From the Heart: Responsible Holiday Giving That’ll Mean More To Others Than To You


Now that the winter holiday season is almost here, I feel it is my public duty as a career servant to the less than fortunate and head of a non-profit agency to share some valuable information with you. After all, it’s that time of the year when those of us with a few rocks want to lend a hand and do something nice for the folks with no rocks, yet a desire to do well doesn’t always end well, so let me help you out.

First things first: in the ideal world, before you go through your closet and your kid’s closet and start clearing things out to take to the local homeless shelter or social service agency, call said agency first and ask what they might need/want. Let me repeat: call and find out what an agency needs before you pull up with a carload of Hefty bags filled your discarded stuff.

See, in real social service agency land, often times your Hefty bags of used stuff creates more work and resources expended for the very people you are trying to assist. At my agency, we stopped taking clothing donations years ago because we had no washer/dryer and too many times the items we received were marginal and frankly should have been taken to the dump. Yet people still try to drop stuff off and seem bothered when we say sorry. Paying my staff to haul stuff away means money spent on something that is not of benefit to our clients’ and creates waste.

That said, if we say sure we would be happy to take your old *insert item* please, pretty please make sure it is in good working condition. Too many times people give items that frankly are on their last leg of life and again, I and other social service providers must spend precious dollars getting rid of this item thus creating wasted resources. After all my staff isn’t hauling stuff for free.

My rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t give *insert item* to your Mom, BFF or anyone in your personal circle, please don’t give it to the poor. They may be broke but they are people too!

Issues of food insecurity get lots of coverage in November/December and everyone wants to do something to help but please, pretty please call the food pantry or food bank before you drop off 37 boxes of cold cereal and ask what would work best. For starters many food pantries can use actual dollars to buy food cheaper than you and I can via food banks and they know their clientele best. Which brings me to my next point, for the love of all things precious don’t give food items to the poor and needy that are outdated or gross. Many moons ago on this very blog I shared how once when I was a kiddo and my parents were on hard times someone gave my mother outdated chocolate syrup, 32 years later, I still remember the stench. Seriously, toss old shit out…the poor don’t want it.

Many people love the idea of adopting some poor kiddos and making their winter holiday fabulous and often times will try to work through the schools or local youth service providers. This is a nice idea in theory but often creates a sense of unease, please respect that poor parents are still parents and they have the right to decide what their kids can and can’t have. Please don’t ask social service providers or school social workers to play the role of God or parents. No, I don’t know what the “neediest” need and even if I do, I still need to discuss this with their parents. No, you cannot come and just give presents to the poor kids. Just because a parent is broke does not mean they have given up their parental rights.

Lastly social service providers would love to see you helpful winter helpers in the middle of the summer. For realz. Most food pantries experience a drop off in giving in July/August when you are off vacationing yet hunger and food insecurity does not go away just because the weather is lovely, so consider spacing your support throughout the year.


A Frustrated Service Provider

PS: I know your family wants to do a group activity during the holiday season, but coming to serve food to the poor to teach your kiddos how good they have it really isn’t comfortable. We welcome your help and support but our clients are not creatures to be gawked at or a teachable moment. Please examine your motives and reasons before you sign up. Thanks.

Shay Stewart-Bouley, M.Ed, is a Chicago native who’s lived in Maine for 10 years. On her blog, BlackGirlInMaine, she shares what life is like in a rural, predominately-white state. When Shay is not blogging or tweeting, she pens a column on diversity for the Portland Phoenix and is the Executive Director of a faith-based community center serving low-income families. Shay is the mom of a 7-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son and has a beloved life partner known as the Spousal Unit. This piece appeared first on BlackGirlInMaine; Shay agreed to share it here.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Excellent article and great reminders about charitable donations. The 2 shelters that I give to actually post their ‘needs’ list on the website and update regularly as their needs change.
    A quick question about your PS. As a teen I learned the joy of serving and sharing a meal at a local soup kitchen with a school service organization but your note makes me ask when is this appropriate to do with kids? Is the age of the kids important or is your note more referring to the spirit in which the service is given. I want to instill my love of people and service in my children but not at the expense of someone elses well being.

    • I do think the age is important, they really need to be of an age where they can truly understand that some people struggle with basic needs. So that if they serve someone who is ripe, they aren’t going to make a face or do something that offends the person receiving help. My own son was almost 17 before he started helping out at my agency though he has been around my work since he was about 5

  2. I get the point that the author is trying to make. In a nutshell she suggests that more thought go into giving. However, the tone of this article is very off putting. If I want to teach my son that the holidays are about giving and not receiving then I don’t see why it is wrong to make it a teachable moment. I grew up learning the gift of giving back to others from my father. When he passed away I had to jump through hoops just to give away some of his things to the places he supported for most of his life. It was if the gift would only be received if it was acceptable enough for those in charge. People are not going to give if their gifts, whether items or time, are not received well. Anyone who wants to help out should be greeted with thanksgiving no matter what a person feels their intentions are. Just as the giver is often unaware of what the receiver “needs” so to is the receiver often unaware of the sacrifice that was made in order for the giver to give. Donations are down overall in the US and I feel that the attitudes involved are part of the problem. The landfills are probably filled with items that people just threw away because giving them to someone who needs them was just too difficult.

    • I actually run a non-profit agency and have for the past 4 years and have 15 years of experience working in non-profit agencies in both Chicago and Maine. I hear your point and until recently my agency would take anything that people wanted to donate because I understand that people want to do good. The problem is too many times, items are donated that while well intentioned are not useful and actually end up costing us money to get rid of. If I have to pay to haul items away (as I type this, I have a full sized organ in my agency that was donated months ago, that actually started smoking after it was turned on. Months ago a refrigerator was donated with mold) then that creates a hardship to the very agency/people you meant to help.

      As far as teachable moments, I think one has to thread very carefully especially if you are at a homeless shelter/soup kitchen helping. I have seen too many times people come with their kids for a teachable moment that may have left that family feeling good but left the actual clients/recipients feeling horrible. No one wants to gawked at or used as an example of how good they have it. By all means please give back but be mindful that it is a two way street.

      In my case my agency serves families and youth and kids and the folks we serve are incredibly sensitive to their plight. As a result, I have learned over the years that serving people should be handled with great care so that people can retain their dignity in the process of receiving help.

  3. This was a really great article. I try to donate as often as I can and because I am a plus size girl, I figure that they need as many plus sized clothes as they can (because I know how hard it is to find something in my size at the “regular” store). But I always make sure that all of the clothing I provide to them (my 4 year old daughter’s and mine) are washed, dried, and folded or hung properly. I wouldn’t dare give someone something that I wouldn’t give to my own family and BGIM I totally agree with that comment.

    Also, I worked with homeless and mentally ill people since I was 10 (my mother worked for a non-profit agency and I always made them cookies to go along with the food she made for them and I worked there one summer when I turned 14…my very first job) and it was the best experience I could’ve had. I plan on introducing my daughter to non-profits soon because IMO these children are exposed to so much more and (unfortunately or fortunately…you decided) more mature and understanding of what is going on because of that exposure. I think the earlier I can start showing her how to appreciate what she has and to give of herself of those that aren’t as fortunate as her the better she will be and she will be a better person in the long run.

    Maybe it’s time I taught her how to make cookies…


  4. Merry Christmas! I was looking for photos for my blog post today when I came across you site. I read your blog…how wonderful to know there are others who share the same thoughts on the ‘gift of giving’! I had to reblog your post!

    Have a great holiday season and a fantastic New Year!

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