Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Compassion

Alternative Gifts for Holiday Giving: Try Goats & Buffalo
by Jan Johnson

This is a condensed version of chapter 9 of Jan’s book Growing Compassionate Kids.

All I want for Christmas is a goat. My daughter gave me one last year and I’m hoping for another one this year. Because this is an alternative gift, I don’t receive an actual goateed, butting little creature, but a poor family in China receives one in my name.

This goat provides that impoverished family with milk and cheese they would not otherwise have. Any leftovers are sold to create family income. When the goat has kids (the goatish kind), they are sold to pay fees and buy books so the children can attend school. So for $50, my daughter provides a Chinese family with a resource for food, education and a micro-business with the help of www.partnersintl.org.

Such is the world of alternative gifts in which you or the child in your life purchases an item or a service (such as care for a foster child) in the name of someone else. Some gifts cost as little as $5.00 because you can buy a “share” of something grander. When my son was twelve, he bought in my name one share of a solar cooker (no wood or gas needed) for people in Kakuma refugee camp in Northeast Kenya. He picked this because he’d heard me lament over how people in undeveloped nations are often forced to cook with cow dung, which causes parasites to get in their food (www.altgifts.org). A solar cooker solves that problem.

While most compassionate acts require you to go out of your way, giving an alternative gift simplifies your life by alleviating hours of wondering what to get folks who already have a lot. Just reading about the gifts teaches us about how the rest of the world lives (and what they live without). Helping kids pick alternative gifts for their parent, grandparent or teacher helps the kids in your life grow in their capacity for compassion.

Perhaps you think alternative gifts aren’t personal enough. “The gifts can be personalized to what people are interested in,” says Harriet Prichard, president of Alternative Gifts International. “People in the health care field appreciate gifts of medical assistance. Kids are stumped about what to give their teachers but teachers like to receive trees for reforestation or tutoring for an inner-city child. I watched a young person give his youth choir director a chicken for Christmas. There was such ecstatic joy between the two of them.”

The provider organization usually sends both the giver and the recipient a card to notify them of the gift given and whose name it was given in, but maybe you still want to give gifts recipients can hold in their hand. If so, you can order from an organization such as Ten Thousand Villages (www.tenthousandvillages.com), which buys crafts made by disadvantaged artisans who live in small villages in Third World countries.

But do such gifts really help people? A few years ago, Filipino farmers in nine villages were starving, surviving only on illegal logging. To feed themselves, they asked the government for small plots of land to cultivate organic gardens. But they needed help to cultivate these gardens. So Alternative Gifts International (partnering with Outreach International) listed water buffalo as a gift to help these villagers and donors supplied $16,000 to send twenty-three water buffalo. After three years, these nine villages could not only feed themselves, but they became prosperous and started other microbusinesses. The families treasured their buffalo as part of their family. To investigate whether an organization truly helps people, check their annual audited financial statements (usually available upon request) and reports of individual projects and nonprofit organizations usually posted on their web site

Before you decide that some people in your life would feel puzzled or slighted by an alternative gift, try it out. (Exception: grandparents, of course, give an alternative gift besides the one that’s wrapped.) My mother was perplexed when I said I wanted to receive an alternative gift instead of a traditional holiday gift from her. That was not her style. She’d grown up poor in the Depression and worked herself through college, thank you. But I sent her a World Vision gift catalog anyway. A few days before Christmas, I received a card saying she had donated $60 to teach two women in Mali to read and write (77% of the women there are illiterate). This gift reflected who my mother was. She’d paid her college tuition and later mine – she couldn’t hold back when it came to getting women educated. Not holding back is what it’s about.


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