Labors of Love 

Giving the gift of time and effort this holiday season

Christmas is a season of polarities. News shows divide their attention between forecasts and statistics bearing out the drama of retailers’ success in making a killing on Christ’s birth, juxtaposing such mercantile hand-wringing over the bottom line with Rockwellian images of the lighting of municipal Christmas trees, of heaps of toys for poor children, and the twelve consecutive days of colorized broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life. It makes a feast for the cynic, who is quick to point out the epiphanies of our Scrooges and Grinches are fictional and always recede into a year-long slumber on December 26th.

Such grinchiness isn’t necessary to feel slightly embarrassed at the image of early morning shoppers at Target the day after Thanksgiving, poised like greyhounds at the gate at seven in the morning in the store lobby, snapping at the heels of their neighbors to snatch a bargain on portable stereos.

Meanwhile, according to Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to feeding the world’s hungry, in America alone, some 31 million people go hungry, 17 million of whom are children. Giving in the spirit of Christmas may help mitigate this circumstance during the holidays, but presumably the hungry suffer their condition the other 51 weeks of the year as well, a fact that also seems to fade into the deep winter of the nation’s conscience the day after Christmas.

As the Republicans are fond of saying, it doesn’t appear to help to throw money at the problem. In a recent address to the nation, President Clinton lauded citizens for increasing charitable giving. He cited some $190 billion distributed annually to countless non-profits and charities, which somehow doesn’t seem to stem the growing tide of poverty-stricken people everywhere. Oxfam, for instance, has distributed over $100 million in food aid globally since 1970, according to their web site. Yet political obstacles to distribution continue overseas, while here in the U.S., charities providing food to those in need set new records every year in total tons given away.

The point is not simply to dump on Christmas. Sobering statistics don’t feed a single hungry person, nor do their annual resurgence around the holidays make the commercial side of Christmas more bearable. One of the few consistently fantastic possibilities of Christmas and of a truly generous nature is the realization that you will not hold the world together simply by thinking about it. If the number of hungry people in the country is mind-boggling, the number of hungry people that live within a ten block radius of home is less so, and whether the motivation is a guilty conscience or a genuine desire to help out, there are specific places in town where a helping hand is as much appreciated as a check or a Glad bag full of last year’s Christmas cast-offs.

The Salvation Army of Missoula, for instance, has less of a problem with acquiring the toys it needs for its adopt-a-family program, which distributes toys to needy families, than it does with distribution. “A lot of people want to volunteer time over the holidays, but we do our distribution during daylight hours, and most people work during that time,” says Barbara Arnold of the Salvation Army. “The week before Christmas is an absolutely crucial time for us, specifically December 18 to 22. We need people then to help load and distribute toys, as well as volunteers to work the phones then.”

Arnold adds that even if those late December dates aren’t a possibility, demand for The Salvation Army’s services is up from last year, and volunteers are always welcome. “At our Thanksgiving dinner, we were up about 30 percent over last year in terms of the number of people we fed, and it doesn’t appear to be any different for Christmas,” she says. “We have 750 places for dinner that night, and already we have 580 applicants.”

The Salvation Army also gives away groceries to needy families. A recent joint effort with the Missoula Food Bank provided the goods for holiday meals to about 2,000 families in the Missoula area. Those interested in volunteering time can call Arnold at the Salvation Army at 549-0710.

If planning ahead is a problem, volunteering at the Poverello Center could be the ticket a donation of time or services rendered. “Basically we always need people,” says Kit, a Poverello Center worker who declines to give her last name. “You don’t even need to call. Just show up.”

The Pov is the only place in town where a fellow American down on his luck can get a meal and a bed. But staffing the center, which cooks meals, distributes clothing and provides 72 beds a night for the area’s homeless, is always a challenge. “It doesn’t really matter to me why someone is volunteering,” Kit says. “We get all kinds here. Some are motivated by the guilt thing. We also get church volunteers, school volunteers, and families who come in during Christmas as a kind of gift to the community.”

Like the Salvation Army, the Poverello Center has seen no ease in demand for its services over the past few years. Kit noted that the Poverello Center is the only place for a long way in any direction where a homeless person can find shelter. Subsequently, The Pov serves a disproportionate number of people from outside the area.

“It’s always a crisis here,” Kit notes. “I’ve got 15 people sleeping on the floor here now, in addition to the 72 beds that are already full. And it seems like people always want to drop off donations whenever we’re the busiest.” Interested volunteers can call the Poverello Center at 728-1809, or just stop in at 535 Ryman in downtown Missoula.

The Missoula Food Bank (219 S. 3rd St. W., 549-0543) provides yet another opportunity to give of yourself during the holidays. John Moss, a Food Bank staffer who started out seven years ago as a volunteer, echoes the assessment of sister charitable organizations in Missoula: Things have never been busier in the business of feeding hungry people.

“We saw about a 3 percent increase over last year,” he reports. “We feed about 26,000 people every year. Of course, some of these are repeat clients, but as near as we can figure, we feed about 10,000 individuals a year. Of that, 47 percent are under 18. Most of our clients have jobs, contrary to what a lot of people think. We feed mostly the working poor.”

Since writers are sometimes challenged to put their money where their computer mouse has tread, I volunteered the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving at the Food Bank. It happened to be the busiest day of the year there, with some 109 families collecting groceries instead of the usual 30 to 40. “It’s a tough time of year,” observes Moss, as families worked their way through an interview prior to collecting food. “Seasonal unemployment, pressures to buy kids presents, increasing power bills for the winter time. All those factors send a lot of people to us.”

As mothers and fathers and their children politely circulated through the Food Bank, graciously thanking everyone in sight, it occurred to me that the 10,000 people the Food Bank alone feeds every year meets the statistical average of more than one in ten Americans going hungry, figuring generously on a Bitterroot Valley population of 100,000. (Not many hungry people come from far south in the valley, according to Food Bank statistics.) Add to that the families fed by other charities and the number who don’t seek assistance, and it seems likely that western Montana could well be a national leader in hungry families. More poignantly, since Missoula is still a comparatively small town, the faces of a few of the hungry were vaguely familiar, not in a daffy and poetic Whitmanesque way, but as people I had seen commuting, working and living around town.

“That’s one of the important things that happens to people when they volunteer here,” says Moss. “You see one or two people who might be your neighbors or someone you work with, and you start to consider others on your block who might also need help.”

Moss points out that there are intangible benefits to volunteering hours instead of money or material goods to charities, though all are important. For one, there’s learning of the good work local citizens, companies, and other non-profits accomplish daily in helping those in need.

“We have a fantastic partnership with Garden City Harvest that provides our clients with fresh, organically grown produce,” Moss notes. “The Good Food Store just donated a chest-freezer, so we can keep more perishable goods. And some volunteers are asking their employers for a morning off once a month to work here, and companies with that flexibility are giving it to them. I think people volunteering here realize that being part of Missoula is to be a part of a warm and compassionate community.”

If the best gifts are the ones you give yourself, that’s one to put at the top of the list this year.

The Greenest Christmas Ever!Selecting socially and environmentally sound gifts


For many Americans, the holiday season could be better-called “The Consumption Season.” Corporate America has seasoned our perception of a year’s end into an annual rite of buying on credit, looking anxiously for parking spaces and slipping unconsciously into a “Buy! Buy! Buy!” mindframe.

The seasonal celebration has become more about purchasing than about spiritual renewal or reverence for change. And as consumption increases, it’s important to be aware of how and under what conditions your gifts were produced. Globally aware folk are realizing that feeding the corporate machine by buying overpriced products from schmancy designers doesn’t comply with the forward-thinking mentality portrayed by their “Think Globally, Act Locally” bumper sticker. But the “shop ‘til you drop” attitude is the one many grew up with, and it remains an easy one to slip numbly into as the holiday approaches. This holiday season is an ideal opportunity to subscribe whole-heartedly to a more sustainable style of gift-giving.

Here’s a handful of ideas that satisfy not only the hard-to-by-for but also that inner voice reminding you that this is the only planet we’ve got. Besides, keeping in mind how your celebration affects the planet will brighten the day of the person you’re giving these gifts to, and will help create that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes when you’re doing something right.

Share the Health!

The most critical criteria for responsible gift-giving should be necessity, and what could be more requisite than fresh, locally grown organic food? Fortunately for us, the visionaries at Garden City Harvest (GCH) produce the produce.

One of the best ways for health- and planet-conscious people to eat well is by purchasing shares of organic food from GCH’s Community Supported Agriculture program. Based on a sliding scale, shares are purchased for $180, $250 or $310, providing the recipient with organic food, grown with a smile right here in Missoula.

“You get great, organic food for five months,” says coordinator Josh Slotnick. “Last year we were able to donate 26,000 pounds of food to Missoula’s hungry.” This was made possible through GCH selling 12,000 additional pounds to the community through shares.

So for every pound of food a family receives through this program, more than two pounds is donated to the Missoula Foodbank. The total investment, spread out over five months, equates to the cost of a bundle of broccoli per day. And, as you wash the soil from the carrots, red peppers and spinach for your evening meal, you will be reminded that affordable food doesn’t have to be coated in wax or petroleum and come from an air-conditioned pyramid of genetically modified organisms.

Interested gift givers can call Garden City Harvest at 523-3663 for more details.

Money for the Mother

For the person who either abhors all things commercial or already has it all, consider a membership into one of Missoula’s forest of environmental organizations. Memberships range from $15-$100, and you typically get a styling T-shirt with the package. For the person who’s already got everything, they can now rest assured that they are contributing to the betterment of the planet.

Lovely Are Thy Branches

Another great option is the living Christmas tree. No need to whack down a young pup lodgepole, just to keep it gasping on life support until a couple days after Christmas. Instead, consider a live, potted tree to be planted in the spring. Adding to the pleasure of having the healthiest, (i.e., not dead,) tree in the neighborhood is the fact that in a few years it can provide shade and maybe a place for a rope swing. Check with local greenhouses or nurseries for trees that can make the indoor/outdoor transition without becoming a Yule log.

The Gift of Balance

People who work their bodies hard either in work or in play know that the gift of balance is always appreciated. Missoula is chock full of outdoor recreationalists as well as body workers trained in massage techniques like Swedish, shiatsu, Reiki, deep tissue and Rolfing. If you know anyone who is accident-prone or moves slowly after skiing all weekend, consider giving a rejuvenating and relaxing session with one of Missoula’s scores of massage therapists.

Give Peace a Chance!

Even in the face of depleted petroleum resources, expanding ozone holes and warming oceans, the familial pull of having wrapped cardboard boxes full of stuff piled under the Christmas tree can remain an important and traditional aspect of the season for many people. The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center (JRPC) is a non-profit store, library and community dispute resolution center that provides a conscientious choice for the Garden City consumer.

The JRPC purchases handicrafts, tapestries and clothing from developing nations through fair trade associations. Unlike, say, the WTO, these organizations monitor the social and environmental practices of the groups and artisans, rewarding responsible workers with fair market prices. Purchasers of holiday gifts at the JRPC can rest assured that their gifts are ecologically and socially just.

Cycles of Enlightenment

Another gift that receives flying colors in the categories of community, environment and body is the bicycle. This self-powered and -empowering mode of transportation keeps the air, oceans and lungs cleaner, keeps bodies in motion and incrementally reduces our dependence on petroleum.

And there’s no better way to give a bicycle than through Free Cycles Missoula. This revolutionary program shares bikes, parts and information with cycling community members for free. Still, the program is temporarily lacking a home, sitting on a few hundred bikes while waiting for the right space to appear.

So, for those looking as hard to find a recipient for their gift as they are for the gift itself, consider Free Cycles Missoula. This Missoula institution has given away more than 800 bicycles since its inception and is currently seeking a place to build bikes, repair bikes and educate people about transportation issues and options. And anyone with one or two thousand square feet to share can contribute to a program that gives bicycles away to anyone in need. Call 243-BELL for details.

So this holiday season, celebrate a rekindling of spirit and family, and instead of giving your friends a bumper sticker, give them the farm. Enable them with a bicycle. Or contribute in their name to social and environmental justice. The finest gifts in the new millennium are given with the awareness that this is a great planet, and it’s the only one we’ve got.

(Home)Made in MontanaFour real gifts you can make yourself


Gingerbread Log Cabin
What you’ll need for ginger bread:
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
4 cups flour
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tbsp ground cinnamon

What you’ll need for icing glue:
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 egg white
1/3 cup boiling water

What else you’ll need:
Pretzel sticks
Cardboard for bottom

What to do:

Preheat oven to 350. In small pan, cook corn syrup, brown sugar and vegetable shortening over medium heat, stirring until smooth. In large bowl, combine flour, ginger and cinnamon. Mix well. Add corn syrup mixture, stirring until dough forms. On lightly floured surface, roll dough out to a half-inch thick rectangle. Cut shapes for two sides—two rectangles for the roof and a front and back with peaks. Cut a door in the front. Place shapes one inch apart on baking sheets. Bake 10-15 minutes. Cool. For icing glue, combine confectioner’s sugar, cream of tartar and egg white.

Add boiling water. Beat until icing holds stiff peaks. Place front, back and sides on cardboard base. Generously apply icing to seams and press firmly together. Apply icing glue to middle seam of roof and all top seams of structure. Add roof and hold. Once house is stable, add icing to front and sides. Stick pretzels into icing to create log effect. Pile extra icing around base of house like snow. (Note: If you want to make more than one house at a time, do not double the recipe. Double batches are not as easily workable and the icing tends to be runny.)

Montana Herb Olive Oil
What you’ll need:
Gift bottles
Olive oil

A variety of herbs picked in Montana or purchased from local health food stores or herb shops (some suitable Montana-grown herbs include sage, rosemary, savory and thyme)

What to do:
Wash herbs; let dry a bit. Pour olive oil into gift bottles. Insert herbs in medium-sized sprigs. Seal bottles and trim with ribbon. Hint: The earlier you create these gifts before Christmas, the more flavorful the oil will be.

Homemade Kahlua
What you’ll need:
Gift bottles
4 cups water
1 cup instant coffee (espresso or French roast, preferably)
1 fifth Everclear
2 16-oz. bottles of corn syrup, one light and one dark
3 cups white sugar
2 fluid oz. vanilla

What to do:
After water comes to a boil, add other ingredients and stir until cool. Once mixture is completely cool, pour into gift bottles, seal and trim with a ribbon around the neck.

Ponderosa and Sage Soap
What you’ll need:
(Caution! All ounce measurements for this recipe are in weight, not fluid ounces.)
16 oz (454g) vegetable fat (shortening)
2 oz (57g) sodium hydroxide (caustic soda/lye), (found in the drain cleaner section of the grocery store)
5 oz (142g) distilled or spring water
2 tbsp (45g) ground pine needles
3 tbsp (45g) dried sage leaves
2 tsp (10g) sage oil
Slivers of one green crayon if coloring is desired
Plastic molds or other molds lined with plastic bags
2 cooking thermometers
Rubber gloves and eye protection

What to do:

Grease your molds. Weigh out vegetable fat and place in a stainless steel or enamel pan over low heat until melted. Turn off heat and stir occasionally until it reaches approximately 130 degrees F. Weigh out the sodium hydroxide and water. Wear eye protection and rubber gloves. Take care not to inhale the fumes. Pour the sodium hydroxide granules into the water and stir until dissolved. Leave until the temperature settles at about 130 degrees F. Add sodium hydroxide solution to the vegetable fat and stir carefully. Stir occasionally until the mixture thickens to the point where you can trickle some soap off the back of a spoon or spatula and it will leave a trace line on the surface of the mixture. Add crayon shavings, pine, sage and sage oil. Stir and then pour the mixture into the greased molds.

Cover soap with a towel or blanket and leave to set for 24 hours or until hard. Wearing rubber gloves, turn the soap out of the molds. Cover soap with a blanket to insulate and leave to cure for four weeks before use. If you give the soap for Christmas, just attach a tag with the approved usage date written on it.

Perhaps a basket of free samples? When it comes to bounteous toothpick-and-napkin cuisine, no one comes close to Costco.Skinflint GivingThe freeloader’s guide to a gimcrack Christmas


“Out upon Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented against you?”
—Ebeneezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

If like old Ebeneezer, your warm fuzzy memories of Christmases past are tempered by the harsher realities of the year’s end (recall that icy feeling in your bowels as you comprehended last January’s credit card statement?), and you suspect that 90 percent of the reason for the season is to be found in cash registers ringing and beeping like Vegas jackpots, you might wonder what can be had, “on the house,” gratis, complimentary, free of charge, for nothing—or at least filthy cheap.

Whether you are truly impoverished or are just a cheeseparing skinflint who believes in the adage “it’s the thought that counts” for all the wrong reasons, let us help. This year’s gimcrack Christmas is on the Independent.

No one is giving stuff away on the Internet without attaching some twine, so cheapskate sampler, beware. But for the price of your privacy, you can haul in a slew of bumper stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts, pet safety kits, pet snacks, mouse pads, modem cords, magazine subscriptions, pens, shareware, screensavers, cat food samples, hair ball control, deodorant, shampoo, makeup, and fat- and cholesterol-free butter-flavored granules.

Of course, long before the Internet, the land of the lowdown and home of enlightenment was surely Pueblo, Colo., the “city made famous by a ZIP code,” and location of the Federal Consumer Information Center, which panders to the frugal giver with load upon load of free informational pamphlets. The vast resources of the federal government have combined to bring you answers to questions you missed the day you were absent. A sample includes: Are There Any Public Lands for Sale?, High Earning Workers Who Don’t Have a Bachelor’s Degree, Homeopathy: Real Medicine or Empty Promises?, Where Does Your Drinking Water Come From?, All That Glitters: The Jive on Jewelry, Why Save Endangered Species?, How to Give Medicine to Children, and Fishing Is Fun for Everyone. All of these pamphlets are either free or inexpensive.

Locally, trolling the alleys of Missoula before trash day can often provide redecorating notions that require a little fixing. Make sure to first ascertain that your treasure is indeed some one else’s trash. Also:

• For smaller items that you could stuff into stockings, try the Recreational Guide to Missoula. Published by the Lolo National Forest, it provides a wealth of free information about every kind of recreation in and around town; it has some excellent maps and suggestions for trips to places you have long been meaning to get to. Whether by car, ATV, horseback, foot, ski, bike or whatever, the Guide does not discriminate.

• Low Impact Mountain Bicyclists of Missoula also put out a route map and trail guide for a 19-mile round trip ride that starts and ends at the Van Buren Footbridge.

• The Missoula Public Library is a great place to pick up those old magazines and books donated by your tidier neighbors. Besides finding out which of your neighbors subscribes to Maxim and which to Dog Fancy, mags like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Field and Stream are timeless, or so you can assure those lucky enough to be on your list.

• I could never understand the logic behind this: prophylactic literally means “a guardian” making “Trojan” a strange brand considering that the city of Troy let their guard down and got sacked by a wooden horse full of men. Go figure. But between Planned Parenthood, Blue Mountain Clinic and UM’s Curry Health Center you should be able to grab enough of those little guardians to stuff your stockings with.

• Have a baby born in 2000? Payless shoes will give you a free pair of baby shoes—but they do request that you bring junior in as proof.

• Despite what people may tell you, it is a good idea to go shopping on an empty stomach. Not only does it assure you of a well-stocked larder, but even better you’re hungry enough to eat anything they’re serving at the supermarket—no matter what time of day. This can be dangerous at places like Costco, where one impulse buy can cause you to literally eat your mistake for weeks. But when it comes to bounteous toothpick-and-napkin cuisine, no one comes close. I like to be there when the doors open and get the first batch of breakfast sausages, Cajun chicken chunks and Creamsicles. Don’t get too carried away, though; you may end up shooting a cup of window cleaner or woofing down a sponge.

Whatever you do, remember that come January you’re going to have to live with yourself. Maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is send away for that free credit report. Ebeneezer’d approve.

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