Are you donating toys or goodies to a charity for Christmas? Good. Let’s talk.
The charities and the families in need are so grateful for help. But there’s an art to shopping for kids.
Before you start wandering store aisles shopping for a child you may only know as “Boy Age 10,” take a few tips from the experts.
“I’ve probably gotten every question,” says Lindsay Duncan, the coordinator of volunteers and Christmas events for the Salvation Army. “Every mistake made, I have seen it.”
At the Salvation Army’s Angel Trees, where people pick up tags that list a child’s needs, there are instruction sheets. But people often forget to pick one up, or they may work for a company that gets a bunch of tags to share with employees but doesn’t pass along the instructions.
The Salvation Army’s biggest rule: Don’t wrap the gifts. You’ll just waste money on ribbons and paper that have to be removed.
“We like parents to see the gifts,” Duncan says. If there’s a mistake (maybe you bought for a girl instead of a boy) or you bought something you didn’t realize may be inappropriate, it’s better to find out before Christmas morning.
Also, if the gifts are unwrapped, a family that gets donations for several children from different organizations can wrap everything in the same paper. It’s nicer for the kids that way.
For many charity organizations, there’s an art to figuring out what to put on those little angel-tree tags. Donors can get put off by requests that seem too big.
“I want donors to know those are just gift suggestions,” Duncan says. While the suggestions are handy, you can also use them to learn a little about the kid. If a bike is requested and you can’t buy one, for instance, it still tells you the kid likes to play outdoors or be active.
One more thing about the tags: Trust them. Agencies work with the parent or caregiver to fill them out. So if the tag says the child is 4 but needs size 10 clothing, there’s probably a reason, such as a weight issue. If it’s a special-needs child, the age on the tag should match the toys the child can use.
If you don’t have enough contact with kids to know what’s cool at the moment, Rachel Eldridge can sympathize. Eldridge, volunteer manager for Thompson Children and Family Focus, doesn’t have kids herself. “A lot of times, the folks who are interested in helping do it because they don’t have their own kids, or their kids are grown.”
That means you may not be acquainted with Dora the Explorer or Doc McStuffins, the heroine of a popular show about a little girl who doctors her toys. But you don’t have to take a crash course in pop culture to be a good donor.
“Always going classic is a good idea, the things people enjoyed in their own childhood,” Eldridge says. “There’s a reason they’ve been around. Blocks and puzzles, things that get played with over and over.”
Duncan echoes the wisdom of the eternal toys. She loves it when she sees kids request things she loved as a kid. Lite-Brite, Easy-Bake and Candy Land are classics.
“They still want Transformers,” she says. “Little boys still want cars. Barbie is still really popular.
“I tell people to ask people at the stores. Someone who’s working at a place that sells bikes or toys can help. They know what works for a certain age group.”
Sharon Davis, director of the Charlotte office of Catholic Charities, loves to see gifts that involve the whole family, such as games and educational toys.
“Anything that creates an opportunity to interact and engage,” she says. If English isn’t the first language in the family, the caregiver or parent can learn along with the child.
One thing Davis doesn’t love to see: Used toys that aren’t “gently used.” Donating used toys and clothing might be OK the rest of the year, but Christmas is different.
“Our families are grateful for whatever they receive,” she says. “But it is the one time of year we’d like to have things that are new or really gently used.”
At the Salvation Army Christmas Bureau, Betty Maxwell has worked in the stocking division since the late 1980s. She not only checks the stockings filled by donors, she also spends her own money at the dollar stores all year, so she can make sure every stocking is well-stuffed.
“One thing I have never understood,” she says. “(Donors) put in flashlights and small things that need batteries, but they don’t put in the batteries. If a person can’t afford toys for their kids, how are they going to afford batteries?”
Pay attention to age-appropriate labels, she says. Little kids are at risk from choking, so skip stuffed toys with removable eyes (embroidered eyes only, please) and things such as glue sticks that look like candy.
Speaking of candy, never put it in stockings or gifts. If any stockings are left and have to be stored for next year, candy will attract rodents. And a lot of kids have food allergies or dietary restrictions.
What is good for stockings? Bottles of bubbles, harmonicas, calculators. Hats and gloves. Toothbrushes. Puzzles – wooden ones for little, little kids, 3D ones, such as cubes, for older kids.
Before you get too caught up worrying, though, remember that Santa has to make these decisions for kids all over the world.
“At the end of the day, it’s a gift under the tree,” Duncan says. “There’s the magic of ‘what am I going to get this year?’ If it’s something the donor is excited about, the child’s going to love it, too. They’re going to be surprised on Christmas morning.”
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