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Giving back this holiday season: How to provide relief to those in need


Many families need financial assistance during the holidays. Here are some of the ways your family can get involved this year.

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During the holiday season, commercials flood audiences with images of happy-go-lucky families, expensive presents, glitzy parties and fancy food spread across dining room tables.

For many Americans, these carefree ads characterize a make-believe world. The reality of the holiday season is vastly different for tens of thousands of American families. In fact, a recent poll found that 61 percent of Americans carrying a balance on their credit cards are willing to add to their debt this holiday season. According to a 2016 Consumer Reports holiday poll, 29 percent of individuals specifically reported that stress mounts during the holidays because of increased financial debt.

For families who struggle financially, it can seem impossible to meet even the most basic needs. Putting food on the table and gifts under the tree can be a struggle, to the degree that some children might not even see a single gift this holiday season.

“There are a lot of seasonal needs, such as providing Christmas for children who wouldn’t otherwise have Christmas. That’s a big push for the Salvation Army in Northeast Florida,” says Major Bert Tanner, former Salvation Army area commander for Northeast Florida. “We provide Christmas to a little over 3,000 children.”

How you can help families in need this holiday season

If you are motivated to help a family who doesn’t have enough to eat, or you would like to donate to a child who has requested a toy for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, there are plenty of ways to help. A seemingly endless supply of national and local organizations provide holiday assistance in the form of meals, toys, shelter options and wish list fulfillment.

If you don’t have a charity top-of-mind, turn to GuideStar for help. GuideStar USA provides information that enables users to make better decisions about charitable giving. GuideStar recommends that you screen a charity before donating to it using the following methods:

  1. Get as many facts as you can about the charities you’re considering. Check the mission and goals of each organization to ensure they’re reputable.
  2. Compare charities. If two charities look similar, compare the work they do side-by-side.
  3. Search the Guidestar database to check a charity’s legitimacy. If you find it on GuideStar, you’ll know that it meets IRS standards for tax-exempt status.

Remember, reputable charities won’t pressure you to donate, nor should they withhold financial information from you. If you’re feeling “overly encouraged” by a specific charity to donate your money, run it through the GuideStar database.

National organizations that provide holiday assistance

If you’re on the hunt for ways to help, check out 2-1-1, a nationwide service that helps connect millions of people to services every year. Each state should have a 2-1-1 list of Christmas programs on an individual website.

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are a few reputable national programs your family can get involved with this year:

  • Toys for Tots: The Marine Toys for Tots program has helped deliver toys to less fortunate children since 1947. Drop an unwrapped present at your local Toys for Tots local campaign anytime throughout December.
  • Angel Tree Program: The Angel Tree Program, a program of Prison Fellowship, supports children of incarcerated parents at Christmastime. Local churches purchase and deliver gifts to children in the name of a parent who is in prison, or you can donate directly to the program.
  • The Salvation Army: Major Bert Tanner, Salvation Army Area Commander for Northeast Florida, recommends donating through the national website, “Look up your local community through your zip code,” he said. “You can also call your local Salvation Army in your community and find out what’s going on this holiday season.”

The Salvation Army also has an Angel Tree program (different from the Angel Tree Program described above), which matches children’s wish lists with those willing to “adopt” those children.

According to Tanner, this nationwide program provides thousands of children with clothes and toys. “We give the gifts to the parents so they can provide Christmas for their children. It’s a great pairing of people with need and a people with resources to meet those needs,” he said.

Local organizations

If you’re most interested in how you can make an impact in your local community, here are a few ways to start your research and make an impact:

  • You can scroll through the resources on 2-1-1 to get an idea of what the needs are in your area.
  • Check your local Salvation Army website. An example could look like Northeast Florida’s Holiday Assistance page.
  • Do a quick Google search of local adopt-a-family programs.
  • Check with local churches and other nonprofits to see how you can help with specific financial giving. Some also run local toy drives, provide holiday meals or offer other ways to get involved.

Help military families in need

Giving back to a military family is another way to thank active military individuals and veterans for the sacrifices they make year-round. According to Michelle Julazadeh Chavarin, director of marketing and communications for Soldiers’ Angels, military families are most often in need due to separation during the holidays and tight budgets. Soldiers’ Angels is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides aid and comfort to the men and women of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and their families – as well as a growing veteran population.

“The biggest concern is the ability to provide for their families. Most of them live paycheck to paycheck,” Chavarin says. “We also have a large number of low income and at-risk veterans across the country.”

One of the largest holiday programs organized by Soldiers’ Angels is its holiday stocking program. Soldiers’ Angels accepts holiday cards and letters from individuals and Holiday Community Partner members. Each card and/or letter is placed into a stocking filled with goodies for troops and veterans, and then Soldiers’ Angels delivers those stockings to a deployed service member or veteran patient at VA hospitals throughout the country.

Businesses and organizations can also adopt individual qualified veterans or military families and provide toys for children and grocery gift cards.

“We have people from every background that participate in this program. Some will adopt one single family and then we have large companies across the country that adopt multiple families,” says Chavarin.

Other great resources to help servicemembers and veterans include:

Alternative ways to provide relief to those in need

Maybe you’re tight on cash yourself, or maybe you prefer a more hands-on approach to charitable giving. There are so many ways you and your family can get involved this holiday season, including:

  • Share your wishes with Santa in letter or email form as part of the Macy’s Believe program. Macy’s will donate $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every letter received up until Dec. 24 to make wishes come true for kids with life-threatening medical illnesses.
  • The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle program is one of the best ways to give spare change if you don’t have a lot of cash. Most of the individuals that stand next to the red kettles and ring bells during the holiday season are volunteers, so you could also volunteer at a local store.
  • Through the Salvation Army, other volunteer opportunities could also involve hospital visits, nursing home events, meal delivery and more. You can also volunteer at the local food shelf, homeless shelters or nursing homes. If you’re not interested in working directly with the Salvation Army, call your local chamber of commerce for a broader list of organizations that need help during the holidays.
  • Donate your unused airline miles. Through the United Airlines Charity Miles Program or Delta SkyWish program, members can donate accrued miles to The Salvation Army to move personnel quickly in time of disaster, provide travel for those in need of emergency medical care and reduce administrative costs by providing travel for staff. The Red Cross also accepts airline miles from several major airlines, including American, Delta, Southwest and United Airlines.
  • Donate credit card rewards to any charitable organization that accepts them.

Spend to your advantage

According to an annual study and survey released by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights and Analytics, consumers in 2019 say they will spend an average of $1,047.83 during the holiday season. Why not utilize credit card rewards and savings to help out a family in need?

Many credit cards offer cash-back intro bonuses after you spend a certain amount of money in a set time period. Donating that cash bonus to an organization that helps families in need this holiday season is the perfect way to make a difference without breaking your own holiday budget.

Donations are also tax-deductible (as long as the charity you donate to is a 501(c)(3) organization), meaning you could use a zero-interest credit card to donate, allowing you to save on this year’s taxes while paying off a larger donation over time.

How to apply for assistance

If you’re struggling yourself this holiday season, there are limitless opportunities to bring the holidays to your home. Depending on what your specific needs are, you can start by visiting your state’s 2-1-1 resource for assistance.

You can apply for assistance at many of the national organizations we’ve listed. There are several requirements, including required documentation, that your family will need to complete in order to qualify for assistance. Most national and local organizations list their requirements under a “How to Apply” section of their website. Check out “Request Toys” on Toys For Tots’ website for an example.

The Salvation Army and other charities may require the following proof in order to qualify for free holiday assistance:

  • Applicants can’t be signed up for any other form of public holiday assistance or other programs through another local charity or non-profit agency.
  • You’ll need to offer picture identification and proof of total household income (you can use your most recent check stubs).
  • You’ll need to show Social Security cards for all family members, as well as offer proof of residency with a utility or phone bill.
  • Applicants must meet income guidelines, which are based on your family’s size.

The bottom line

No matter your budget or schedule, there are so many ways you can help give joy to families in need this holiday season.

“We have a baking team, a sewing and crafting team and a letter-writing team,” says Chavarin. “Whether your budget is small or you have a lot of money to give, we have something for everyone.”

The giving spirit doesn’t have to end with the holiday season, either. Organizations are always looking for donations and volunteers, no matter the time of year. Though you can’t ring a Salvation Army bell in July, there are still ways to get involved with most charities at any time.

“It’s not just during the holidays that many programs and families need financial assistance. the financial support is fantastic not only at Christmas but throughout the year,” says Tanner.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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