Sept. 11 tragedy moves people to mark Christmas with charitable donations

Unwrapping gifts of the heart

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2001

Omar Aqeel is no 12-year-old spendthrift. Despite his cushioned upbringing in affluent Pebble Beach, Calif., he washes cars and delivers newspapers to earn his own money. He saves the fruits of his youthful entrepreneurship.

One night this month he offered to donate his cash to an orphanage in Kabul, Afghanistan.

''He said, 'Mom, would $400 help at all for those kids?' That happens to be how much he had in his savings account,'' his mother, Susan, recalled.

She was so impressed by the gesture that she decided to rethink the family's usual Christmas celebration. She made plans to donate all that the family usually spends on Christmas activities -- $3,000 to $4,000 -- to charity.

''We just decided. It made us feel really good,'' said Susan Aqeel, a widow. ''So many people died. I thought this is what it takes to happen. All over the world this kind of stuff happens, but it happened here. It was a real eye-opener.''

The Aqeels are not alone. Soul-searching after the Sept. 11 attacks has many families re-evaluating the season. Many are seeking out ways to restore an emphasis on family and close friends and are trying to downsize their celebrations by stripping away commercial influences. By spending less, they're also hoping to be able to give more to charities.

Laura Monti, a graduate student in biology from Arlington, Va., has asked relatives and friends to donate money to the Nature Conservancy in her name, rather than buy her a gift.

''I am concerned that the events of Sept. 11 and a weak economy are leading to reductions in donations to many worthy charities,'' she said. ''I have come to realize more bath soaps, shirts and earrings don't do a thing to make me content.''

More than six in 10 Americans say they want to make this holiday more meaningful than in past years, according to a poll by the Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland-based non-profit group that helps Americans cut their consumption and simplify their lives.

Early this month, the center teamed with the national non-profit agency Alternative Gifts International to sponsor an ''Alternative Gift Market'' in Takoma Park, Md., where individuals could browse for the charity of their choosing and donate in the name of family members.

Such markets have been sponsored around the country, said Eric Brown, the center's communications director, to reach people ''before they've already spent all of their Christmas loot.''

''Giving to charity is one way of expressing people's understanding that we have to do something meaningful,'' Brown said. ''Our standard holiday consumerism doesn't feel quite right this year.''

Bill McKibbon's book, ''Hundred Dollar Holiday,'' suggests that spending and simplification need not be contradictory concepts.

''Buying soup for the unemployed helps the economy at least as much as buying motorized spice racks for each other,'' the book says.

The book is a ''guideline'' for Timothy Johnston, a professor of marketing at the University of Tennessee. He and his family are planning to spend $180 on gifts this year, down from $300 last year. It's closer to the $100 figure McKibbon recommends, and it seems like the right thing to do after the fall's suffering, Johnston said.

Still, it may be tricky, he said: ''How can we visit your family and receive gifts, and not give any in return? Do you want to visit your young nephews and nieces empty-handed? The exchange of gifts has been a symbol of respect and love for recorded history.''

American consumers said they would spend $1,564 per household this year on holiday-related goods and services, down 7 percent from last year, according to the 2001 Retail Index survey done by American Express Corp. Spending on gifts is down, but spending on entertaining is up, as many families express a desire to stay home more and spend quality time together this season, the survey reports.

Mimi Doe, author of the online newsletter, encourages families to donate based on the interests of their children. Her own daughter loves animals and collects money for the local shelter.

''I am not giving material gifts, but specific acts of service in the name of each person on my list,'' said Joe Fox-Barrett of Delaware, Ohio. ''I was already moving in that direction, but the 9-11 tragedy made it only clearer in my mind.''

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