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Spirit of Giving

How to lend a hand to those in need this holiday season

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Amid holiday shopping lists, office parties, and family visits, it may seem hard to add one more thing to your calendar. But helping others can be a wonderful and rewarding holiday tradition. Here are simple things any of us can do to make a difference.

To come up with this list, we solicited suggestions from the Meyer Foundation, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, and the Catalogue for Philanthropy. For more ideas, the Catalogue ( is a great resource.

All of the charities listed here do excellent work—and are in need of donations—year-round. But for this article we focused on what they provide at this time of year.

Brighten Someone’s Home
The Dwelling Place provides homeless families in Gaithersburg with furnished apartments and services such as financial-planning advice for parents and homework help for kids. In December, the Dwelling Place gives each family decorations for the home and makes sure both parents and children have gifts. Executive director Miriam Gandell says the biggest need is for small artificial trees and decorations such as lights, ornaments, and bows. Donors can also adopt a family and provide it with a holiday meal, gifts, and decorations. Call 240-631-1988 or visit

Buy a Family’s Holiday Dinner
Through December, a $29 donation to Bread for the City gives a family ingredients for a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah dinner. Last year, the group gave out more than 8,000 turkeys with fixings, including fresh produce from area farmers markets. Call 202-265-2400 or visit to learn more.

Give a Soldier a Night Out
The Yellow Ribbon Fund helps injured soldiers in treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center by providing simple necessities including rental cars and hotel rooms for visiting family—needs that increase when loved ones come to town for the holidays. When you donate to the Yellow Ribbon Fund this time of year, your money may buy tickets to a Capitals game, cab vouchers, or a babysitter so a veteran and his or her spouse can go out to dinner. Call 240-223-1180 or visit for more information.

Shop for One More Person
Bethany House of Northern Virginia serves homeless women and children who have been victims of domestic violence. In December, the Bethany House Christmas Shop fills with donated new gifts for children and mothers. Women can pick out stocking stuffers, toys, and clothes for their children as well as items for themselves, then wrap them and place them under the tree. Call 703-658-9500 or visit

Lots of groups collect gifts for the people they serve. Here are a few others to put on your list: Alternative House, a shelter in Dunn Loring for abused and homeless children (703-506-9191;; Dr. Bear’s Closet, at Children’s National Medical Center in DC (202-476-2062;; Homestretch, in Falls Church (703-237-2035;; and Prince George’s Child Resource Center, in Largo (301-772-8420; Call or check the Web sites for gift guidelines.

Volunteer on Christmas Eve
More than 1,000 volunteers of all religious backgrounds come together on December 24 for the DC Jewish Community Center’s Day of Service. Volunteers fan out across the District, Maryland, and Virginia to throw holiday parties at group homes, shelters, and senior centers; donate blood; deliver meals; paint schools; and more. Projects usually last one to three hours. Call 202-518-9400 or visit

Organize a Food Drive
Because of the recession, more families are hungry. One way to help: Organize a food drive among your friends, family, or colleagues. Send an e-mail asking for donations, then drop off the cans, boxes, and grocery gift cards at a local soup kitchen, food bank, or outreach program. Here are a few we recommend: Building Bridges Across the River, at THEARC in Southeast DC (202-889-5901;; Doorways for Women and Families, in Arlington (703-522-8858;; Food for Others, in Fairfax (703-207-9173;; So Others Might Eat, in DC (202-797-8806;; Martha’s Table, in DC (202-328-6609;; Our Daily Bread, in Fairfax (703-273-8829;; and Shepherd’s Table, in Silver Spring (301-585-6463; Call or check the Web sites for a list of foods the groups accept.

Make a Senior’s Day
Even at the best facilities, life in a nursing home can be lonely. “Many of our residents don’t get a lot of visitors,” says Nik Ooi, volunteer coordinator at the Washington Home in DC. “Their families are gone or live far away and can only visit once or twice a year.” Nursing homes are often looking for volunteers to spend an hour or two with residents. You may play cards or a board game, go for a walk, or just sit and talk. Ooi says some women enjoy having their fingernails painted.

The Virginia Health Care Association (, the Maryland Health Care Commission (, and the DC Health Regulation and Licensing Administration ( provide lists of nursing homes. Most facilities have a volunteer coordinator who arranges visits. You’ll likely have to fill out a volunteer application and go through a brief orientation before meeting residents.

Give the Gift of Art
Pathways to Housing takes an innovative approach to ending homelessness among the mentally disabled: Give people a home first, then offer treatment and support. The group oversees more than 300 apartments across DC that house formerly homeless individuals, many of whom have psychiatric disabilities. “What is so noticeably missing when you walk into these apartments is artwork on the walls,” says director of programs and development Christy Respress. To fill that space, Pathways to Housing is looking for donations of posters, photographs, paintings, and other pieces of art. Respress says housewarming gifts of new dishes, sheets, silverware, towels, and toiletries are also welcome. Call 202-529-2972 or visit

Keep Someone Warm
As the temperature drops, many local groups organize coat drives. In addition to new and used coats, they may also collect hats, scarves, gloves, cold-weather shoes, thermal underwear, and blankets. Here are four groups we recommend; call or check their
Web sites to find out what kinds of items they’re looking for: Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (703-820-4357;; Bright Beginnings, in DC (202-842-9090;; Christ Child Society, in DC (202-966-9250;; and Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, in DC (202-364-1419;

Support a Veteran’s Family
Operation Homefront’s DC chapter serves more than 300,000 families of wounded and deployed soldiers. During the holidays, the group collects gift cards to give to families. Director of development Kellie Boyle says the group encourages donors to focus on preteens and teens: “Older kids are more aware of the danger their parents are in, have more worries and responsibilities, and are often overlooked.” Best Buy, iTunes, and Old Navy are popular, as are gift cards to gas stations and grocery stores for parents. A program called the Giving Quilt is a good way for companies and large organizations to participate: Operation Homefront supplies a quilt, which can be hung on the wall, with pockets for gift cards; during a holiday party or throughout December, employees fill the quilt with cards. Call 703-421-9033 or visit

Share Your Pet’s Love
Have a dog who could put a smile on someone’s face? Consider joining a pet-therapy group. Volunteers take pets to hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, and other places where people might need cheering up. Most of the pets are dogs, but groups welcome all kinds of animals, from cats to bunnies. Some require that pets pass a temperament test and go through training. Here are five good organizations: Fairfax Pets on Wheels (703-324-5406;; National Capital Therapy Dogs, in Howard County (301-585-6283;; People Animals Love, in DC (202-966-2171;; Pets on Wheels of Prince George’s County (301-853-3330;; and Wags for Hope, in Frederick (

This article first appeared in the December 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.

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