Gifts that reflect the spirit of the season

The New York TimesDecember 6, 2013 

This holiday season, instead of giving your mother that instructional video on twerking that you think she is pining for, what about giving her something that will really make her dance? Like, say, a savings account for a struggling American kid? Or a literacy class for an Afghan woman?

It’s time for my annual guide to holiday giving, and, as always, I’m focusing on creative programs here in the United States and abroad that you may not have heard of. By all means, buy one year of schooling for a girl in Ethiopia through the International Rescue Committee ( or a flock of geese for a family through Heifer International (, or donate to some other well-established charity. But here are some other ideas, too:

• Let’s start with helping prevent unwanted pregnancies here at home. When kids have kids, it’s often a disaster for both the mom, who drops out of school, and for the child, who starts life with a huge disadvantage. That’s a way that poverty self-replicates – and that’s the cycle that the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program tries to interrupt.

Carrera is a school curriculum devised by a New York City education expert, Dr. Michael Carrera, who recognized that it’s not enough to hand out condoms. One also needs to give kids in high-poverty neighborhoods a stake in a better future, a reason to think that they can succeed.

So the curriculum includes comprehensive sex education but also financial literacy, job preparation and summer internships, SAT coaching and much more. The program has now spread to more than 20 states, and follow-up studies suggest that it reduces pregnancy rates by half. For $50, you can fund a student’s college savings account, part of the financial literacy element (information is at

• Half a world away, the United States is pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and the next few years may be a tough time for Afghan women and girls. So consider the Afghan Institute of Learning, founded by an extraordinary Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi.

Yacoobi has been running empowerment and training programs for Afghan women and girls since the 1990s, when it was illegal, and there’s nothing more threatening to Taliban values than a girl with a book. It’s also a bargain: $65 pays for a year of literacy classes for a woman or girl. More information is available at

You can buy a hand-embroidered scarf, made by widows in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for $50, and other gifts for under $30, at It has many other gift possibilities made by people all over the world.

• If you share my belief that education is the best escalator out of poverty, you might look at a terrific scholarship program I just visited in Haiti called HELP, for Haitian Education and Leadership Program.

HELP searches across Haiti for the most outstanding high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds – only those with an A average can apply – and sends them to college, while also providing counseling, English and computer tutoring and stipends. HELP students are expected to give back, and, to make the program more sustainable, they pledge to contribute 15 percent of their earnings for their first nine years of employment. Information is at

• A final suggestion is Reach Out and Read, a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage moms and dads to read to their children. During checkups, the doctors hand out free books and leaflets promoting bedtime stories – and, in effect, “prescribe” reading to the child.

It’s a simple intervention but has far-reaching effects. Randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of evaluation, find that families in the program are more likely to describe reading as a child’s favorite activity, and reading aloud is more likely to be part of family life. Because books are donated by publishers like Scholastic, $50 covers a child’s costs for five years. Information is at

The New York Times

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