Tables lined the walls, and at each stood representatives from nonprofits, ready to tell the people who stopped in front of them about a need.
At one table, they might hear about children who enter foster care with their belongings stuffed into garbage bags.
At another, they might learn that dogs and cats in shelters also need toys.
Sounds depressing, I know. It wasn’t.
I had never attended an alternative gift fair before and didn’t know what to expect. I also wasn’t sure whether it would hold the attention of my sons, who had just turned 5 and 7. As soon as we walked in, I eyed a table topped with flavored popcorn and started plotting. I planned to use that sweet-savory treat as an enticement to keep them moving as soon as they started to act restless. I figured that moment would come after about five minutes.
But more than half an hour later, to my surprise, they stood in front of the table for Reach Out to Haiti, listening attentively as a man explained to them how dirt cookies are made. The name is not some creative way to describe chocolate or some other tasty brown ingredient. Mud, they learned, is shaped into cookie-sized patties that are left in the sun to dry. They are then given to children to fill their empty bellies when nothing else is available.
It’s an image of hunger that has a way of sticking with a person, and in an unexpected gift that day, it stayed with my children. Long after we left, they were still asking questions: Why don’t those kids have any other food? How old are those kids? What do dirt cookies taste like?
This year, that fair did not take place. It and others like it were among the regular annual gatherings wiped out by the pandemic.
That fair instead moved online, forcing the organizations that have depended on it for funding to join the many other groups that have spent this season hoping people aren’t only scrolling for gifts that come in recognizable brown boxes.
In some neighborhoods in the Washington region, delivery trucks can be spotted passing through many times a day, creating a visible display of holiday spending. Harder to gauge is how this year, which has seen needs grow and disposable income shrink, has affected organizations that depend on alternative gift-giving for funds.
Conversations with some in the region show that some are struggling and others are seeing an unexpected generosity. They show that many people aren’t just turning to Amazon. They are purposely seeking out gifts that will funnel money back to communities and people in need.
“They are buying more than they ever bought before,” says Sharon Raimo, the CEO of St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that runs a school and adult day programs for people with disabilities. It also employs some of those adults to create handcrafted items that are sold online. “I think people are looking for a good way to spend their money, and this makes them happy. You’re getting this gift, and it’s also giving back.”
Among the items on the Coletta Collections site are glass-fused bowls, intricately beaded jewelry and hand-woven scarves.
Raimo, who has served as chief executive for 28 years and will retire in January, says that when she first came up with the idea of having students create the glassware, people looked at her in a way that said, “You have lost your mind.” The work requires knives, glass and fire. Many of the artisans have intellectual and other disabilities, and about half are nonverbal.
“When we view people with disabilities, we often focus on what’s wrong and think that we have to remediate it, and that never works,” Raimo says. “What works is enrichment, and the more you can give someone to build on their skills and talents, the better the outcomes are going to be. Every single person in the world needs something meaningful to do with their day.”
She describes the artisans as drawing pride and a paycheck from their creations. There was concern that the coronavirus was going to bring their work to a stop because many of the artisans have health conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus, requiring them to remain diligent about isolating. But the organization sent kits home, and instructors offered lessons online.
The only thing St. Coletta couldn’t control was whether people would buy anything. As of Wednesday, many of the items on the site were listed as “sold out.”
Brenda Lachance Owens, who works with Virginia-based ChildFund International, says that organization has seen a significant uptick in donations through its Real Gifts Catalog, which allows people to spend as little as $11 for a mosquito net or $4,500 to build a classroom in 24 other countries.
“Goats are the most popular,” Owens says. “They immediately provide a family with ongoing nutritious milk and cheese and also produce offspring quickly that can be sold at the market for other essential items.”
In Kenya, where she visited two years ago to meet some of the children and adults who have received the gifts, camels are also a favored item. Their milk, she says, is rich in fat and nutrients and can sell for up to $10 a gallon.
This year, the catalogue expanded its offerings to include covid protection kits for families that contain masks, thermometers, soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectants. So far, more than 100 have been purchased. People have also donated recently toward 67 hand-washing stations and 50 hand-pump wells.
Many of those donations are being made in honor of someone, which Owens finds telling. She believes one reason people are showing such generosity during a year that has left many struggling is the isolation the pandemic has caused. These types of donations, she says, connect people. They tie together individuals who don’t know one another and individuals who do. When people make donations in honor of someone, that person receives a card letting them know.
Reade Bush was the man from Reach Out to Haiti who spoke to my sons that day about child hunger. Unlike the other organization, his has seen less donating this year.
But he won’t know until Friday exactly how donations received in recent weeks through the Arlington gift fair, called Gifts that Give Hope, compare to last year’s. That is the last day people can access the online site.
Until then, it’s possible last-minute shoppers might choose — in honor of grandma or that hard-to-buy-for brother-in-law or someone else — to give $25 toward buying formula for an orphan or $50 toward a week’s worth of diapers for a house of orphans.
Or maybe they will find themselves drawn to an item on that page from a different organization. Maybe they will want to send their sister a card that says, with her in mind, $15 was spent on rice and beans for 10 families or $25 went toward a bra for a school-aged child.
Or maybe she’d appreciate a goat more.
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