At this party, charity wins over candy

Several years ago, my husband and I decided that our 7-year-old son, Zach, should receive a weekly allowance - one loonie (Canadian $1 coin) for each year of his life. We bought three plastic piggy banks of different colors and put them on his dresser. Each Friday evening he got seven loonies - two for spending, four for saving, and one for charity.

"What's charity?" he asked. We explained as best we could, and at the end of the year, with our help, he chose a nonprofit beneficiary.

This turned out to be a prelude for involving him - and some of his friends - a little more in giving to charity.

Last year, Zach and I visited a dollar store in our neighborhood. We were looking for toys and candy to stuff into "loot bags" for the kids at his upcoming 10th birthday party.

"Let's get some of those high-bouncing super balls, Mom," he said excitedly. "And I think my friends would also like water pistols, lollipops, notepads, fancy pencils, and we need some hair barrettes and bracelets for the girls."

I maneuvered the clumsy cart, badly in need of a wheel alignment, up and down the rows of junk, filling our basket.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. My eyes scanned the stuff in our basket, and I quickly tallied up what we had so far - about $80 worth. (Or should I say, "worth-less"?)

"What's up, Mom?" Zach asked.

"We can't do this, Sweetie," I blurted out. "Let's put it all back. We need to have a talk."

We retraced our steps, returning the stuff to the shelves. Then we left.

Sitting in the car, I said, "Zach, we're not going to be giving out loot bags at your party. This year we're going to give the money we would usually spend on that stuff to a charitable organization, in the names of the kids at your party."

For a moment his brow became furrowed with disappointment, but then he quickly perked up. "How about the Morgan Arboretum?" he suggested.

"Great idea, Zach!" I quickly responded.

The Morgan Arboretum is a tree, plant, and wildlife sanctuary at the westernmost tip of the island of Montreal. We have been members for a few years and enjoy nature walks on their cool, shady forest trails.

I phoned the administrator, and she thought it was a dynamite idea. I e-mailed her the children's names, which she included in her letter thanking them for their donation. She printed 13 copies on the arboretum's letterhead (100 percent recycled paper, of course).

I picked them up the next day. In a brilliant show of marketing savvy, she had included a Family Day Pass for each child.

As the day of the party approached, I started to feel uneasy. Would the kids be upset not to be getting the traditional loot bags filled with "stuff"?

The day before the party, I caved and bought boxes of Smarties candy for everyone. I highlighted a child's name on each of the letters from the arboretum and then folded and placed them in personalized envelopes along with the candy.

The young partygoers were thrilled. "Loot bags are so babyish," said one boy, "but this is really cool."

Since that day I have told people what we did, and it's amazing what other great ideas have emerged.

• Buying birthday gifts from a sheltered workshop.

• Replacing birthday gifts with donations to an animal rescue organization.

• Bringing a nonperishable food item or gently used piece of clothing in lieu of a gift. (Then the kids could deliver the items to a family shelter.)

• Birthday party activities that include a park cleanup, charity bottle drive, or carwash.

At Zach's party, I didn't hear one child grumble about the lack of a bulging loot bag, but, without exception, each parent said something inspiring to me afterward.

In addition to planting a seed of altruism, our initiative gave other parents an opportunity to address and nurture social consciousness with their children. In my opinion, this was a potential springboard to greater acts of kindness for kids whose utterances so often begin with "Gimme" or "Buy me." And you can't get that at the dollar store.

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