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The holidays are here in full force, so you're likely making your gift list and checking it twice. But is anyone on that list someone you don't know?

It might sound like a hare-brained idea ("I already have so many people to give to!" I can hear you saying), and I get it. But it doesn't take much to make someone's season brighter, especially if they're in need. Sometimes a simple scarf, a bag of Hershey's Kisses, or just a few much-needed toiletries can turn someone's entire year around. And isn't sharing with others the theme of the season?

We asked real people across the country about why they give gifts to strangers during the holidays. The responses may inspire you to start a new giving tradition of your own.


Krista McCord and her family join together to give homeless kids what they really need (and want) during the holidays.

Photo by rahmani KRESNA on Unsplash.

"My sister-in-law always shares a list of Christmas gift wishes from homeless teens," says McCord.  "It breaks my heart, because they're mostly asking for shoes and jackets and very few novelty items. We work hard to get everything on their list. I am so thankful that I am able to help. I also do a Toys for tots drive at work."

McCord's reason for giving is simple: "I give at Christmas because I can. I am thankful for what I have and that I am able to share," she says. "I want other people to feel like they are loved and cared about."

Wes Hough and his wife give so they can make the world a kinder place and set a great example for their children.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

"We live in Delaware, and it regularly gets  below freezing here now. Particularly at night," says Hough.

"This year my wife and I decided we're going to make scarves to tie to light poles for the homeless here," he continues. "I want to do something nice and positive since I feel like so much of our lives have been consumed by negativity lately."

"I'm trying to set an example for my children —especially my 6 year old — that selflessness and charity are admirable traits. My kids inspire me to be better."

Miriam Campos and her children make hats for babies to pass on the same kindness they were once afforded.

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash.

"In the next few weeks we will be delivering baby beanies made by my kiddos and myself to the three hospitals where my kids were born," says Campos.

"All three of the pregnancies were difficult, but the last one was the most memorable. Jonathan was hospitalized for 5 days due to having a fever a few hours after being born. He was moved to the intensive care and the staff there comforted him with a beautiful crocheted blanket made by senior citizens living in nearby facilities."

"We started the project last year, but we didn’t quite make them all on time so this year, The Campos family is coming to town!"

Alice Garibaldi and her husband adopt a family each year. Their reason? To let others know that someone cares.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash.

"We adopt a family in Pajaro, California each year," says Garibaldi. "The people we give to are usually migrant workers who have no work during the coldest parts of the winter. We provide clothing, toys, groceries and sometimes special wishes like a microwave. I coordinate this with a few friends and we really give them a Christmas to remember."

"I also give toys and food to our local resource center," she continues. "And I make donations to the humane society."

"I want to share what I have, and feel like life is so unfair," Garibaldi adds. "Why do some of us have so much and others struggle always?"

"I just want to help and show someone cares, even an anonymous someone. It's easy to focus on yourself and those you love. I try to spread the love and realize we all need help sometimes."

Jasmine Williams and her family have a different kind of tradition. Every Christmas, they show their appreciation and gratitude to service workers. And each year, they learn a little more about grace.

Photo by Kate Townsend on Unsplash.

"Every year, the night before Christmas Eve, my family picks a restaurant and goes out to dinner. No matter how good or bad our service is, we give our server a 100 percent tip," says Williams.

"Over the years, we've been to many different restaurants to celebrate the holiday tradition, but there's one I will never forget. I sat down at the table across from my mom and sister, the three of us already grinning as the waiter introduced himself. A few minutes later, he headed back over with waters while we read over the menu. Except, we never got a chance to drink them. Our waiter somehow managed to drop an entire tray of ice waters directly into my lap."

"My sister and I both assumed we were leaving to go home, but my mom told us we were staying. I couldn't believe she wanted to stay and eat dinner there, let alone tip the waiter at all. But our tradition only has one rule: we must tip 100% regardless of the quality of service we receive."

"As an adult, this is still my favorite holiday tradition because it has taught me an important life lesson in gratitude and giving others a little more grace. It's not a lesson that we could have learned from a self-help book, college class, or life coach. It's one that we had to learn through action. I'm grateful to my mom for starting the tradition and even for that tray of ice waters, which brought me that a-ha moment."

Samantha Torrez and her husband Pedro strive to lessen the burden that families feel — especially during the holidays.

Photo by Samantha Torrez.

"My husband Pedro and I live in Pittsburgh, PA, but he is originally from Guatemala," writes Torrez in an email.

"Each Christmas, we visit his family in Guatemala for the holidays. We host an event in which we distribute baskets full of rice, beans, soup, toilet paper, toothbrushes and other necessities to families in need in his hometown."

"Last Christmas, with our personal contributions and contributions of family and friends, we were able to provide 200 baskets. This year, we intend to provide 225-250 baskets. This project connects us and those closest to us to a group of people we have never met before but who we know are in great need. As Guatemala is the fourth most undernourished country in the world, the impact this project has on impoverished families is nothing short of amazing. The families greatly enjoy our event, which includes festive food and drink and Christmas music before the baskets are distributed."

"Sometimes the smallest things, like a basket of basic goods, can have a huge impact on someone else's life. When your actions come from a place of love, they have a tremendous effect on others and can often create a ripple effect."

Finally, Jen Fry has taken a lesson from her mother, a woman who has everything. Instead of filling her house with more gifts — she's paying it forward to those who don't have enough.

Photo by Damir Bosnjak on Unsplash.

"My mom is in her 80s and has almost everything you can imagine, so buying gifts for her is always difficult," Fry writes in an email.

"About 4 years ago after hearing my mom consistently talk about downsizing, I realized that I wasn't helping by always buying her gifts for her birthday and holidays. Although she loved them (or said she did), I knew they were just adding up in her house. It was at that point I decided instead to sponsor women of her age during Christmas and buy them gifts."

"Now, I sponsor two elderly single women and their caretakers and buy them Christmas gifts. These women not only want Christmas gifts, they need them. My money goes a long away because instead of buying my mom some new electronic device, I get to buy these women clothing, house supplies, or anything else they would like."

"While it is important to buy those you love gifts, I feel it is more important to help those who are in need of love as well."

This holiday season, it's important to remember your blessings and think outside yourself.

If you think outside that box (that you're planning to give to your family), you'll be making a huge difference to whoever you give to, even if you never meet them face-to-face. After all, when you help someone you may not know have a better holiday, that's the true spirit of the season.  

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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