For years, I never knew what to get my dad for Christmas. When I was very young, the usual “Dad” gifts would do—a tie, a gadget. Later in childhood, I realized that my dad was a great reader, so a book was a perfect gift. If Robert Heinlein had just written a new one, so much the better.
But from 1989 on, my dad had no use for accessories, or gizmos, or even science fiction. That was the year he died of a sudden heart attack. He was 48 years old. I was 15. Still, 20 years later, he comes to mind when I make out my Christmas list: “Aunts and uncles? Check. Cousins? Check. Friends? Got them. My brother? No problem. Mom? Check. Dad?” Dad. Every Christmas, I still feel the need to do something for Dad, even though he has no use for the usual holiday trinkets.
A few years ago, I found a solution that works for me, and I’d like to suggest it to any of you out there who are missing someone this holiday season: If your loved one is no longer around to use a physical gift, give a gift to the world—something that your father (mother, friend, whoever you’re thinking of) would have been proud to be a part of. You know that the world is a better place because that person was once here. Make the world even better in his or her name.
When I was little and my dad was still with us, I remember him going out every year to “be a ding-a-ling,” as he put it. He was a proud member of the LIONS club, and his local club volunteered every year to ring a bell by a Salvation Army kettle. Each Lion would ring for a four-hour shift. It seemed that every year, the club’s scheduled bell-ringing day would turn out to have the worst weather of all the Colorado winter (and in my memory, the winters then were much colder and snowier than Colorado winters now). Still, even though he was bundled up in the ski jacket he usually saved for business trips to Minnesota, he always bounced out our door with a smile on his face. He was excited about standing in driving snow, ringing a bell while most shoppers ignored him, because he knew that he was supporting a good cause. That, and he got to make a goofy, childlike joke about it: “Hey, look! I’m a ding-a-ling!” Dad never missed a chance to make a silly joke.
That memory is what Christmas is to me: family, simplicity, helping those less fortunate. So, in honor of my father, Thomas C. Harkess, who was always delighted to help fill a red kettle, I’m happy to host an “online kettle” for the Salvation Army this year in his name. If you’re looking for a good cause to contribute to this season, if you’ve been touched by my story, if for any reason you’d like to give a little to the Salvation Army this year, please click the kettle pictured above, which is a link to a donation page, and toss in a little or a lot. All donations go directly to the Salvation Army, not to me or any other middleman, though I will be told about your donation, and unless you’d like to remain anonymous, I’ll send you a heartfelt thank you.
Why the Salvation Army? Well, for me, it’s connected to childhood memories of my dad, but I’ve also learned this: From the American Institute of Philanthropy, which checks up how charities use their finances, the Salvation Army gets an excellent score for spending most of their finances directly helping people (rather than overdoing the advertising or paying fat salaries to board members). They also do an amazing variety of good works. For example:
• Christmas dinners, clothes, and toys for families in need.
• Help for people with (in the words of their web site) “a variety of social and spiritual afflictions … including substance misuse, legal problems, relational conflicts, homelessness, unemployment.” In other words, they take people whose lives have fallen apart for various reasons, and give them a safe place to stay, good food, good work, and whatever therapy they need to get them back on their feet again.
• A program specifically to help former prison inmates to become healthier, happier contributing members of society.
• Disaster relief services, including immediate emergency shelter and care, as well as long-term restoration work.
• Care and activities for the elderly.
• Services for veterans.
• Camps to get low-income kids a taste of sun, fun, and nature.
• In the “Who knew?” category (Well, I found these services surprising and fascinating.):
° A missing persons service that helps reunite people with lost family members (although, comfortingly, the Salvation Army respects the wishes of people who tell them that they do not want to be found), and
° An international campaign to fight human trafficking—yes, that means slavery, and yes, it still happens in today’s world.
If you’d like to help with my dad’s Christmas present this year, just click on the picture above, or visit my kettle at the Salvation Army web site.