Charitable Giving 

How you can share the holiday spirit at home and with the troops overseas.

Three years ago, Yeleta Conston was facing a dilemma: how to bring a sense of teamwork back to her workplace. Employees, administrators, and work responsibilities were changing at Harris Orkand Information Services, and the holiday season was approaching.

To build camaraderie, Conston and a co-worker proposed a Thanksgiving contest to help needy families. Three years later, the contest has grown from collecting canned goods into a team event with themed displays. This year, 170 employees participated, with the first-place trophy going to an edible gingerbread house filled with food.

"We expected to see employees put together simple baskets of canned goods," said company program manager Angie White. "What we got instead was all of this creativity from our staff. It was amazing." Harris Orkand's Thanksgiving contest has helped more than 40 needy families in the past three years.

If you or your company want to help the less fortunate this holiday season, several organizations in the city offer opportunities. Opportunities range from the "Canastas de Navidad" (Christmas baskets) donated to 150 families by Latino Memphis to bell-ringing Salvation Army Santas.

There are also lots of ways to help brighten the spirits of U.S. troops stationed around the world. It's important, however, to make sure your donations meet postal service guidelines. First Class mail to troops should be sent from December 6th through the 11th, according to the Defense Department.

Programs to troops abroad include:

· Operation Gratitude -- Care packages are assembled at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, California. To date, more than 36,000 packages have been sent. For more information, visit Opgratitude.com.

· Treats for Troops -- The organization's Web site offers pre-assembled themed packages selected with input from soldiers and family members. The site also offers a "Foster-a-Soldier" program, matching donors to troops by home state, gender, and even birthday. Items are delivered with your donor message.

· Operation USO Care Package -- Perhaps the most well-known armed-forces donation organization, the USO offers care packages for $25. They include prepaid phone cards, sunscreen, and disposable cameras. For more information, call 703-696-3278.

· Operation Dear Abby -- Founded in 1967 by advice columnist Abigail Van Buren in partnership with the Defense Department, the organization sends online greetings. To send a message, go to OperationDearAbby.net.

· Items for the Injured -- The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., accepts contributions of incidentals and comfort items such as rolling luggage and magazines. The items are for soldiers evacuated from fighting zones and whose personal items may take several weeks to catch up with them. To donate, call 202-782-2080 or, locally, 726-1690.

· Gifts of Groceries -- Donors can give commissary gift certificates for military families to use on military bases. Call 1-877-770-GIFT.

· Operation Hero Miles -- Unsure of how to spend all those frequent-flier miles set to expire December 31st? Travelers may now donate unused miles to servicemen on leave from Iraq. Soldiers are flown free to Germany, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas but must pay for connecting flights. Go to the Hero Miles Web site (HeroMiles.org) to learn how you can help a soldier get home.

· Operation AC -- Donors can send donations to a Delaware-based company that has sent hundreds of portable air conditioners to soldiers in the Middle East. On October 1st, the company began sending space heaters. To learn more, call 302-836-1008. •

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