Like many people of their generation, my parents have recently retired and spend far more time focusing upon their grandchildren (my brother's daughters, not mine) than they'd ever have believed possible. But they also have a long and strongly-held belief in the power of charity. By charity I mean the word in the old-fashioned - and correct - sense: finding ways to directly make a positive difference to people's lives, people less fortunate than themselves.
Whether it's doing something practical like football commentaries for Hospital Radio (which I still do with my father and others, when I get the chance), quietly helping out friends and others in the local community, or making donations of money and goods to an array of charities, they really are interested in only one thing: that whatever they give actually ends up making a difference rather than going on [more than the necessary] administration, paying consultants, lobbying or politically-motivated schemes. I agree.
This year, like many years in the past, my mum has donated to shoebox appeals. The premise is simple: members of the public donate shoeboxes packed with gifts for children in some of the poorest countries in the world to a charity (in this case, Operation Christmas Child, but others such as Link To Hope have similar schemes). The gifts range from practical supplies like school items, hygiene supplies such as soap or a toothbrush and toothpaste, to small toys, plastic jewellery, hats, scarves and socks.
Obviously there are some items which can't be shipped to another continent, and some items (eg. toy guns) aren't allowed - what if, for example, something like that were picked up by a child in a war-torn country?
This year, my mum set herself a target of filling 50 shoeboxes. Not as part of any organisation, but by herself and with friends and family. A few things become quite obvious. Every box is put together with massive care, attention and love. They're going to children who perhaps don't have any toys at all to play with. For them, even the box itself can become a valuable possession. By drawing pictures on the inside of the box (perhaps of a track for a little toy car that she's put in the box, or a doll's house to go with a doll), the box itself becomes something that can bring hours of joy. She's very careful to ensure that each box actually has a complete range of items, so that it can help with all kinds of situations.
Once you start it's difficult to stop. It's usually very difficult to buy presents for my mum, because she's not always the most possession-focused person. This year, though, for the first time in years she decided that she wanted to have a birthday party. A birthday in mid-October is perfect for her plan: she invited people to come and help pack shoeboxes. It was a lovely evening, and these people did a wonderful job designing an amazing themed birthday cake!
My wife spends lots of time helping out, and she's especially keen on the shopping side of it. Throughout the year, she'll spot items on offer - and buy them in bulk. The smaller the item, the more that can be fitted into a shoebox. When you find a small pack of pencil crayons for just a few pence, it's tempting to buy dozens of them. It's a challenge in many ways, to find the best value for money items and to make the best possible use of the available space.
As I'm finishing writing this article she's just started doing some knitting for the 2017 appeal. Oddly, she's allowed to knit mittens, hats and scarves but not teddy bears (export regulations relating to the stuffing, apparently, but this isn't the time for an 'it's political correctness gone mad' rant).
When you start to think about how much can actually be packed into a shoebox, the target of filling 50 of them is put into a bit more perspective. The shoeboxes themselves can be ordered directly from the charity - saving the difficulty of finding a lot of shoeboxes yourself. By the time she'd finished, incredibly my mum had managed to pack 116 shoeboxes. That's 116 children's lives which will be greatly enriched and helped. She knows that every single one of them will make a difference.
I often wonder why we don't see much greater engagement in charity. Perhaps it's because there are so many worthy causes, that it feels difficult to choose. Or perhaps, in our high-tax modern world, it's too easy to think about how our government often wastes the money that we send to them. When some charities mismanage the money they receive, when others are taxpayer-funded or money goes only to politically-correct projects, I've seen so many people sit on their hands and do nothing.
Yet there's something that everyone can do: whether volunteering time, donating money, or something practical like the shoebox appeal, you can make a difference in one way or another. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a friend of mine used to make washable sanitary products for women. She realised that in a tropical climate, in a poor area ravaged by a natural disaster, something as natural as having a period causes major comfort and hygiene issues - and increases the risk of disease. Some girls miss up to 1 in 4 school days simply because of having a period. Once my friend had made the sanitary products, she gave them to someone she knew who was travelling to Haiti to help with disaster relief, and again they made a major difference. It was a disarmingly simple idea, but it went straight to the people who needed it - and it worked. It made a difference to people's lives.
Christmas is coming; how about doing something over this festive period to make a difference? Even better, if you're doing something along these lines why not share your own experiences in the comments? It may inspire someone.