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Dallas Woodburn on Christmas gifts for charity

The Best Gift of All

Dallas Woodburn

Essay

D uring the holiday season, it sometimes seems like the whole world is wrapped up in presents and material possessions. Kids are writing their wish lists to Santa, adults are trying to find the “perfect gift” for their special someone, and mall parking lots are jam-packed with eager shoppers. I had always been just as guilty as the next person of harboring this fraudulent yuletide spirit, until a few years ago when I learned what the holiday season is truly about.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have tried to instill the spirit of giving in my brother and me. Every year, we stop by the local fire station and drop off two brand new basketballs, one from each of us, for their annual toy drive. It always makes me smile to think of the special holiday we’re giving a few kids, and I like to picture them happily dribbling their new basketballs all year long.

Eventually, my dad went even further and started his own Holiday Ball Drive to collect sports balls for children. He figured sports balls don’t break, don’t need batteries, and stand a chance to last all year long. He is a sports columnist and informed the public about his project through his newspaper column. He has now collected and donated thousands of new sports balls to less-fortunate kids.

I always enjoyed helping him collect, sort, and distribute the sports balls. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to think I helped so many kids have a little-bit-brighter Christmas. So, following my dad’s example, I decided I would start a project of my own. I have always loved to read and write, so it was only natural that I would hold a book drive for my community. After all, toys get broken and clothes get outgrown–but the magic of books lasts forever. Think about it: have you ever met a person who doesn’t vividly remember their favorite book as a kid? Or someone who can’t think of at least one book, that one special book, that suddenly, for an instant, brought the world into focus, clicked their mind into gear, helped shape who they are?

Books are a common thread that links us all together.

With my dad’s help, I passed out flyers to local bookstores and schools, and made a website (www.writeonbooks.org) with essay contests, reading lists, author interviews, and details about how to donate to my cause. That first year I collected 126 books, which I gave to the local library to distribute to underprivileged children.

The happiness I felt was brighter than all the Christmas lights in my city when I saw that one smile on the librarian’s face–a stranger’s face–as I gave her the box of books I had collected. Happier than any present has ever made me. Happier than I have ever felt giving my friends and family the “perfect gifts” I spent hours searching for. I didn’t know who would receive the books, but I knew they would be appreciated. I had the distinct feeling that I really helped make a positive difference–if not in the world, at least in my little community, and I tried to hold it inside me to savor, because that is one of the best feelings in the world.

Eleven years later, I still relish that feeling. I have now collected and distributed more than 13,000 new books to underprivileged kids in my community. My annual Holiday Book Drive has not only given books to disadvantaged children–just as important, it has shown them people care. I have also found that many, many people want to help others, but often don’t know how. My book drive has given them a way. From a one-person effort it has evolved into an entire community of volunteers, including forty student helpers, with collection boxes at local bookstores, post offices, and fourteen area schools. I have learned that together, we can help give sad tales a happier storyline.

Shortly after Christmas, in January 2003, my dad was driving home from covering the Super Bowl in San Diego when his car was rear-ended by a drunk-driver. Dad was driving through the parking lot on the way out of the stadium, pausing before making a right-hand turn, when the drunk driver, going sixty mph, slammed into his Honda Civic–skid marks trailed back for fifty meters along the asphalt. The Honda was totaled, but blessedly Dad walked away from the terrible wreck. He did, however, have to undergo painful spinal fusion disk surgery, and today suffers from neck pain and numbness in his fingers. Still, my family feels very fortunate that he is alive.

When news about Dad’s accident spread among our hometown community, words of comfort and sympathy and prayer poured in from neighbors, friends, former teachers and classmates–even some people we had never met before but had collected balls for Dad’s sports ball drive or received books for my book drive. Suddenly kids who I had given books to were giving back to me, literally–cards and letters and drawings that brought tears to my eyes. When I was laying the groundwork for my foundation to give back to others, I never realized that I was also laying a safety net of friends and supporters beneath me, to help me my own through difficult or scary times.

Indeed, while my Holiday Book Drive is a project that helps countless other people, it really is my own Christmas present to myself–and the gift I most look forward to every year. Dad taught me the old adage is true: giving really is better than receiving, and selfless giving will come back to you in ways you never would have imagined.

Dallas Woodburn is a 2013 — 14 Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won second place in the American Fiction Prize and her work is forthcoming in American Fiction Volume 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers (New Rivers Press). Her short story collection was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and her work has appeared in The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, Louisiana Literature, Monkeybicycle, and Ayris, among others. In addition, her plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York City. Woodburn blogs frequently at daybydaymasterpiece.com, where she recently chronicled her “Year of Kindness” challenge to complete 52 unique random acts of kindness over the course of a year. Connect with her at www.writeonbooks.org.

 

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