The Christmas trees are trimmed and the midnight shoppers are trying to get the last bargains. But around America there are millions who have some rather unusual ways to spread the holiday spirit to those who are less fortunate.
From knitting scarves for seafarers to donating Gucci suits to the homeless, the giving is limited only by the imagination. As more Americans are finding, all it takes is a good idea to attract volunteers and donors.
Last year, some 93 million people volunteered their time, and charities raised a record amount of money. "There are all kinds of courses out there, all kinds of different ideas," says Dan Langan, director of public information for the National Charities Information Bureau in New York.
Here are three particulary innovative ways that Americans are helping others this Christmas.
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NEW YORK - Barbara Bartell loves to knit. But everyone she knew around her home in Charlo, Mont., was already well supplied with woolens. So this year she's sending mulberry-colored vests, scarves, and hats to seafarers who will be on the high seas on Christmas Day.
"It's the neatest thing that they know there are people who care," says Mrs. Bartell, whose three daughters, learned how to knit for the project.
The Bartells are part of a group of 3,000 knitters - both men and women - who give the gift of their time and fingers to make sure seamen have some Christmas presents. Starting in early November, chaplains from the Seamen's Church Institute, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, take the gifts to ships in the New York area.
This year, the Institute expects to hand out about 14,000 gifts, which are usually stowed until Christmas Day. "For many of the seafarers, it's the only Christmas gift they get," says Barbara Clauson, director of the Christmas at Sea program for the Institute.
The formal program began at the turn of the century, when a socialite from an old New York family and a group of friends started the effort. Today, there is at least one knitter in every state. Female prisoners at a New York prison contribute. More than a dozen blind knitters volunteer. "There is a lot of dedication and affection for the program," says Ms. Clauson.
Starting in November, chaplains from the Seamen's Church start marching up boarding ramps in the harbors around New York. During a busy day, they visit as many as 30 ships. "Over the years we have established good relations, so we are welcomed on board," says the Rev. Christian Villagomeza.
With a light rain falling on a December day, the Rev. James Kollin and the Rev. Dilce de Paiva leave the Port Newark International Seafarers' Center in a Chevy Suburban to distribute the gifts.
Boarding the MSL Aurora, they find Capt. Michele Guarracino, who stops to talk them. On Christmas Day, he expects to be in the Caribbean on his way to ports in South America. The crew of 22 Italian and Serbian men will dine together and open the packages. Although they expect to get a few Christmas cards from relatives, Mr. Guarracino says, "These gifts will be the first and last."
And there is no doubt the men appreciate the goods. On board the Oleander, the cook, Vicente Mojica is already wearing his present, a knitted blue vest. "It makes me feel good that people care," he says.
- Ron Scherer
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AUSTIN, TEXAS - Donation drives to provide secondhand clothes for those less fortunate are nothing new during the holidays. But it's a rare thing indeed when the threads turn out to be swank designer numbers by names such as Gucci, Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent.
Yet that's exactly what happened in 18 American cities, where lawyers have opened their hearts and closets for a program called Santa Brings a Law Suit.
Founded last Christmas by attorney Paul Gutierrez and about 100 of his colleagues in the San Francisco area, the kinder, merrier law suit campaign is well on its way to becoming a national tradition among the profession. The posh apparel goes to homeless shelters with job-placement programs, Gutierrez explains, as a way of providing a little extra help to folks who are seeking to turn their lives around.
"I was driving to work one morning and I saw all the homeless people and wondered, 'Gee, why can't these people get any jobs?' " he says. "Then I realized that, because of the way they're dressed, most people wouldn't think of hiring them. And here my closet was full of suits that I'd outgrown and didn't even wear any more."
Although the final tally won't be in until sometime in January, this Christmas the donation drive could provide some 2,000 needy job seekers from Los Angeles to Coral Gables, Fla.,with professional attire,
In Austin, Texas, where approximately 100 women's dress suits were being passed out Tuesday at the SafePlace battered women's shelter, the donations were especially welcome. Many of the recipients had recently fled their homes with their children and only the clothes on their backs, deputy director Ellen Fisher says.
"The women were all very excited to get to pick out something they want that's so nice," says Ms. Fisher. The program is "sending out a powerful message that you're not alone, and somebody's rooting for you."
- Kyle Johnson
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los angeles - For the San Fernando Valley Woodworkers' Association, the holiday season is a time to turn their talents into toys - for needy children.
"We like doing it, and it makes you feel good," says association vice president Brad Bowers. "It may sound a bit schmaltzy, but it's true."
Doing the right thing means a year of planning - selecting one toy that can be made quickly with no compromise in quality: a log truck that rolls, for example.
"We're frequently asked if they're for sale," says toy project committee chairman Robert Rennie. "They're not. They're going to some special kids."
With 40 or more members pitching in, the work is too much for even the largest home shop, so the group this year was given the use of the El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif.
In addition to table saws and drill presses, El Camino offered more helping hands. About a dozen members of the El Camino chapter of Vocational Industrial Clubs of America - boys and girls in the ninth through the 12th grades - volunteered to pitch in. "We had Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and they all had one goal: to do something nice for some kid who needs assistance," says Barry Lampke, a vocational teacher at El Camino.
In two five-hour sessions, the group turned out 81 cradles and 106 dump trucks. "If we turned out a couple of thousand toys every year, we'd still have no problem finding homes for them," says Mr. Rennie. "If we can make things just a little bit better, that's the important thing."
- James Blair
'We like doing it, and it makes you feel good.'
- Brad Bowers, woodworker