The posts go around shortly after Christmas: Some neighbor or friend has just witnessed a person making a massive amount of returns at Walmart or Target—toys, bikes, games . . . all Angel Tree gifts. All being exchanged for a store gift card, with nary a child in sight.

Outrage ensues, mistrust abounds, and people second-guess their charitable contributions. Despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to tell from standing near a customer service line if a returned toy was an Angel Tree donation, or even verify if your neighbor’s hair dresser’s cousin’s leggings upline actually saw this going down, people are quick to draw their breath and pocketbooks in. 

“I can’t believe this! I feel so taken advantage of!”

“So many of those charities are scams, anyway.”

“That’s why we just give to people we know personally—you never know what’s actually going to a kid otherwise.”

People make plans not to donate the next year based solely on a 14th-hand account someone may have pieced together off of assumptions and loose observations.

But y’all, please keep giving.

Many years ago, when I was a Lisa Frank-era girl living with my single mom, I was an Angel Tree kid. My name, my likes, my sizes, all on display on a giant tree somewhere. I have no idea where the tree was or how many people walked past it. I do know that at some point, a family saw my name and chose it. I didn’t ask for a SEGA Genesis or one of those awesome clear phones DJ Tanner had; I’m pretty sure I just asked for a typewriter. Or a horse, since I was a young girl during the ’80s and ’90s, but I really probably only asked for a typewriter.

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Instead, the family who chose me from the Angel Tree got me a dress. Not just any dress—a handmade dress. It was dark green with white lace at the neck, and pretty long. Maybe this family couldn’t give much financially, but they could give me their talents, give me the gift of knowing I was thought of, give me something to open on Christmas that said, “Hey, Jen, we wanted you to have this.”

I hear a lot of people say they don’t remember what gifts they got at Christmas when they were younger. Maybe I’m materialistic, maybe I’m sentimental, but I clearly remember that Christmas, in our little first-floor apartment with the donated shower curtain and towels, opening that green dress and knowing a family somewhere knew I existed and wanted to give something to me. 

I also remember, more than once, my mom returning something of hers in order to buy us food. A curling iron, a cordless phone . . . anything she still had the original packaging for she was willing to give up in order to feed us. So while someone might think they see a mom returning toys for gift cards, what they might actually be witnessing is a sacrifice for meals, for medicine, for gas, for diapers, for school clothes. Maybe a favorite aunt bought duplicates. Maybe the parent lost custody. Maybe the family just really needed to eat. And yeah, maybe someone was selfishly taking their child’s toys back without the kid’s knowledge.

But whatever is actually happening in the hearts of those at the counter, please keep giving. Because people keep needing.

If you’re still having trouble with trusting a charity, if you still are wary of dropping items off and hoping they reach their intended destination, then please find other ways to keep giving. Volunteer with local organizations, contact churches near you and ask about families who may be in need, call the schools in your neighborhood and see if they have any kind of toy or food drives going on or students with felt needs. Food pantries and churches, in particular, are frequently approached by those in need—see how you can donate or help. Seek out an elderly, isolated, or struggling neighbor. Make regular visits to nursing homes with new socks and a smile.

If you can’t give, help. If you can’t help, smile. There is always a way to do something kind for another person. 

The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going. Is the guy at the gas station really going to use that money to get home to his sick wife? Is that woman on the corner really as destitute as she makes out? Will those toys you donated actually end up in the happy hands of a less fortunate child? Who knows. But if you can give, then do. If you need a guarantee that your gift will be used as you see fit then you’re not giving, you’re congratulating yourself. Giving with conditions isn’t charity, it’s not for the benefit of anyone else. Requiring someone to earn donations based on a set of approved criteria isn’t giving, it’s employment. Do a self-inventory and ask if you’re looking to bless someone or hire someone, to help the less fortunate or to boost your own morale for a while. Stop demanding a follow-up and please, just keep giving. It doesn’t have to be a Nintendo Switch or a salary’s worth of LOL dolls.

Sometimes all it takes to make the difference to someone in need is a simple handmade dress.

Originally published on the author’s blog

Jennifer Vail

Jennifer is married to the very handsome man she's loved half her life, with whom she juggles 3 hilarious, quirky, sometimes-difficult-but-always-worth-the-work kids. She is passionate about people and 90's pop culture, can't go a week without TexMex, and maintains the controversial belief that Han shot first. She holds degrees in counseling and general ministries, writes at This Undeserved Life, and can often be found staying up too late but rarely found folding laundry.