Alternative gift giving events help build community and teach valuable skills

Alternative gift giving activities, such as donation gift fairs, toy exchanges and gift circle clubs, offer youth a way to give back to their communities while learning valuable leadership and citizenship skills.

Toy drives are popular community service events during the holidays. Photo: Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs, Flickr Creative Commons.
Toy drives are popular community service events during the holidays. Photo: Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs, Flickr Creative Commons.

For many people, the holiday season is the time of year to celebrate with family and friends, and to give back to their community through service or donations to people in need. With some planning, the holiday season can be a time for youth to plan and conduct fun, community-based service projects that benefit others; build strong, healthy communities; and help youth develop leadership and citizenship skills.

The spirit of giving is strong during the holidays, when many people buy and exchange gifts with loved ones and make donations to nonprofit and charity organizations. At the same time, many people experience emotional and financial stresses during the holidays and wish for alternatives ways to celebrate the spirit of the holidays with less focus on shopping and consumerism.

With these facts in mind, groups of youth can work together throughout the year to plan fun and meaningful community events; helping provide an opportunity for community members to come together to offer and give their time, talents and treasures to others, while honoring the spirit of the holidays and avoiding consumerism, materialism and financial stress.

Idea 1: Set up an alternative (donation) gift fair

At an alternative gift fair, “shoppers” make donations to nonprofit organizations and charities as a gift to someone on their holiday shopping list. During the event, shoppers circulate among tables set up by nonprofit organizations and speak with representatives from the organizations about the charitable causes that the nonprofits support through their programs. The attendees can choose to make financial donations to organizations of their choice by purchasing pre-determined gifts/donations to the nonprofit organization in honor of friends or family members. In exchange, shoppers receive a personalized card to give to the person they have made the donation on behalf of.

Organizers of an alternative gift fair can decorate the room to create a festive atmosphere, and might choose to invite local musicians to provide live entertainment during the event. More information on alternative gift fairs, including a planning guide and other organizer resources, is available at the Center for a New American Dream website.

Idea 2: Toy exchange

Toy drives are generally popular community service events during the holidays, as they are a great way to provide gifts for families with limited financial abilities to purchase new toys for their children. Similarly, a toy exchange can fulfill this service, while allowing children and youth to participate more directly in the experience of sharing with others. At a toy exchange, community members are asked to bring gently used toys, clothes and books to give away to other event attendees. Families can participate in a toy exchange together by selecting items from their home to bring to the exchange.

Participants in a toy exchange are givers and receivers. Everyone who participates is asked to bring items that others may have (for free) and everyone also has the opportunity to select items from others they could use as a gift for someone else. After the exchange, any remaining items can be donated to a local thrift store. For some tips on organizing a toy exchange, read “How to Throw a Toy Exchange” on the Shareable website.

Idea 3: Organize a gift circle club

A gift circle is a community building experience that can be organized as a club activity or with any good sized group of people who are interested in participating. The idea of a gift circle is simple: A group of people meet and everyone shares with the group something they need, something they are willing to share, and something from the gift circle they are grateful for. What is shared in a gift circle does not necessarily need to be tangible goods; for example, it could be borrowing a ladder or lawn blower, or receiving or giving music or dance lessons.

A Circle of Gifts” on the Shareable website suggests holding three “rounds” during each gift circle. The first round consists of participants sharing with the group something they currently need. Other group members can speak up to offer goods, services or ideas on how that need can be met. In the second round, everyone takes turns sharing with the group something they would like the give or share with others. In the last round, group members share stories of gratitude regarding things they have received from others by participating in the gift circle. All three rounds generally happen during one event. There can be food and refreshments involved and time for conversation and socializing between the more formal rounds. This helps to include the building of relationships and community as a part of each participants’ experience.

Planning and organizing an alternative gift fair, toy exchange gift circle can provide youth and adults with an opportunity to develop many leadership and life skills. Additionally, these activities all help to build community by building and strengthening relationships between people who are able to help each other to meet their needs. Making the effort to coordinate one of these ideas this holiday season will not only benefit the receiver of the gifts, but also benefit the giver and local community.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.”

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