Expressway: Good-for-the-soul Christmas shopping

Shoppers walk past holiday decorations at the Downtown

Shoppers walk past holiday decorations at the Downtown Crossing in Boston. (Dec. 13, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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This Christmas, my wife and I talked about the possibility of giving to those who don't have much. We decided to "adopt a family," that is, to buy Christmas gifts for a family that was going through hard times.

We considered organizations and contacted the Nassau County Department of Social Services. Within a day, a family's wish list for its two boys, ages 7 and 10, was sent to us in Oyster Bay. Beforehand, both of us were excited and nervous. What would the kids ask for? How much should we spend? And what do kids even like right now?

But the list was a relief in its open-endedness. All that was asked for were appropriate toys for the children and maybe some food for a family. My wife and I excitedly went to Toys 'R' Us in Carle Place to do some Christmas shopping.


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We looped through the store a few times, deliberating over which toys were more likely to please, from Legos and action figures to board games and sporting goods. We wanted to balance the types of toys, and carefully measured the gift distribution between the two. My wife and I felt we had a good start. We would buy these items and continue to shop in the coming weeks, picking up more toys, a puzzle or two, perhaps even some books.

The cashier totaled up a few hundred dollars worth of merchandise. I was taken aback a bit by the cost for what seemed like so little. It also meant that we wouldn't be able to buy as many additional gifts as we intended.

As we headed to the car, I looked over the cart and voiced my concern that we hadn't gotten enough. It seemed rather empty now. I imagined if I were a child on Christmas morning and had just a few gifts to open. It was depressing just thinking about it.

On our drive home, I recalled my own Christmas morning excitement, opening what seemed like endless presents -- CDs, video games, books, and generally whatever else I had wanted, within reason.

I thought about what we had just bought and began mentally comparing to what I had always gotten. I began to realize how much my parents had done for me.

The son of a New York City firefighter and a stay-at-home mother, I grew up in Levittown in a middle class family. My dad worked a second job on his days off, the family drove used cars for the first decade of my life, and my mom bought discount sneakers when I needed them. Yet every Christmas the tree was full of presents and stockings were stuffed, for both my sister and me.

So on this holiday's quest, my wife and I crunched some numbers and found ways to buy more gifts without breaking the bank. In the end, we were happy with the amount we would be giving, and I was able to happily imagine opening those gifts around the Christmas tree. I truly hope it turns out as I imagine for the children we bought for.

Adopting a family was a wonderful experience I recommend to others. It felt good, and we hope to make it an annual experience. But most gratifying was what I gained in return -- perspective.

I realized how much my parents did for me, how hard they worked for their children. I now more fully appreciate the childhood my parents provided for me. Regardless of any other presents I open, I expect that to be the best gift I receive this Christmas.

Reader Kenneth M. Donovan lives in Oyster Bay. Others who might want to help other needy families, even after Christmas, can call the volunteer services office at the Nassau County Department of Social Services, 516-227-7415.

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