you have a Sam’s membership (or know someone who does) you can help up to 45 people for less than 25 cents per person. Sam’s carries a 45-pack of Austin Brand Snack Crackers w/Peanut Butter for about $6 (13c/pack), and cases of bottled water for $3 (11c/bottle). I keep a few bottles of water in the passenger door pocket and a pile of the crackers in my glove box, and hand out one of each, and they’re always incredibly grateful. Also—if you shop at Sam’s early in the morning, they often have coffee, fruit, and granola bars for their customers—my husband or I (depending on who is doing the shopping) will take one of each and then keep them in the car to hand out (well, not the coffee—I drink that). :) 

 Donating hair: Last year, I grew out my hair so that I could make a donation for wigs.  Locks of Love catches some heat across the interwebs for selling most of their hair donations rather than using them themselves, so I went with Pantene's Beautiful Lengths program (plus, Pantene allows a shorter hair donation, and since I had layers in my hair I figured this would allow them to use more of it).  Many salons will cut your hair for free if the intention is to donate it (always tip well if they do offer to do it for free).

(Post-Chop. Awesome hair-stylings by my fabulous sis-in-law.)

Giving Blood: I’m such a huge fan of donating blood. This costs absolutely nothing other than an hour of your time (and many employers will pay for time spent volunteering in this way) and the blood you give in that time period can save up to three people. PLUS: Some blood banks have reward programs for their regular donors. Community Blood Center of the Ozarks gives you 1000 “points” every time you donate, which you accumulate & cash in for gift cards to places like Andy’s, Starbucks, Amazon, etc., after as few as 4 visits!!! So you’re saving people AND getting free money? There really isn’t a better deal out there. Plus you can donate every 8 weeks—so that’s up to 6 donations per year. They also run bonus & holiday programs where you can get 50% more points if you donate during those times.  Once a year, they team up with the Springfield Cardinals baseball team--if you donate during that fundraiser, they feed you lunch from Hardee's, your 1,000 points, AND two free tix to a Cardinals game. If you're a sports fan, it's a big win.

Giving Time: Look for volunteer opportunities in your community. Here in Springfield one of my favorites is Convoy of Hope. They have a huge warehouse with clothes, donated food, bulk food items, and a couple times a week during the warm months they open their doors for volunteers to come help package items up for individual distribution. One time you might be bagging bulk rice into smaller, family size bags. The next time you might be part of an assembly line packing groceries into bags. The next time you might be sorting clothes by size. It takes a couple hours and, hey, if you’re part of an assembly line, you’ll be walking a lot so FREE EXERCISE!!! (Yes—I have used volunteering as an excuse not to go to the gym.) You can also look for food banks that need help sorting donations, soup kitchens, etc. 

Spring Cleaning: I guarantee that you, like me, have WAY too much stuff in your house. Spring is coming and it’s time to get rid of the clutter. Go through your closet and shoes to find gently used items that you won’t wear anymore. Go through your bathroom to find unused items (you know—those bottles of lotion you got for Christmas that you don’t really love the smell of, the makeup you bought but never opened, the half-case of Zest soap that your husband bought & forgot about & will NEVER get around to using). Go through your bookshelves and your kids’ toys. Sort through all those cabinets full of Tupperware & pots & pans—if you haven’t used it in the last year, get it out of your house and donate it to someone who CAN use it. Use your best judgement when deciding where to donate—some thrift stores are open to the public and use the proceeds to benefit special interest groups (like the D.A.V.), or you can donate directly to a shelter where the items will go to someone for free. We try to do this at least twice a year in our house to keep the clutter down.  And it's a tax deduction--even if you don't normally itemize your taxes, you'd be amazed how fast a few donations can add up if you're willing to take the time to make a list of everything you donated.  Yes, it takes a little more time when you're filing, but our donations always make a big difference in our tax refund each year.

(Our most recent purge piles.)

Sale/Free Items for Donations: Extreme Couponing sites like CouponMom.com & PriceMatcherz can tell you the best deals each week, and even tell you if you could potentially get something for FREE via combing coupon + sale price. I try to always take advantage of these freebies, even if it’s something I would never use—because we make a donation to our church’s community pantry every other month, and surely there’s someone out there who needs it. Is there a crazy good deal on boxed mac & cheese or canned goods? Pick up extras and donate them. If you itemize your taxes every year, you can deduct the FULL value of that item, not just the sale price. It adds up quickly if you donate often. 

Anonymous Cards/Gifts: Got a coworker who’s going through a rough spell, feeling under the weather, or having a bad week? A small act of anonymous friendliness could really make their week. I keep a stockpile of candy/chocolate at my desk (sometimes for when I'M having a bad day) and a HUGE bag of cough drops. When they’re away from their desk, I stealthily put some treats and/or a friendly note at their computer. If you want to be sure to be anonymous you can MAKE a card in Word, so that they can’t recognize your handwriting. Anonymity is important—you’re not doing this to earn brownie points or make a new best friend; it’s a selfless act and that should be enough. Got a talent for doodling?  Make a cute little sketch on a Post-It note and stick it in their office.  

 Donation Matching:  I know I've mentioned them here before, but I LOVELOVELOVE the website ModestNeeds.Org, that helps people with small needs get the money they need to get caught up on life.  These are typically things like a past due utility bill for someone who was out of work for a while, or emergency car repairs for a single parent who needs the vehicle to provide for their kids.  Modest Needs often has big donors who issue matching challenges (if you sign up for their emails, you'll get notified when a big match comes around).  This is an easy and awesome way to effectively DOUBLE your contribution to helping someone.  Lots of other places offer matches as well--telethons, radio fundraisers, etc.  I try to always donate during a match so my money can go further.

Tipping:  Chances are you've worked in the service industry at some point in your life.  According to the National Restaurant Association, 50% of all Americans have worked in food service at some point in their life.  So we know what a thankless job it is.  I myself delivered pizzas for 4 years while going through my bachelor's and master's programs, and worked as a "gourmet food expert" for a year after that at a New Orleans deli/wine shop.   

(22-year-old-me, makin' minimum wage and putting about 50k miles on my car a year)

Customers often belittle you and assume you're a bum who can't get a better job.  I got yelled at ("NO!  I WANT MY PROSCUITTO CUT THINNERRRR!!!), talked down to, berated because of something I had absolutely no control over (since the person who delivers your pizza is not usually the same person who took your order)...Once I got pelted with snowballs while delivering pizzas on campus and wanted to throw down my delivery bag and yell "I GO HERE TOO, @-HOLE!"  I cut myself, burnt myself (never on purpose), got frostbite, tripped on ice, all in the name of making someone's fast food faster.  My car constantly needed repairs and oil changes and LOTS of gas.  There were many times after I graduated that someone would treat me like crap, or tell me "keep the change" when it was LITERALLY just change, & I'd get back in my car, almost crying, and say, "I HAVE A DEGREE!!!  WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MYSELF???"  

If you've worked in the service industry, chances are you've probably felt that way too.  And if you're now a professional person, not relying on the whims of the general public as to whether you can make your rent this month or not, I think it's best to reflect back on those days when you're calculating your tip at the end of a meal, or when you go to the salon, or if someone else pumps your gas for you.  You never know where someone else is in their life's journey.  They could be a college student; they could be working a second job to pay off debt. Or maybe they're down on their luck and REALLY need that 50% employee discount on food to get by for a while.  All you can do is be kind to them, and bless them when you can.  Last Year I went to a women's conference put on by my church.  They handed us each a sheet of stickers that say "You Are Designed for Life" and encouraged us to when we left, tip well and leave the sticker and/or a nice message on the  receipt for the server to pay it forward. I still keep those stickers in my purse.

*hops off soapbox*  Sorry, that went on longer than I originally intended.  :D  But you get the idea.  Be an awesome person when you can, even if and ESPECIALLY if it doesn't cost you that much.  You'll feel better and you'll help someone else.  It's a win-win.

So now....Go Do Something. :)