Be Inspired. Give Back with The Giving Spirit

Do you worry your kids are spoiled? I do. My husband and I weren’t raised in families with wealth. But our kids are privileged. Although Manhattan Beach is just 30 minutes from LA, we live in a bubble of sunny beach days, Teslas and volunteer moms. It’s a town with oceanfront homes where surfing is a casual pastime and for vacations, families travel across the world.

Our kids don’t know what it’s like to be without. As parents, its rewarding to be able to give our kids all that we didn’t have when we were young. But there is also a price to pay for this freedom. And it can be tricky.

How do we raise our children to be grateful? How do we ensure they learn empathy and kindness? How do they attain true perspective on what the real world is like before they become adults? These are questions I think about often.

My Weekend With The Giving Spirit

This year, I’ve made a commitment to myself to get more involved in giving back. I want my kids to learn how to be charitable at an early age. In living by example, our kids will see and learn how to be empathetic. But it’s easier said than done. When we’re caught up in our own lives, trying to keep our heads above water, it’s hard to find time.

I’ve realized we need to make giving a priority in order to fulfill our intent to live by example.

Last weekend, my kids and I volunteered with The Giving Spirit. I knew going in, it would be a rewarding experience. Putting together bags of much needed items for the homeless and distributing them face to face? I loved the idea of “touching and feeling” what and to whom we were giving, rather than just donating money.

What I didn’t realize was how the weekend would play back in my mind over and over again each day since.

The Giving Spirit Winter Outreach – Packaging Day

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We arrived at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church to help pack bags. When we got there, we saw about 800 volunteers in various groups working on compiling bags, loading trucks and getting briefings before leaving for distribution. It was organized chaos.

The Giving Spirit is a 100% volunteer organization- no one gets paid. They give 95% of their donations back to their cause. Thinking about this, I was impressed with the level of structure there was. To be successful in implementing the outreach, each volunteer needed to be fully committed by their own will. The procurement of goods, the logistics, the leadership required to pull this off with 100% volunteers? It takes a lot.

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We joined the assembly line. One side of the line had people handing out the items for the bags. The other side had a moving line to receive and put the items in their bags. We would each fill a bag and then return to do it several more times.

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2600 blankets ready for distribution

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It was great to participate with my kids and a group of friends on packaging day.

2600 Bags For The Homeless

2016-12-12-13-11-34We were amazed at how much went into each bag. Much care was taken to consider all the items a homeless person needs. Volunteers had spent the prior 2 days neatly packaging these items. Who is leading this place? They really thought of everything someone living on the street would be grateful to receive. I was impressed.

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In just this water bottle were all these items. They even included a pen.

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The last item to go into each bag – a unique, handmade card from a child wishing the recipient Happy Holidays. Each card was different. Little kids made 2600 cards for the homeless. I felt lucky to be able to give out these bags.

Educational Breakout Session – Teaching Kids About The Homeless

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We attended a break out session for kids to learn about the homeless. Before it started, I went up to a man who had on a Giving Spirit shirt to ask questions about bag distribution. His name was James Segil. I was struck by how friendly he was.

James explained we can either go with an organized group of volunteers to distribute or go on our own where we want. “Where about do you live?” he asked. “Manhattan Beach,” I replied. “Oh, me too! So we’re neighbors. I live in the tree section.” And he continued on about possible distribution locations on our way home.

The session was led by Candace Ng and James Segil. I learned they were members of the Board. I loved how the session was interactive. They asked thoughtful questions to the kids and got them involved in the conversation of how to empathize with the homeless. The kids learned what it feels like to be homeless and got an understanding of how to show kindness while distributing bags.

An emphasis was made on making eye contact and how to start a conversation to help them ease their loneliness. The session was an important one for my kids to attend. They could see and feel the passion of the adults in the room, along with the kids who had participated in the outreach before.

As I sat down to write this post, I looked up James and Candace. Both graduates from Harvard Business School. Both Presidents and owners of successful companies. I thought back to my interaction with James and the education session. Yes. You could tell they were leaders. They were the ones who organized the whole weekend. They head up The Giving Spirit.

Getting Ready For Distribution

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Remember what goes into each bag? They were heavy. I looked forward to seeing the reactions of people who would receive them.

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After handing out bags Sunday morning in San Pedro with my friend, Chris Kelley (and our kids), we returned back to LA to meet up with Founder and Chairman Tom Bagamane to get more bags to distribute. Chris knew Tom personally, as the company he owns sponsored a packaging effort for an outreach weekend the year before.

Chris introduced me to Tom, and again I was taken by his friendliness. Tom spent time talking to me about the organization, thanked us for bringing the kids, and introduced himself to each of them while shaking their hands.

Before the volunteers disbursed, Tom spoke to us about the importance of how to distribute the bags. He said, “If you are looking for a drop and go exercise, our organization is not for you.” He explained the purpose of the organization is to connect with the homeless and to let them know they are not forgotten. The organization’s goal is to help the homeless rehabilitate and enter back into society.

As he spoke, I saw he had 100% of the kids’ attention. He was helping shape their perception of the homeless. He was also shaping mine.

Tom founded the Giving Spirit 17 years ago, but listening to him that day, you would think he just started. His passion for the cause was palpable. Tom is a successful entrepreneur who has sold two start up companies and is now a Managing Director of a consulting firm for businesses involved in social impact programs.

Remember my post about  how I learned to be a good observer when I lived on my own as a kid? This weekend with the Giving Spirit reminded me how much can be learned by observing. The leadership team of this organization has a lot to teach. I was grateful my kids and I were able to participate and observe these people for two days.

The Giving Spirit Winter Outreach: Distribution Day

Skid Row

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We drove through Skid Row with the kids. It was the first time they had seen anything like this.

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They were speechless and shocked. There was garbage everywhere.2016-12-11-11-17-24

We realized most of the area had been serviced by volunteers the day before, so we headed toward the overpasses on the 110 freeway where tents line the bridges we drive under.

110 S. Freeway Overpasses

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At the first overpass, the woman (pictured right with volunteers) was so excited, she hugged all the volunteers. Chris and my son are to the left. The homeless person asked Chris if he would like to see the inside of her tent. Chris said it was remarkably tidy.

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These guys were on the next overpass. They looked at me and the kids with skepticism when we first approached. But their expressions quickly changed when the kids opened the bags and took out items to show what was inside. When they handed the man (on right) the handmade Holiday card, his eyes started to water. I noticed when each of the homeless was presented the cards, they took time to read them in front of us. With all the other items in the bag, these cards are what they spent the most time looking at. These guys at The Giving Spirit really got it right.
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We were able to pass out bags at 3 different overpasses.

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Standing on top looking down at the 110 freeway, all I could hear was loud car noise. And it’s so windy, it feels like a wind tunnel. How does one sleep with all this noise? How do their tents keep from blowing over? They must get very cold at night.

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I have to admit, before this weekend, I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable hugging a homeless person. But look at Charles, from Dallas. He’s just a regular human being, just like you and me. When we are standing there, face to face and looking eachother in the eye, the pretenses disappear. We are all the same.

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The next day, I saw Jessica, who I often see on my runs, rummaging through the trash on the Strand. I called my friend, Linda, who I knew was delivering her bags that day. She hadn’t yet left to distribute, so she came to the Hermosa Pier and gave Jessica a bag.

Lesson for Kids

It was interesting to see the attitudes of my kids soften as the weekend progressed. It gave me pride to see they were enjoying their interaction with the homeless. Seeing the impact this weekend had on my kids was affirmation that I am on the right track in raising good people. We need to travel outside of our bubble more often to learn these important lessons.

Donate to the Giving Spirit

I was so focused on giving our time to volunteer over the weekend, I didn’t think to donate money. I noticed on the Giving Spirit’s fundraising page, although the number of donors, volunteers and homeless recipients have increased substantially over the years, the amount of donations have been flat or even decreased. They’ve been raising between $250-300k each year since 2011. When I think about the single fundraiser I was the photographer for, led by the women at Joyful Giving which raised $200,000 in 3 hours for School on Wheels, I feel like more can be done to help this impactful and strong organization. I plan to donate money to them as soon as I finish this post. Would you, as well? 95% goes to help the homeless. 95%.

What Makes People Become Givers? 

I read that 75% of Americans don’t volunteer. Why? I think many feel they struggle in their own lives and can’t see past trying to improve their situation.  In order to give, one has to be open. They can’t be preoccupied with other thoughts or participate half hearted.

But an article, the Science Behind the Power of Giving, explains studies performed which show when volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

The article goes on to explain the euphoric feeling we experience when he help others is what researchers call the “helper’s high.” Helping others allows one to forget oneself and experience our natural hard-wired physical sensation of joy.

Take Action

So, when’s the last time you’ve volunteered outside of your kid’s school or your local community? It’s a good time of year to think about this. It may be more rewarding than you expect. It was for me.

It’s the Holidays. Please consider volunteering and making a donation to The Giving Spirit by clicking here. A donation would be a great way to help them reach their 2016 numbers. And they will be leading another community outreach in the Spring. I’ll be participating. Will you join me?

ps. The guys at The Giving Spirit don’t know I’m a blogger or that I’m writing this post. I’ll let them know once I publish. But this post was 100% my own experience and opinion.

Cheers to givers. Cheers to inspiring people. Thanks for teaching me and my kids, Candace, James and Tom! See you soon.

Flavor Your Life with an Ounce of Salt. A lifestyle blog by Jen Oliak.