Gift Ideas that Make a Difference

‘Tis the season of giving! My awesome wife is already done with our family’s Christmas shopping except for the intra-family gifts that we’ll do later. She LOVES Christmas shopping. The challenge and thrill of picking the right present for so many people are one of her favorite parts of the season. Not so for me. It’s not that I don’t like spreading joy to my loved ones with gifts. It’s that I’m not a creative gift-giver, so the prospect of picking just the right gift for lots of people sends my stress level skyward. Will they like what I chose for them? Will they be disappointed if I get them the same thing as last year that they seemed to enjoy? Or is that a cop-out? So I am eternally grateful that my wife loves to shop, which is reason #128,105 that I married the right woman, but I digress…

The one type of shopping that doesn’t stress me out is buying gifts for complete strangers who are in need. Those kind of presents seem to fit the season even better than the other kind. Don’t get me wrong – I love getting presents and giving them to my people, but it just feels right to give good things to those who might not have them otherwise. Every single thing on my Christmas list is a want. Many others list actual needs, needs that you and I can help meet this Christmas.

Borrowing the idea from Rachel Held Evans’ excellent post, here are some gift ideas that will make a huge difference in the life of someone you’ll probably never meet, but who will be extremely grateful.

Quality Coffee to Fund an International Adoption

Quentin and Jessica live in New York and are trying to adopt a little girl from South Africa. The adoption costs around $20,000. They have teamed up with a great little Internet coffee company called Just Love Coffee to raise money for their adoption while hooking you up with tasty java. They sell a wide variety of coffee from numerous countries, including several organic and/or fair trade choices. I just ordered some of the African Skies blend and the Rwandan Coopac. For every bag you order, Just Love donates $5 to help Quentin and Jessica bring their little girl home.

Clean Water for South Sudan

My biggest water is that sometimes I tilt the cup too high and spill something on my shirt. For a huge number of people in South Sudan, the biggest problem is finding clean water. For some, the only available water is muddy and tainted with disease, parasites, and animal waste. For others, clean water is available, but only after hiking several miles carrying a heavy five-gallon jug.

Water is Basic is changing that. By drilling over 400 clean water wells so far, it has provided a new life for hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese. You can help.

Salvation Army Angels

Although I don’t agree with all of its positions, the Salvation Army helps a huge number of people in need every year. One of the biggest way they help at Christmastime is the Angel Trees, a simple plan that matches a child or adult in need (the angel) with someone who can help by buying them clothing, toys, and other items and then delivering them to a local drop-off center. Each year we “adopt” two boys about Brenden and Jonathan’s age and let them help us decide what to get them. It’s one way we’re trying to help the boys focus on giving rather than getting this season.

World Vision Microloans and Gift Catalog

Many of you already know I’m a big fan of World Vision’s Gift Catalog, which lets you purchase unusual but helpful things for people in need such as goats, cows, school fees, and seeds. This year, World Vision has set up a new option as well – a Kiva-style microloan program. You can search for individual entrepreneurs who want to borrow small amounts of money to expand their businesses and raise their quality of life. Many are farmers who want to buy seeds or fertilizer or another animal. Instead of paying you back, the money goes back to World Vision and is loaned out again to another small business owner. Both the gift catalog and the microloan program are great ways to help people climb out of poverty one step at a time.

Water is Life

For years now, Jenny and I have supported Water Is Basic, an organization that drills clean water wells in South Sudan. WIB is an interesting partnership that is making a huge difference there. It’s primarily a South Sudanese organization. They identified clean water as one of their greatest needs. They site, plan, and drill the wells. They use the water. The US partners simply provide most of the funding and some of the leadership. WIB hopes to be self-sufficient within a couple of years. The model works so well, and at such a low cost, that people in other countries see the model’s success and want to replicate it to meet some of their own greatest needs.

To help spread the word about the amazing work of Water is Basic, some supporters produced a 20-minute documentary film called Ru: Water is Life. Jenny and I attended the world premiere Sunday night at Irving Bible Church. Next the producers are entering the film in various film festivals and already got accepted in Florida. The cinematographer was our awesome and talented friend Joel Smith, and the camera work shows his distinctive touch.

RU is a beautiful film that tells the story of a twelve-year-old South Sudanese girl who is the primary caretaker for her family. Three times a day she walks two miles round trip to a muddy, disease-ridden puddle to gather water for her family. She uses a five-gallon jug called a jerrycan that weighs about 40 pounds when full. She must structure her day around these water trips and then hope the water doesn’t make her sick when she drinks it. Despite her difficult situation, she has learned a remarkable resourcefulness that allows her to survive with practically nothing. Even more impressive, she is filled with a remarkable joy that shines through in her beautiful smile. My favorite image waits at the end of the film when the drilling team finally breaks through to the clean water deep beneath the dry Sudanese brush. Like oil from a new well in Texas, the water gushes out at the surface and begins to flow downhill toward the viewer. Nearby villagers watch in wonder. Hope flows like wine at a wedding feast, and a new life begins for thousands.

In addition to the film festival campaign for Ru, the producers and president are also setting up private screenings for individuals, churches, and any other group that wants to learn more about Water is Basic and how they can help change lives in South Sudan. If you or your organization is looking for a way to make a huge impact by providing jobs and clean water for thousands of people half a world away, please visit

Water is Basic Aims for Self-Sufficiency

Water is Basic, an IBC-backed African organization, drills wells in South Sudan to provide clean water to thirsty people. In three years, Water is Basic has drilled over 350 wells, providing clean water to hundreds of thousands of people. One of the things I love about WIB is its focus on local leadership and labor rather than outsiders. People from our church currently provide much of the funding and some consulting and guidance, but it’s really a South Sudanese group.

Recently I was thrilled to read the latest update from WIB. WIB has developed a plan to achieve self-sufficiency through various types of internal/local funding within two years. In other words, it won’t need Western money anymore, although I doubt the leaders would turn it down. Through a combination of local investment, a small contribution from each community for well maintenance, and generating revenue by drilling some wells for commerical purposes for a fee to subsidize those built for residential purposes, WIB hopes to be in the black before too long.

Bravo to Water is Basic for providing an outstanding example of how successful an African non-governmental organization can be.

Bypassing the Warlords in Somalia

I’ve been reading about the humanitarian crisis in East Africa with a depressing sense of helplessness and frustration. Like much of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, East Africa is experiencing a drought like it hasn’t seen in decades. Unlike the southwestern U.S., East Africa lacks the infrastructure, resources, and stability to manage such a crisis, particularly in Somalia, the hardest-hit area. Government officials and Muslim warlords are fighting for control there. Months ago the warlords kicked out the humanitarian groups that were trying to help the suffering Somali people, and they continue to block foreign aid from reaching those in need. (If you’ve seen Black Hawk Down, you already know something about the ugly world of Somalia) Each day thousands of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia flee to the west in search of food, water, and health care. Many wind up in a massive refugee camp outside Nairobi, Kenya. Originally intended for perhaps 90,000 refugees, it now contains around 400,000, approximately the size of Miami.

For a while I wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t want to send money to Somalia only to have it be hijacked by the warlords. I can’t stop the civil war. I can’t make it rain. I can’t share our food with them. But I can support established groups like WorldVision that are already working hard to support the refugees in Kenya. Thanks to various matching grants, for about the cost of a nice sushi dinner for two, you can provide $250 worth of emergency food, healthcare and other necessities. Visit if you’d like to help.

Support Adoption, Win an iPad 2?

The McCuiston family is in the process of adopting a child from Ethiopia. They have completed their paperwork and home study and are now on the waiting list. International adoptions can be very expensive up front, so the family is raffling off an iPad 2 (drool) to raise money for the adoption fund. Tickets are $10 each. Follow the link for your chance to help (and win?):

McCuiston Family iPad 2 Raffle

Good luck, and thank you for supporting them in their journey!

Sudan Footrace Oct 23

I signed up for my next race – the Sudan Footrace in Lewisville on October 23. This one raises money to help kids in war-torn Sudan go to school. The organizers hope to raise $35,000 this year. I figured this would be a fun way to kick off my birthday. My legs are feeling really good, my heart and lungs are enjoying the cooler weather, and I look forward to a fun race and (I hope) a good finish time.

Future races I’m considering: