As the holiday season approaches, there are so many traditions that my family and I look forward to every year. But the one that tops my entire family’s Christmas list is the annual homeless shelter holiday gift bag donations drive we head up. It’s the event that my kiddos have always known to be a part of the Christmas season and to me, it’s the most important way to celebrate this time of year: with giving, with helping, with showing love and practicing kindness. 

Sorry shoppers, I’m going to say it: Black Friday is overrated. Okay, you might find some smokin’ deals at Walmart and you may get the last LOL dream house on the shelves. You may find your hubby’s favorite jeans on sale or snag a cute little Le Creuset dutch oven on clearance. But you cannot experience the depth of joy, the sense of gratefulness, as you do when you give back, especially to those in need.

Why I Started a Homeless Shelter Gift Bag Donation

Before I can tell you why I started (actually took over) a homeless shelter gift bag donation drive, let me tell you a little about my mom. My mom has always been a philanthropist at heart. In fact, when she was young, she wanted to join the Peace Corps. When my brother and I were in elementary school, we started spending Christmases down in Mazatlán, Mexico. You see, Christmas time had become wrapped up with endless presents, holiday parties and to-do lists, which in a Christian family who celebrates Christmas as the birth of Jesus, is not what the holiday is about—at all. So, she decided that we would have very few presents, and that our big present would be spending family time down in Mexico for Christmas. But that wasn’t all. We also took at least a suitcase or two full of wrapped toys for the homeless children living on the streets next to the 15-story condo we comfortably stayed in. So on Christmas morning, we walked the streets of Mazatlan with presents in our hands, saying “Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas in Spanish) to each child we gave a gift to. My brother and I were embarrassed and at the time I’ll be honest, I just wanted to get into my swimsuit and body surf all day, but it was something that my mom and dad were adamant about. The meaning of Christmas—and life, for that matter—was established: life is more about giving than receiving.

Fast forward about 20 years and I guess my mom’s insights, integrity and heart wore off on me and I found myself with the opportunity to serve at my parents’ church. The homeless shelter items that were being collected at the time were few and far between, and for their little church of less than 50 people, the demand was too great. I offered to take it over but with a larger audience in mind. For years, their little church collected what they could from within their own walls, but you know how it takes a community to raise a child? Well, it takes a community to make a difference too. And that community for me, was Facebook.

How to Utilize Social Media for Good

Let me start by saying that social media is not always my favorite thing in the world, but it is not all bad. In fact in this case, I love it! Quickly after I saw the current homeless shelter list and added a number of essential items I thought were important to have, I realized that I was looking at gathering over 3,000 items in about two months. I knew I couldn’t purchase or collect all of these items by myself or even with the help of my whole family, so I reached out on Facebook and spread the word. And folks, that was 15 years ago. Every year for the past 15 years, I have never come up empty handed. Each year, friends, family and colleagues from around the country sign up for items that they will donate and ship them straight to my doorstep. Thank you Amazon! 

From October to early December, we gather 100 of each of the 30 items that we deem “essential.” Things like toothpaste and a toothbrush, deodorant, socks, chapstick, and combs to name a few (my full list of items is listed at the end). And bonus: one of my dearest friends happens to be an art teacher at the local middle school, so each year, I hand off 100 large, white bags for her advanced art students to creatively decorate, often with messages of hope, love and peace for each homeless person to read. This is one of my very favorite parts of the whole experience, because I get to see the hearts of our young kids poured out onto bags they created for people they do not know and may never meet. It’s in those moments when I have restored faith in our humanity and in our future generations. 

Creating an Unforgettable Holiday Event

By the time December rolls around, we are stacked to the ceiling with Amazon boxes, grocery bags and delivery totes, which means it’s time to put the bags together. And at that, we party!

Yes, we have a celebratory bag stuffing event! My entire family and about 20 of my closest family and friends gather at our business for an evening of Christmas music, a little wine and cheese, and a lot of camaraderie and joy as we create an assembly line to fill each bag with all of the items we collected. My children help count, organize and fill each bag, lovingly placing the items on top of one another, heaviest on bottom and lightest on top, so as to not burst the bags open with all of the goodies. There is not one year that goes by when I don’t look around at everyone gathering together to help another in need and feel the deepest sense of gratitude, of joy and of hope. It is a gift that I receive that is far better than anything someone could wrap and put under the Christmas tree. 

For many of these people living in the shelter, this bag will be the only gift they receive. They may not have family to come visit them, may not have a warm Christmas meal, and may not have much they feel like celebrating. But they will have this. They will have an individually and thoughtfully decorated bag filled to the brim with items they can use to hopefully start over with: to use to clean up and go on a job interview; to feel refreshed after a cold night; or to keep warm in the elements that they may be dwelling in. These bags could be their bags of hope. It could be just what they need to get up and try again, to see life in a different light, and to start to imagine that their life too can begin to change. 

If we cannot be there for each other to build each other up, to help lift people from the throes of whatever hell they might be living in, then what are we all doing here on this Earth together? One person cannot change the world on their own. But locking arms together, we can. 

If you want to start your own homeless shelter gift bag donation drive, here are the items I recommend collecting:

  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrushes
  • Regular-sized floss
  • Combs/picks
  • Socks
  • Bags (to place the items in)
  • Razors
  • Washcloths
  • Bath towels (new or gently used)
  • Soap
  • Beanies
  • Rain ponchos
  • 8 ounce hand sanitizer
  • Travel-sized Kleenex
  • Nail clippers
  • Gloves
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Reusable lunch/sandwich containers
  • Protein bars
  • Candy canes (because it’s Christmas)
  • Chapstick
  • Deodorant
  • Small hand sanitizer
  • Bible (because we all need hope, right?!)