Tax Breaks for Donations!? I Missed Out! I’m Mad!

I have not filed my taxes yet, I know shame on me. But, I was just informed you can get tax breaks for making donations to charity. Is this true!!!??? I knew you could get tax breaks for donating money to charity, but I didn’t know it also applied to stuff. I donate items to charity at least once a year. Old clothes, toys, furniture, books, etc…

I usually donate to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. My friend says she donated a car to kars4kids once and got a great tax break. I have been wanting to get a different car but I’m not sure how much of a tax reduction I would get for it? I can’t believe I have gone so many years without knowing my generosity would pay me back! Ooooooh I shake my fist at myself!

Has anyone done this before?
How do I prove I donated these items and how much they are worth?
How much of a tax break do I receive?


No-clutter holiday and birthday gift ideas

Reposting a diary I wrote last year for Bleeding Heartland. Chanukah’s over, but I’m not too late for Christmas, and these ideas work for birthdays too.

A lot of my friends are trying to declutter their homes and simplify their lives. During the holiday season, the can get overwhelmed by all the gifts that, while well-meaning, are neither items they need nor things they have room for. If they have young children, they may be dreading the influx of toys and stuffed animals that are already overtaking their homes.

If you give these people a gift card from a big-box store, they may never use it, and your money will go to waste.

If you have friends or relatives who don’t seem to be into stuff, or are trying to downsize their lifestyle, here are some gift ideas.

Give food. If you are a good cook or baker, home-made meals and treats are always appreciated (assuming the recipient doesn’t have food allergies or a restricted diet). A casserole or pot of soup that can be frozen may be a huge help to your friends. Before sending cookies or cupcakes with colorful frosting, check with parents to see whether the children have sensitivities to any food dyes or artificial flavors. These sensitivities can cause various behavioral problems.

A bonus to cooking for friends is that depending on what you make, it can be less expensive than buying presents from a store.

If you are not into cooking, consider giving a gift certificate to a locally-owned restaurant or independent grocer. This economy is very tough for restaurants, because so many people are trying to save money by eating out less. Supporting locally-owned businesses keeps more money in your community.

Give entertainment. A casette tape or CD does not take up much room and can be a nice gift. For children, I am partial to Justin Roberts, whose albums are available here, but there are many other good options.

Or, give tickets to an upcoming music concert or play in your area. This is a great gift for kids if you have a community playhouse with children’s programming. Parents may not want to splurge on that kind of outing for themselves, but they would enjoy taking their kids if someone buys tickets.

Movie theaters may sell gift cards that can be used for any showing of any movie.

If you are a musician, offer to play a 30-minute set at the event of their choice, like a birthday party in the coming year.

If you can afford to spend more money or are going in with other people on the gift, consider buying a family pass to a children’s museum, science center or zoo in your area. Your gift will be appreciated throughout the year.

Replace something they would otherwise have to buy.

Most people don’t like to give cash gifts, but replacing an item your friends need to buy anyway is just as helpful.

For adults, give a subscription to a magazine you know they already receive and enjoy reading (so you’re not adding to their clutter). Offer to pay for someone to shovel their driveway or mow their yard, if they are unable to do that kind of work. You can give a packet of bus tokens or a gift card to a gas station.

For families with children, make play-dough in a few different colors. You can find recipes online, and the kids will love it.

Or, pay for a few hours of housecleaning to do those “deep-cleaning” jobs busy parents often fall behind on.

If you know the children well, decorate a card with an “IOU” to babysit at a future time, or take the kids sledding, to a movie or to the zoo. Or offer to teach the kids a skill, like how to make a paper airplane or how to play games on Linux (hat tip to Iowa blogger John Deeth for that one).

Give money to a good cause on their behalf.

Mr. desmoinesdem discovered JustGive.Org last year and gave gift cards from there to some of his family. The recipient can use the card to give to any of a large number of charities in the JustGive database. Tons of environmental, human rights and other progressive groups are listed on the site. Another option is to use

If you already know of a non-profit organization your friends and relatives care about, make a donation directly to that group in their honor. Many people are reducing their charitable giving because of the tough economy, so this kind of gift would be appreciated.

For families with kids, consider a gift to the parent-teacher association of the local school. They usually need money for school supplies or playground equipment.

Please share your own ideas for no-clutter gifts in the comments.


Why “Octomom” Bothers Us

I don’t need to tell you that the story of Nadya Sulemen aka “Octomom’s” 14 children has stirred all kinds of emotions here and in the world.

I recently read a column in Slate with an eery parallel: Should you help children whose mother you do not think is worthy of aid? In this case, a woman in South Carolina discovered a mom in need and, along with her church, has provided a lot of in-kind help like toys for the kids, insulation for her windows, plumbing and infestation services. The group was considering subsidizing this family’s phone service, but “Abby in South Carolina” is now wondering if they are simply subsidizing this mom’s bad decisions.

Here is what a mother and daughter team replied:


….At first review, nothing you are doing sounds like you are enabling the mom’s problems, and you are certainly creating a safer environment for these kids. I think what you are doing is sound and compassionate. If the rest of your class doesn’t agree, why not sit down together and write out a few giving guidelines you want to follow on any further projects and, as long as you can find ways to help this family within those guidelines, continue on?

I realize you and your classmates have standards for the way you believe people should live—but I caution you about imposing those standards as a requirement for your giving. A poster next to my desk as I type this that has a quote from an Aboriginal activist group: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I have returned to that quote hundreds of times in the past decade as I examined my own giving practices.

I encourage you to keep pursuing your own service plan, but check your approach occasionally against this quote to ensure you’re on the right track.


It sounds like you have the very best intentions, Abby, but I disagree with my mom on this one. With your current setup (identifying, coordinating, and paying for the fixes), I think you may be enabling the mom’s problems without providing much long-term benefit. I say keep helping only if you can take the time to work with her to help identify and meet her basic needs. If you don’t feel that you have the time or the skills, acknowledge that and try to put her in touch with someone who can.

If you want to help this family and you have the time to do it right, I would start by sitting down with her and making a list of the issues that she thinks need to be addressed and help her to match those needs to service efforts in your own community.

You don’t discuss her work situation, but if she’s currently out of work and wants to change that, help her identify skills that she could strengthen through job training courses. If child care is an obstacle, help her get set up for subsidized child care so that she can take those courses. Find out whether she is eligible for the South Carolina Family Independence Program or low-income phone assistance to help her pay her phone bill on her own. The Family Service Center of South Carolina looks like a great resource. Even if they don’t have a center in your town, they may be able to point you in the right direction for statewide services.

If she’s been working with community agencies, she may already have these resources, and if she isn’t choosing to use them, you certainly can’t make her. At that point, you have to decide what you’re willing to do for the children. Maybe it’s buying their back-to-school necessities, maybe it’s bringing a box of groceries to their house once a week, but I don’t think you should commit yourself to paying for her phone service or any other long-term aid. There are government and community resources to cover exactly these needs, and while they aren’t always perfect, in the long run it will be more sustainable to have her working within the system than receiving handouts from a benefactor, no matter how well-intentioned.

Sandy provided links to resources in South Carolina. I think both women’s suggestions would help this family.

But I think the three women touched on an issue facing all poor people, including Suleman. How do you help out the children without enabling the mother’s poor decisions? Can you really help one without the other? What say you, MotherTalkers?


Gift Alternatives

This time of year, everyone is talking about the latest consumer this or that. What will you buy for the kids, for Aunt Nellie, for friends and coworkers and customers? What will you buy for Great-Aunt Gertrude, who buys what she needs and who you haven’t seen for a few years?

Katy’s Green Christmas post had some great ideas. Here are some more suggestions for great gifts  that anyone can use.

There are a variety of companies that will create and mail, either one time or monthly, gift baskets of fruit and other food items. You might also look into a CSA (community supported agriculture) near your loved one, where a farmer provides a basket of fresh, local produce delivered weekly. The nice thing about CSAs is that your money goes right to the food and the farmer, and isn’t spent on packaging and shipping.

Or, why not give of yourself? If you make bread or cookies, you can not only make them and mail them for the holidays, but maybe Great-Aunt Gertrude would enjoy getting a box of cookies from you once a month? It’s a great way for you (and your kids) to cook together and stay in touch with extended family.

Charitable gifts used to feel kind of impersonal, but thanks to the Internet, it is now easier than ever to give a highly personal gift.

Kiva is a website devoted to microlending. For $25, you can help an entrepreneur in another country improve his or her standard of living. Loans are put together with a collection of $25 pledges from donors around the world and bundled into amounts for specific projects. You can buy your recipient a gift card, and then she can choose from thousands of ventures looking for capital. These are loans, and the money is to be paid back. When your loan is paid off, you can invest in another venture or withdraw your funds.

I received a Kiva gift certificate last year, and it was quite an experience to browse the full site, choosing just one to support. I eventually chose a weaver in Peru. It’s not just an “oh that’s nice” moment, but a fully interactive and educational gift, suitable for older kids or adults.

Heifer International is another variation on the microfinance theme, although these are gifts rather than loans. You can size your gift to purchase livestock or trees for a struggling family – agricultural seed money that can be used to build self reliance and a business. Buy a flock of chicks for $20 and a family will have eggs and chicken indefinitely. Part of Heifer’s arrangement is a ‘pay it forward’ deal with recipients – so as the original group of animals reproduce, they are sent on to other families in need.

The Nature Conservancy has its adopt-an-acre program,  meaning that your money is going to help acquire a specific piece of land. Even though your recipient doesn’t get title to the land, it’s fun to get a gift of real estate.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are thousands of great places to send money, and you can pick something very personal for your recipient. Animal rescues for any species or breed near or dear to your loved one’s heart. Fund a summer camp scholarship. I am a fan of programs that do horseback riding for the handicapped or disadvantaged youth. Perhaps there’s a local park or community organization that needs money. A library or public school. A science or medical charity: for my horse friends, rather than getting small knicknacks, I baked everyone horse-shaped gingerbread cookies and sent money to an equine research fund. Maybe there’s a potential Olympic athlete who could use sponsorship. A local food bank. Toys for Tots. A local group here is collecting gifts for foster kids, mostly teens, and they were suggesting that those kids could really use some luggage – duffle bags or other useful storage – because usually when they change homes, they end up having to put their belongings into garbage bags. There’s a program out there that will melt anyone’s heart and help them feel good about the holidays.

To find out more about a charity and how it spends its money, use Guidestar to look them up and view a report on how they spend the money they receive, as well as view their tax returns. You’re looking to see that the money goes to programs rather than to administration and fundraising.

I like to personalize charitable gifts by including information about the charity and what they do, along with pictures of their program and what the gift money will be used for. With the internet, that is now very easy to put together – even on December 24th.


How To Help the Homeless

A mom at Berkeley Parents Network asked for advice on how to help a homeless woman and her 4-year-old son.

This is a big issue here in the Bay Area. I myself am conflicted as to how best to help since I get asked for money every time I go to the supermarket, drug store and other places, usually by the same people who have lived in those street corners for months if not years. We have a big homeless population here.

What I have been doing is buying the homeless newspaper from vendors if I have cash on me. (Sometimes I only have a credit card.) I also give money to my Catholic church whenever it requests a second collection for a local Catholic homeless shelter (St. Vincent de Paul).

But I am going to run the BPN mom’s letter as well as responses for other ways to help the homeless. Please add your suggestions:

Homeless family – how to help?
I was in San Francisco the other day where I ran into a homeless woman and her 4yr-old son. They were sitting on the ground at a very busy corner, reading a book. Initially I thought they were tourists waiting to get on a cable car. Almost as an afterthought it occurred to me that they had a handwritten sign, so I turned back and confirmed that they were asking for help. It turned out that they have been homeless for about a month. According to her, the family came from another state to CA because of her husband’s job, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. They don’t know anyone in the area, don’t have money to go back and are sleeping in shelters and churches. The husband goes to a labor office every day. She told me that when they do manage to get a bed in a shelter, they can’t go to sleep until 10:30pm and have to wake up at 6:30am. She said the boy has changed dramatically – became more aggressive and defensive. I was absolutely heartbroken, the feeling amplified by the fact that I have my own 4yr-old, who means the world to us, as I am sure her son does to her. All I could do at the moment was to give her some money, as well the phone number of United Way.

I have their first names and she gave me the phone number of organization, where she calls every day to find a bed. I should have asked for more information, but I was just flustered, I guess, and wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. I can’t stop thinking about them and the little boy who might or might not have a place to sleep tonight. While I understand that I couldn’t just take them into my home, I do feel tremendously guilty for not doing more. But what? We are by no means wealthy, just your average four-people, one-income family. I called and emailed several organizations and received one not very promising response – the family should call such and such number to try to get into a long-term shelter, but there is a very long waiting list. I am not sure what I expected – someone to tell me, oh yes, there is a vacant apartment and a free day care, send them my way. I understand that this family is just one of many struggling families, and the little boy is one of many-many unfortunate kids. But this fact doesn’t make this particular situation any less sad and frustrating. I will try to locate them and would like to learn from this community about meaningful ways to help them if I do manage to find them.
the world is not fair

Here were the responses:

Bless your heart for the care and concern you have taken for this family – I’m not sure I would have been so thorough had I come across them myself. I can’t offer much advice, but I will mention the Bay Area Crisis Nursery in Concord; it’s worth a call. (925) 685-8052 (0-5 years) (925) 685-3695 (6-11 years). They help families during times of crisis, and although it’s a bit of a distance for this family to travel, I believe they offer BART and cab vouchers. From what I remember, it’s mainly a safe, nurturing place for the child to go while the parent finds work (or works out whatever crisis is occuring). Children stay for the day or overnight for several weeks, and while it’s not an ideal situation for this family (the whole family can’t stay together), it makes sense to call them and see what they can tell you. Best of luck.

Hi, I work at Compass Community Services and our Connecting Point program manages the waiting list for all families seeking shelter in SF. Yes, the wait is long and unfortunately with the current economic climate the demand for shelter has almost doubled since this time last year.

There are things, however, that you can do to help – building awareness of family homelessness, knowing what resources are out there (great job calling the United Way!!!) and of course volunteering. If you want to find out more about family homelessness in the Bay Area, please feel free to contact me.

In the early 90’s one of our board members ran into a family on the street almost identical to the one that you described. She was so shocked by their situation that she decided that she had to act. She then helped to create our family transitional housing program, Clara House, which has guided hundreds of families out of homelessness to self-sufficiency!

Since they’re in San Francisco, the family can call the Connecting Point for Families crisis hotline at 1-888-811-SAFE (7233) for immediate referrals to services which will help them find shelter as well as a bunch of social services and case management. Connecting Point is the front door to the family shelter system. The office is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed for lunch noon to 1 p.m.

For shelter the same night, they can call the Hamilton Family Emergency Center at (415) 292-5228 at 11:00 a.m. SHARP for available one-night and 60-day beds.

There is also child care available for homeless families who have at least one child under age 3 via the Children’s Council of San Francisco at 445 Church Street, San Francisco, (415) 343-3300 or It sounds like this child might be too old for that, but I wanted to put it out there in case anyone else would find it useful.

You may not be able to help this particular family right now, but over time you can help all families who are homeless by becoming proactive. Too often people who can help spend their time talking to friends and family about how they wish they could help.

The reality is that to help, we need to leave our comfort zone and start making phone calls, knocking on doors and talking to people we wouldn’t normally talk to. I suggest that you volunteer for a political cause that will prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place. Or volunteer for a non profit that works directly with homeless families to get them off the street. Write letters to politicians at the state and federal levels urging them to pass bills that will help families who are on the verge of going homeless. Get your family and friends involved. You may not have a direct impact on that family right away, but in the long run you will have an impact on all families.


first i want to say how touched i was by your compassion – it is inspiration and reminds me where my focus should be. your son is learning from your actions and will in turn be a giving person i am sure.

i just learned about a free service to help people for low income housing (and other resources). their number is 211 — or one could go online at but i heard their 211 number has more info.

amen for people like you!
in gratitude

I know it sounds crazy, but you can actually have people come stay with you. My parents helped out homeless people in this way (we had a very big house, 5 kids, and lots of pets) and my brother and his wife do this too. I think it’s crazy! But, I also greatly admire my brother and his family. They have a medium sized house, three kids and regularly bring people home. Yes, they are taking a risk. But, they are both Christians and take the Biblical mandate to care for the poor, widowed and orphaned very seriously, and I think that God is protecting them for doing this. I think that it’s great that you are so concerned and that you even took the time of day to hear their story. May it continue to move you toward action.

I hope that I don’t sound cold-hearted, but please realize that many (!!!) of these cases aren’t real. My husband worked for the city of Alameda and went to a special meeting about homelessness in Berkeley. Apparently, more than 70% of homeless people in Berkeley aren’t homeless. They, in fact, do have a home, but are able to make so much money on the street. So they make their way to certain areas and hold up their signs for donations. And according to the same study, more than 90% of those people don’t even live in Berkeley. They come from surrounding cities.

When we lived in San Francisco, a girlfriend of mine was dating a guy who had divorced his wife. They shared custody of their 3 children – all under the age of 5. He caught his wife numerous times begging for money on the street. She would put her kids in dirty, old clothes and take them barefoot onto the bus. She would take them to the Union Square area and make money using her kids. At first I didn’t believe the story. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, but it seemed incomprehensible that a mother would use her children like that just to support her cocaine habit. But I ran into them on the muni system one afternoon after they had been on the street with their mom for the day. I knew the kids, but didn’t know their mother. The kids were oblivious about what was going on since they were still quite young. All 3 were barefoot and filthy.

The sad thing is that it is probably impossible to know which story is real and which isn’t. It pulls on your heart strings and you naturally want to help.

What say you, MotherTalkers?


When Charity Begins at Home

We had quite a scare late last week when a car ran into my husband’s stopped car while going about 30 miles an hour. Maya was sitting in the back seat.

I got the call just a minute after I had settled into my desk at work. I flew to the accident scene and was relieved to see no blood, no broken glass, just a scared-looking daughter, a shaken-up father and a car in need of $3,000 worth of repairs.

DH stayed behind to finish exchanging information with the other driver and wait for the tow truck. I took Maya to the doctor, where she was given a clean bill of health and a yellow lollipop. “Why did the car crash?” she kept asking. “Why?”

Over the weekend I kept counting my blessings. We have decent health insurance. We have decent car insurance. No one was hurt. We are so very lucky.

I felt even more grateful when I saw this story on 60 Minutes last night. It featured a charity that was founded to provide free medical services to poor, developing countries around the world, airdropping doctors and supplies into remote areas of the Amazon. But recently the charity, Remote Area Medical,or RAM, has changed its mission: 60 percent of its work is now focused on rural and urban America, where nearly 50 million people are uninsured and millions more are underinsured.

During a recent medical “expedition” in Knoxville, Tenn., RAM saw 920 patients, made 500 pairs of glasses, did 94 mammograms, extracted 1,066 teeth and did 567 fillings. But when charity founder Stan Brock called the last number, 400 people were turned away…

Marty Tankersley came with his wife and his daughter, asleep behind the front seats. Tankersley says he drove some 200 miles to get to the clinic and slept in the parking lot for hours.

“Just to have this done?” Pelley asked.

“Yes, sir. I’ve been in some very excruciating pain,” he replied.

Tankersley had an infected tooth that had been killing him for weeks. Most of the people who filled the lot heard about the clinic on the news or by word of mouth, and they came by the hundreds.

By the time the segment ended I was fighting back tears. It breaks my heart to be reminded of how many people in this country are forced to go without. Tears me up to think of how many people must live in pain, for lack of any other options. Burns me up to think of the money that’s paying for the Iraq War, or the federal bailouts of wayward investment firms, rather than providing health care for Americans.

Since the story on RAM first aired last spring, 60 Minutes viewers have donated $2.5 million to the effort. I was moved to donate as well. Other than that, all I can do is continue to count my blessings and pray that we, as a nation, will make our needs known at the polls in November.

Do you have decent health insurance, no insurance, or are you underinsured? How have you dealt with inadequate health care? What’s the solution to this outrageous problem?  


Socially concious spring cleaning

So, as a native Floridian, I am immune to most of your Northern-centric passages of time. You all call them “seasons” and look for things like frost on pumpkins or different color leaves. Around here we look to see when the British tourists have turned from a pasty white to a more vibrant Lobster-red to tell when summer is over. Fall is denoted by clearance prices on beach towels, winter is that day when you get to wear a sweater, and spring, ah, spring. A semi-mythical season whose presence is noted by a few days of light green leaves, no sweater, and for me an irresistible urge to get things done around the house.

Thank goodness it only lasts about a week!

Yesterday I took a good hard look at my kitchen, and then I sat down to read for a few hours. Then I looked at the kitchen again; no discernible change. I sighed and put down my book. After doing the dishes and making some half hearted swipes at the crumbs on the stove I decided real, actual, “organize while you go cleaning” was in order. I began in the pantry.

There I immediately noticed (after 3 weeks of the shelf no longer sliding in and out) that the shelf was broken. The big shelf, where I keep the cereal, and the granola bars, and the oatmeal and the wheat germ. After emptying it I realized it had come off the track, bent the wheel and was hanging very precipitously. Apparently all that fiber will kill you.

I banged the wheel back into place with my meat tenderizer (or as I call it, the kitchen hammer)slid the shelf back in and reloaded it with only the cereal boxes. Clearing these out I realized I had doubles of many packages, probably at the cereal two for one that happens weekly at my grocery store. (I suspect this sale is underwritten by the milk company).

We had extra Raisin Bran. I am the only person in my house who does not believe, deep in their soul, that Raisin Bran is poison. So I put those in a (reusable!) shopping bag for church. Then I realized we had several types of hot cocoa. These orphan bags of sugary ersatz chocolate substance were combined into a single box. Perhaps unwittingly my husband will now drink some of the “No Sugar Added” but somehow I doubt it. I made some for Darling Girl and returned to work. Next I discovered some instant mix lemonade, I product I would not usually countenance except I bought it during a weird pregnancy craving in my first trimester. “The “anything that will stay down’ months… I made a pitcher and put it in the fridge and recycled the empty can. I was starting to feel pretty good!

Extra vinegar, in the bag! Two bags of red beans? One for the church! Who needs this much rice?! And so on, combining open packets, pulling things for dinner, dumping old stuff, and recycling everything I could. I found enough stuff to make a REALLY nice dinner in my pantry and freezer, and didn’t have to go to the store, as I had planned to earlier. So I saved money! And I have a huge sack of food for the church food bank, yay!

I felt so amazing I even tackled the dreaded dining room closet! I won’t go on and on, but let me tell you one thing. It is WAAAAY easier to live up to your commitment that THIS will be the year you use the cloth napkins when they are all (47 of them!!) in a big basket on an organized shelf. I even found a box of conventional cleaning products that I will now use up as I switch over to more environmentally friendly products.

So I can’t be the only one that uses “Not-as-Hot”, uh, I mean “spring” to make a fresh start. What are you all up to? Any suggestions for me? Today I got the laundry room organized and last weekend I installed a retractable clothesline on my balcony! Have you got Spring Fever too?


Weekend Open Thread

For the first time in nine months, I feel rested. My parents have been awesome, entertaining the kids while DH and I take naps or even go out — alone — which hardly ever happens in California. I can understand why someone would move closer to home post children.

If only I could get my father to quit smoking and my mother eating healthier…There is always a flip side, eh? But overall, the trip has been great.

I have spent a lot of time with my grandmother upstairs. She looks wonderful. She has always looked young for her age, does not have a hint of a wrinkle and hardly any grey hair. But she is definitely forgetful and painfully aware of it, which is the hard part. She can’t remember the recipe for dishes and must lean on others to cook for her. Also, she forgets from one day to the next whether someone has called or told her something. It has been sweet to see her hold Eli — Eli adores her, too, BTW! — and in that sense this trip has been worth it.

How are you spending your holidays, MotherTalkers?

Now for some celebrity gossip from — People magazine!

Sean Penn and Robin Wright Divorcing: Actor Sean Penn and his wife of 11 years, Robin Wright Penn, are divorcing. No additional details of the breakup were provided.

On Paris Hilton’s Inheritance: Paris Hilton’s grandfather, Barron Hilton, just earmarked 97 percent of his heirs’ inheritance for charity, leaving the remaining three percent to his children and grandchildren. Paris’s share would be $5 million, which is $95 million less if her grandfather had passed on the money to her rather than given it away.

I am sure Paris will be just fine with royalties from her sex video.  

Where are the Celebs on New Year’s?: People gave the lowdown on who was going to be where on New Year’s. Kanye West, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Avril Lavigne, Lil’ Jon will either host parties or perform in them in Las Vegas.

Ashlee Simpson, Eve and Mandy Moore will hit the scene in Miami.

Kid Rock will host a party in New York City, while Carrie Underwood performs in Times Square.

Where will you be on New Year’s, MotherTalkers?


Letter from Afghanistan

I got this letter in the mail yesterday. It is from my ‘sister’ in Afghanistan. I sponsor her through Women for Women International. WFWI focuses on women who are coping with life in and after wartime.  They provide job skills and basic human rights education, as well as a monthly stipend…so crucial for these impoverished women. Another goal of the program is to encourage education for children. My sister has known nothing but war and repression in her 40 years. She is widowed, illiterate (having grown up under Taliban rule), lives without electricity or running water, and has five children.

I have been writing to my sister since May, and this is her response to my first letter. She dictated it to someone at her learning center, and yet another person translated it, so pardon the grammatical bumps.

Dear sister,

Accept my best regard hope you are well. I’m from Kabul. It was very comfortable and nice city. As war destroyed everywhere it also destroyed and change to ruin.

I’m too happy to be able to contact with you through women for women program. It is strange and unforgettable event that we find a friend from a country that we just see the map of. I felt (word unknown) there is someone to think about us. I’m the woman that I lost my husband. For many years just my hope was my children. I hoped that my children pass the school and attend in University. Now my eldest son is in Kabul Medical Faculty. I hope to graduate soon. My other children are students. As there are too much problems in different part of life, education is also difficult. The country which come out from war really has too much problem. Inspite of this we struggle to become educated.

We are happy that you have not this problem. It is very difficult for a mother who see the kill or injury of her children. We see it. My 9 year old daughter was killed due to missle and my other 3 year old daughter got severe injuries. This is unforgettable event in my life.

My dear sister. I found that you are from America but I haven’t seen any foreign country. But sometime we watch tv and see America. It is really nice and beautiful and the better thing is the peace in your country. I hope (you) have a good time with your husband. I want to write you another letter soon. I hope you write me soon. I the end thank you for the card you sent. Regards,

She is right:  it is a “strange and unforgettable event that we find a friend from a country that we just see the map of.”

This letter made me cry many times over for many different reasons. My sister’s circumstances could not be more different than mine, yet we share common experiences: the loss of a child, thirst for eduation, love for a good man and the desire for friendship. Just as we find solace, laughter and support through boards like this one, we can also reach further afield to find the spirit of friendship in faraway and unexpected places.


Thoughts on Charity

This time of year always gets me assessing how much we’ve given to charity over the previous year. This isn’t necessarily because it’s the season of giving, but more because we need to figure out the total amount for tax purposes.

I recently read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American man who dedicates his life to building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan on a very limited budget (here’s a link to his organization). He describes his quest for funding for his projects, and how little money he really needed from Americans to make an enormous difference in another country. It made me think of Peter Singer and this article I read by him years ago. Our country is so amazingly wealthy and it’s unbelievable how little we’re willing to share with others.

I consider myself a bit of a hypocrite when discussing charity, because I don’t think we give enough. I grew up in a pretty well-off home where money just was not given away. My parents would buy things from kids selling them for fundraisers, but acted like they deserved some medal of honor the couple times I remember them making donations (which were under $100). Even now, they make an insane amount of money, but really don’t give it away. My mom complains bitterly that my dad gets such a big bonus that they have to pay a lot of taxes on it. (I spend all day talking to my little kids about how it’s nice to share, and don’t think I should need to do the same with my parents!)

Compared to what my parents give, I feel like we’re pretty generous, but when I look at the actual numbers, we’re only giving 1% of our salary, and that seems so pathetic to me. We spend about 6% of our salary on a private preschool for our son, and it seems like our priorities are off when that amount could almost build a school in another country.  We also do save pretty significantly for retirement, so my hope is that when we’re older and have taken care of our own first, we’ll be more generous with our money.  But I might just have a whole other set of excuses when we get to that point.

Everyone on this board seems so forward-thinking, and I’m curious where you donate money, and whether you feel like you give enough.  We always make sure to give money to environmental organizations, but our other priorities on where to donate change every year.  This year, we’ve given significant contributions to a homeless shelter, a school program for urban kids, and a cancer foundation.  In the past, we’ve given to organizations like UNICEF and Doctors without Borders, and I think we should be taking more of a global view with our donations.  We haven’t really done many political donations in the past, but I can see doing more of that in the near future if we find a candidate we really support.

As my kids get older, I also want to teach them about charity and have them grow up feeling like it’s normal to give.  This year, my 3-year-old picked out some books from his school’s Amazon wish list.  When he’s older, I’d like to give him a charity budget each year and let him choose what to support, and/or encourage him to contribute some of his own money by matching his contributions.  When I was a teacher, my class organized a fundraiser and I told them I would match their earnings, which resulted in a $1200 donation to UNICEF.  I like to think we all learned a good lesson about charity from that.

For those interested in checking out how different charities spend their money, you might want to look at the Charity Navigator website.