This year my family will take part in our first potlatch inspired celebration. The organizers intend the ceremony to teach everyone about the joys of giving back to the community.
They also want us to remember it’s important to keep gently used items out of the landfills.
Our donation will be a number of books we no longer read, as well as some winter clothing.
A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning “to give away” or “a gift.” Historically potlatches went through rigorous bans by both the Canadian and United States federal governments, yet they continued underground despite the risk of criminal punishment. Since the practice was de-criminalized, the potlatch has re-emerged in some communities.
The gift giving season is a time many people find their wallets strained and their joy levels plummeting. As writers we are uniquely suited to giving back in so many wonderful ways and most of these ways don’t require any financial commitment. Plus there is a restorative property to sharing your time with others; it might be just the right tonic for reviving someone with flagging holiday spirits.
Here are five ways writers can use their skills to spread goodwill this winter.
Become a political voice.
Open your laptop and write a letter to your local politicians. Tell them that the continued and/or increased funding of local libraries and literacy programs matters to you. Take a stand on book censorship. Find your cause and make some noise. Share your letters with your writer friends see if they’re willing to send similar letters. I’m inspired by the naturalist writer John Muir. He is proof one writer on a mission can use their gift to change the world.
Read to those who can’t read.
Adult and child reading programs go begging for volunteers year round but even more so at the holidays when the pool shrinks. Contact your local hospitals and libraries to find out how you can become involved. If you don’t have the time or patience to read longer adult works, offer to read picture books to children. The hours a child hears books being read aloud directly impact their love of reading later. Just half an hour once a week can make a huge difference in the life of a child, especially if they don’t have parents who read to them. Hospital programs also need help gathering, repairing and distributing books. The arrival of the book cart makes the day brighter for anyone stuck in a hospital during the holiday season. Wear your Santa cap and deliver a smile along with the books.
Preserve some oral history.
Local historical societies often keep a list of notable citizens they would like to collect recollections from, but staff time is stretched to the limits and they can’t always make arrangements for an interview before tragedy strikes. Veterans in particular are known for holding on to their stories, and since they consider them too painful for family members to hear, they need a third-party to become their official recorder. I have collected dozens of oral histories. A few of my contributions have found their way into TV documentaries and academic history books, but all are treasure troves of information and gifts for feature generations.
Teach what you know to others.
Schools and community centers are often in dire need of anyone willing to teach writing. As class size grows, teachers often can’t give as much one-on-on instruction as students need. I started working in my local schools over ten years ago and I love it. I have worked in the school library, taught kids reading skills and helped them with creative writing projects. If the thought of 250 Crayola-stained fingers leaves you queasy, there are countless adults and teens in need. Pitch in helping job-seekers craft resumes and cover letters. Many students are filing out applications for colleges, summer internships and study abroad programs and need an extra pair of eyes to check over their essays. Language learners almost always need the guidance of a native speaker to help smooth over their writing and catch funny little nuances of sentence structure and spelling.
Make books and writing supplies available to everyone who needs them.
However you chose to do it, by trimming down your own abundance or buying new items, there are places all around the world that need books and supplies desperately. My family has sent books, reams of paper, boxes of pencils, and basic art supplies to children all over the world. When you give kids the knowledge of reading and writing you give them the tools to change their own lives in profound ways. Talk to your librarians, or go online and find a reputable charity and then send a box of whatever size you can afford. When a community has almost nothing, a shoebox filled with cheap notebooks and pencils is a miracle.
Community gift giving and generosity should be a year-round practice, so if you find this season too over-scheduled, please make one of these give back ideas the first items on your New Year’s resolution list. I promise that you will get back so much more than you could ever give away.