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Keep It Simple and Make a Difference

Two thoughtful ideas, one great resource for giving during the holidays.

Burnout from all the materialism associated with December holidays is nothing new. Three years ago, Francesca Carregal decided to do something about it. Now a senior at Connelly School of the Holy Child, Carregal joined the school’s new Keep it Simple Club. During a Mass celebration at school last Sunday, Carregal invited more than 900 attendees to see the alternative gifts the club offered.

“YOU CAN do this as an alternative to some of those ‘dust collectors,’” Carregal said.

Along with senior classmate Mara Bellin, Carregal showed dozens of passersby a range of alternative gifts that help alleviate hunger, illness, homelessness and injustice through domestic and international organizations. A donation of $4 provides one month of supplemental care for one orphan in China; $48 buys a flock of chickens and a hen house in several Latin American or African countries; $11 provides clean water for 10 people in Sudan.

Keep it Simple operates throughout the year for Holy Child students concerned with the way consumer decisions affect international working conditions, the environment and human rights. “It’s for those who care about how their lives impact … their surroundings,” Bellin said.

Keep it Simple’s alternative gift sale is its main annual event, and the group raised $3,000 last year. “It’s not materialistic,” Carregal said. “It’s a very meaningful gift.”

WHEN KRISTEN Anderson and Rachel Solnick saw some Teddy bears in the corner of Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville earlier this year, she came up with an idea for a charitable holiday activity. Anderson and Solnick, both seniors at Winston Churchill High School, joined classmates Cindy Kwan and Olivia Chang to co-found Churchill’s chapter of the Linus Club, a group that knits or crochets blankets and donates them to children who are severely ill or traumatized.

Churchill’s Linus Club is collecting new or slightly used Teddy bears and stuffed animals that it will donate to Stepping Stones Shelter and Children's Inn at the National Institutes of Health. The collection goes through Tuesday, Dec. 20, and Churchill’s Linus Club will bring them to Stepping Stones and Children's Inn later that week.

Last year was the first year of Churchill’s Linus Club chapter, and the club’s students donated the blankets they sewed to the Children’s Inn. This year has been “basically the same thing, teaching new members how to knit and crochet,” Solnick said. The group has recruited new freshman members, and has recruited a few male members.

THOSE WHO ARE just as determined to give back during the holiday season but lack Anderson and Solnick's creative spark need not worry. Montgomery County has established an entire agency to solve that problem.

The Montgomery County Volunteer center is part of the Office of the County Executive. Director Andrea Jolly leads a staff whose only job is to match the needy people with adoptive families, match non-profits with volunteers and donors and match people who want to help with places that need it.

The office designs volunteer projects for offices, church groups, and Boy Scout troops. It arranges opportunities for individuals that want to volunteer once a week, once a month, or once a year. Child friendly and student service learning approved activities? They've got that too.

The Center also administers the Corporate Volunteer Council of Montgomery County, a private non-profit that offers many of the same services but targeted to the Montgomery County businesses. One CVC lets non-profit representatives log on to a special Web site and list the three things they most need from businesses — a kind of holiday wish list.

The Volunteer Center also has plenty of holiday season opportunities. A link on the Center's Web page leads to a 16-page, small-print list, and Jolly said that it is not too late to adopt a needy family and help provide food and gifts for its holiday celebrations.

Jolly said she's delighted that the holiday season brings a surge in volunteerism, but that's partly because she hopes some of the volunteers will find something they want to stick with.

"Everybody wants to volunteer and help around the holidays," she said, and that's great. But don't forget that "there will be a lot of hungry and cold people on Jan. 1 too. ... They have all the same needs."