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Mr. Thomas first published this Christmas column in 2009 and asked that newspapers that run his commentary repeat it this year.
Most people worry about what gifts to give a friend, relative or spouse. Quick, what did you give or receive last year? How about two years ago? Most of us can't remember, unless it was a big-ticket item.
What if you could give a gift that mattered; one that literally kept on giving and improved the life of another person? Would you buy that gift?
Two years ago I bought two gifts for people I have never met. One was a goat and the other a sewing class. Both went to people in countries who need just a little help to enable them to take care of themselves and their families.
The gifts were purchased through the humanitarian organization World Vision (www.worldvisiongifts.org) and while I can't track my gifts, World Vision has told me stories of people who have received similar presents. They are accounts that should touch every heart and motivate more of us to commit ourselves to things that actually produce results (unlike so much of what Washington does, which mostly produces mounting debt and bigger government).
The gift of goats helped a Ugandan girl orphaned by AIDS. Teopista doesn't remember her parents. Her father died of AIDS and within a year her mother died of the same disease. Teopista was passed around to various relatives, before a family with seven children of their own took her in. They are subsistence farmers and so are barely able to provide for themselves.
Last March, Teopista received her first gift ever, two goats from World Vision. The goats will not only provide milk but fertilizer for the family garden. The goats are already reproducing and when there are enough, some can be sold to provide income.
In El Salvador, Anastasia Mercedes Rivera says the money she makes from breeding chickens she received from the gift catalogue provides enough to pay school fees for five of her 10 children. The chickens sell for $1.15 per pound, which produces more money than she has been making at odd jobs. Before she received the chickens, Anastasia's children walked long distances on unpaved roads in worn-out shoes - or barefoot - to school. Now she can buy shoes for school.
Sewing lessons provided Mariana Prendi, a single mother in Albania, with job skills and a steady income since her husband died in an accident 11 years ago. She says she feels "confident and safe" for her family's future. "Now, I'm learning a vocation that fulfills me and gives me joy."
These stories are typical of what small and inexpensive gifts can do for people in great need. They are not welfare, like so many dead-end American programs. Call them "help-fare," because they help people to become self-sustaining. That's a value embraced by most conservatives and even, I suspect, by some liberals.
World Vision also helps some of the world's estimated 2 million sexually exploited children, most of them girls, through its Trauma Recovery Center. One such girl, "Charity" (real names and countries are not used to protect the children), was rescued from a life of sexual exploitation. Orphaned and alone at age 12, Charity was thrilled when a foreign man asked her to go for a boat ride to an island. You can guess the rest. She was forced into prostitution, but amazingly she escaped. Police brought her to the trauma center where she received counseling, support and training in skills that will allow her to become self-sufficient in the future.
There are many more such stories that could be told and many that won't be told unless people literally give the gift of a new life to people who otherwise are without hope. Gifts are also available for Americans who need a small amount of capital and encouragement to begin to stand on their own feet.
The gift of a new life! Despite what the ads tell us, isn't this the real meaning of Christmas?