Next Step Therapy Blog: The Holiday Charity-Palooza

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article: “The Holiday Charity-Palooza.”

‘Tis the season to be inundated with charities looking for help. December through February is traditionally a time when non-profits, charities, and poverty stricken families need additional funds. Winter heating bills in the North and East strain everyone’s budget. One can’t help but want to buy Christmas presents, but when one is just making it paycheck to paycheck, this extra expenditure is enough to break the bank. For non-profits, the lack of a Pennsylvania budget for FIVE STRAIGHT MONTHS has strained agencies to their limits.

My staff and I were talking today, and I thought that the topic would make an interesting blog. We were recalling our charity giving through the company over the years. Eleven or twelve years ago, the company that I worked for that provided Early Intervention (prior to us opening Next Step Therapy) was approached by a local church. We were asked to put together an anonymous list of all of our kids on caseload (approximately 75 kids) with male/female, age and sizes. Each child would get a package that we therapists were to deliver. The church was as good as its word, and the week before Christmas, we had 75 groups of presents to deliver. We therapists each took a child to buy for, too. The gifts were high quality (nothing used, no junk), and each child got an outfit, toys, and books. It was great…..except that only 25% of the families even said thank you, and 70% of those families also got Christmas gifts from Angel Trees and other organizations. For some of us, the experience left a little bit of a bitter taste. Seriously, when people go out of their way to give you something, and they do it out of the goodness of their heart (not a requirement), a simple thank you is not a lot to ask.

But…..the little boy that I chose to buy for was my client at the time. I knew what he needed and wanted. I bought him a totally matching outfit – shirt, jeans, boots and winter vest jacket. The shirt had a dinosaur on it. Dinosaurs were his favorite things. I bought him a large set of dinosaur figurines, a puzzle with dinosaurs, and a book about dinosaurs. The kid nearly lost his mind over the dinosaur collection. Mom was a single mom, working a just above minimum wage job. She was trying, really hard. The outfit that I bought him was probably the first brand new outfit he had ever had. His other things were hand-me-down gifts, garage sale items, and things from Goodwill. There is nothing wrong with that. However, this child wore his new outfit three days a week for at least the next five months. It was his favorite. He attended daycare while his mom worked, and daycare reported that he was better behaved, and more verbal, on the days he wore his new outfit. Confidence?

At that same time, we therapists at that agency picked one family out of those 75 that would not be able to afford Christmas, and we gave it to them. Our requirements were that the family had to be “trying,” and could not be drug addicted/alcoholic. When we opened Next Step, we continued that tradition of picking one family, collecting donations from staff, and then “buying Christmas” for the whole family.

During our first year at Next Step, the family that we picked defied our requirements. Mom was very young, had multiple small children from two different dads, and was on welfare. Current dad was a smart ass doper on welfare who thought his calling was to be a rural white rapper. This family ran out of groceries EVERY month before the next food stamps came, and my employees covered them EVERY month, so that those kids wouldn’t go hungry. CYS was a regular visitor. Here’s the thing. Yes, the situation defied our requirements, but mom wasn’t the addict. Mom had so many little ones underfoot, working a job wasn’t even an option. We did it for the kids. When “Christmas” arrived at their house, it included a tree, lights, and ornaments. It included stockings for all of the children. It included toilet paper, groceries, toothpaste, and new toothbrushes. It included pj’s, and a disposable camera so that mom could take pictures of Christmas morning. It involved toys, books, games, and books for mom (who loved to read), and even something for piece of crap Dad. Mom was overwhelmed. She cried. She said thank you. She said that she couldn’t believe that they had been picked.

Flash forward ten years later. I hadn’t heard this woman’s name for nine years. She had moved away. If you had asked me (cynical me) what had most likely happened to her, I would have told you that her children most likely had been taken by Children and Youth Services, and that she had died of an overdose. Not so. That smart ass doper got himself arrested and she took the opportunity to call a relative, packed herself and those kids up, and moved out of state. Turns out, he had been beating her, and in her terror that he would kill her, or that the kids would be taken, she covered for him. So, she left him, and the area. Today, she is in her third year of college, works a full-time job, has married a man that loves her and her kids, and all of her children do well in school and play sports. Boom! Guess who she credits with the turn around? My company, my therapists. She said, “I realized when you guys provided Christmas that if you could care about me and my children that much, I needed to, too.”

I guess that I’m just trying to point out that we are a civilization of instant gratification today, and when we don’t get it, we don’t like it. We live in a world where we see instant replay on TV, and can get any show, any time On Demand. Every store is open every day, and money can be obtained at seven million ATM’s. Any one can get a credit card, and you and I can go online right now, book a flight to Fiji for tomorrow, and worry about paying it off in $40 increments for the next twelve years. We don’t like doing something today and not getting a thank you. We have forgotten that sometimes we don’t get to see the outcome for five or ten years.

I just read an online column about a woman who refuses to purchase presents for an Angel Tree. She said that she had a sick feeling that supporting that system just encouraged people to believe that strangers would always bail you out, and that you didn’t have to better yourself. I had to contemplate that for a while. In all seriousness, this is a worthwhile topic. Why aren’t we supposed to feed the bears at National Parks? Because they become dependent on the groceries, and forget how to forage for themselves. It turns out that a bear can become addicted to potato chips, and forget that he likes berries. Meanwhile, the berries are better for him. Some of us feel the same way about welfare. If a person gets a monthly check, and food stamps, and gets dirt cheap rent, while their utilities are paid for them and the County van provides transportation, month after month, and year after year….what motivation is there for someone to get a minimum wage job?

Here is my answer to the question of, “Do I buy presents for a child on the Angel Tree, knowing that they are probably on welfare?” The answer is yes. Yes, if you can afford it, the answer is yes. Why? Because those kids on the Angel Tree may be foster kids. Kids who left their home two months ago with the clothes on their back and nothing else, and the foster parents have been given a grand total of a $150 clothing allowance, which in today’s world is three outfits from a box store. You and I don’t know.

I wrote the employee manual for Next Step Therapy. We have added about 100 pages in the last 10 years. It never occurred to me that I would have to tell employees that they couldn’t take unlimited vacation, or that if they didn’t show up for work and return my calls for three days that they were fired. I’ve learned a lot in ten years of owning a business. One of the things that was originally in the manual, and hasn’t changed in ten years is this; “It is never the child’s fault. No matter how dirty the house, no matter how crazy the parents, no matter how out of control the child is….it is never the child’s fault.” It was true then, and it is true now. Nowhere on this planet is a fetus floating in amniotic fluid thinking, “Gee, I hope that I get born to a nineteen year old mom who already has a 22 month old to another dad. I hope that we live in subsidized housing, and that other than the doctors’ office and McDonalds, I never see another location for my first three years of life. I hope that we live in filth, and that dad goes to jail while mom goes to rehab and that I get to live in a foster home with strangers.” It is never the child’s fault.

You are never wrong to ensure that a child has a coat, mittens, and a hat, so that they can go outside for recess with their classmates, rather than being the only one sitting inside with the secretary. You are never wrong to provide a child with clothing that fits, so that they have more than two outfits. You are never wrong to provide a child with a stuffed animal for comfort. How could you be wrong? And, what if the child that you provide for goes, “Someday, I would like to be able to be the one that donates.” What if your gifts, your charity, inspire a child to do better?

Last year at this time, my oldest, then sixteen, called and told me that his Honor Society was providing Christmas presents for students in the school district. He asked if I would “match” his $25 donation (out of his own money.) Of course I agreed. The child that Noah got had a list, which included a toothbrush and toothpaste. Noah had a wonderful time shopping for this child, and literally was gleeful about delivering the package to the child during the school day. But, then, he was also sad. “Mom, I got to deliver my Christmas package to the kid at elementary school today! He was so excited! You know what he liked the most? He was so excited about the toothbrushes and toothpaste. How can a seven year old be excited about that?” Please understand, Noah has an iPhone, and Xbox, and gets clothes from Under Armor and Nike. He has seven pairs of tennis shoes. It doesn’t matter that I have always talked about kids who had less. It was only after he used his own money to buy, and had to deliver in person, that Noah understood that a toothbrush and toothpaste costs $3.00, and a family starving doesn’t have money for that. But, can I tell you, Noah had more fun, and felt better about buying for this kid than he did opening his own presents. Being a part of someone else’s Christmas, donating, can be an eye opening experience for teenagers.

I also read on the internet recently about a woman who was “floored” that a child on welfare wrote out a Christmas list that included an Xbox and other expensive things. “Who does this kid think they are? Don’t they realize that they are on welfare, and should be grateful for what they get?” Well, no. Kids don’t realize that they are on welfare. They don’t know what that is. Kids from at least 4-10 have no concept of where money comes from. For a child that is struggling with school, no, they don’t really have a concept that an Xbox is $300 and a puzzle is $6.00. Your child made an expensive Christmas list, as did mine. Why would we think that a child living in poverty wouldn’t see the same commercials on TV, and want the same things? Don’t let that blow your mind. They are children. It is never their fault.

If you are standing in front of the Angel Tree, having spent $800 – $1000 on your kids/grandkids, thinking, I should do this too…..go ahead and do it. You won’t get a thank you, because you are as anonymous as they are. But, understand that you may make a child’s holiday season.

If you look at that Angel Tree and think, “Nope, not gonna do it. Those kids probably get gifts from seven different agencies, and have a better Christmas than my kids,” you may very well be right. Move on.

Understand today that if donating is even an option for you during this season, you are 100% better off than probably 75% of this world’s population. Good for you! (And me, and my employees). However, you still deserve to decide how that donation money is spent. I’m with you.

Here are some suggestions for donations:

1. What do you feel strongly about? Are you a huge supporter of Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts/4-H? There is always a child who would like to join, and whose parents would take them, but they can’t afford the uniform/book/membership dues. Call a local leader and donate your money to ensure that a child gets to join.

2. Do you feel that physical fitness is important? Do you think (as I do) that every child should have swim lessons? Every YMCA has a scholarship program, for memberships for low income families, and swim lessons. Call them and donate $100 to make sure that a child who can’t afford it gets swim lessons. You might save a life. They might end up on the swim team.

3. Want to help children, but can’t in good conscious do the Angel Tree? Pick a non-profit that helps children with disabilities. In our area, Heavenly Gaits in Knox (a therapeutic horse riding academy) or VARHA in Venango County (also horseback riding for individuals with disabilities) need your donations to feed those horses!

4. Perhaps you want to support the military or our local disabled veterans. There are many veterans who do not have transportation to appointments or need assistance with housing/utilities/groceries. There are several local families whose spouse is deployed out of the country. Maybe they could use a babysitter or some help at home. Call your local Office of Veterans Affairs and see what you can offer.

5. Totally feel like you are done with humans and would like to support animals? No problem! Pick your local Humane Society or a local small rescue like Safehaven Small Breed Rescue in Tionesta. Every rescued animal needs spayed/neutered, shots, de-wormed and food/treats/collar/leash. It takes money to get some of these animals healthy.

6. Tracy, I’d like to do something, because it is the season of giving, but I don’t have money….no problem!!! It isn’t all about money. Do a towel/bedding drive with friends and family! Go through your closets, and ask family/friends for donations. All animal rescues need towels and bedding for their animals. Donate what you have!

7. Again, no money, but want to help? How about a donation of your time? Those horse riding facilities? Every child put on a horse needs three volunteers…one to lead the horse, and one on each side to prevent a fall. Be a walker. Likewise, every animal rescue needs people to clean cages, take animals for walks, and give baths. Become a volunteer.

I want to remind everyone that charity donations are not just needed during December, and that not every “charity” needs to be a big name, famous agency.

One of the best “charity” things I ever did was over ten years ago. I belonged to a church, and a new member started to come. She seemed sweet, had two kids, and was welcomed with open arms. I found out that she was going through a nasty divorce, and was broke. When I went grocery shopping for me, I pulled a second cart behind me. I filled the second cart with toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, hamburger, bread, and staples. At the checkout, I paid for both, but had the store bag the second load separately. On my way home, I stopped at her house. When she answered the door, I said, “Please don’t be offended, but I understand that you are going through a really hard time right now, and money is tight. When I grocery shopped today, I realized that I was blessed enough to not only pay for mine, but to get yours too. Take this stuff.” We unloaded about $150 worth of groceries (which 10 years ago was a pretty good load), and I drove away feeling lucky, and happy. She was grateful, her kids got to eat for weeks, and all was well. Ten years later, I don’t remember her name, she is long gone, and our paths will probably never cross again. Doesn’t matter. On that day, I did what was right. For all I know, she and her two kids can’t remember my name either, but they buy groceries for other people going through the worst time of their life. Pay it forward, you know?

Finally, I want to remind people that it is not about the “GRAND GESTURE.” I have friends, family, and employees who fall under this category, and I’m going to take some flak from this….not worried. I’m a big girl, and when you write a blog and put it out there, you need to expect some flak. Folks, I see people all the time who are raising money to go to Jamaica or Haiti to do “Christian good deeds.” It stuns me.

Seriously, you are going to spend upwards of $10,000 or $17,000 in flights to go do good deeds on a Caribbean island? ACK!!! We have kids, right here, in the surrounding three counties, who don’t have shoes that fit. That don’t have winter coats. That have had the heat turned off. That can’t afford their $20 an hour co-pay for therapies. Who need to see a specialist in Pittsburgh, but don’t have gas money or $20 parking fees to go. We have kids and adults in this community who need a ramp built at their house to get a wheelchair to a car. For the $17,000 in airplane ticket money that you are spending to fly to a foreign country to do “Christian works,” I could have you build 8 ramps right here.

Perhaps you can think about the needy in your local community. Is there a widowed lady who never gets company except for Meals on Wheels? Take her a plate of cookies and a thermos of coffee, visit with her for half an hour, and give her your phone number in case of emergency. THAT is charity of the highest order. THAT is taking care of your own. THAT is making the most of your limited time and resources.

You and I can’t change the whole world today, but you and I can make our little corner of it a better place. Don’t let the “demands” of being asked to donate to charities daily ruin this season for you. Figure out what you can do, what you want to do, and then do it with a smile on your face. Once you have done what you are able to do, do not feel guilty about not being able to do more. Your ten dollar or twenty-five dollar donation might not seem like much to you, but let’s remember that all of the donations added up together turn into something usable.

Hoping the season isn’t stressing you out,


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