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Gifts That Keep on Giving: Generosity in Your Community

When I was seventeen I thought I was dying and consequently swore to God to go help street children if I survived. I made this promise as I hadn’t had a great childhood — it was a childhood where I’d lost both my mom and most of my self-confidence due to bullies, but I’d always had family who loved me and a roof over my head. I realized, in Vancouver where I was at the time, feeling very lonely, that some children don’t even have that.

Thirteen years later I set off to fulfill my promise. Living as a gypsy, traveling my whole adult life, and experiencing the difficulties of life, often on my own, I have also come to realize the value of community. It’s not easy being away from friends and loved ones, especially when something goes wrong. Helping to raise kids here and dealing with a ton of stuff in the township you have no idea how many times I’ve longed for my family, or some of my close friends who live in other countries.

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This Christmas I gave three kids from the township their first Christmas morning with gifts. It was a dream come true for me to be able to do that.

I’m here to help transform a community, but this year I’ve also decided to build a community around me. I have a global community of friends (and an extended network thanks to social media), but I also need community in the two towns where I spend the most time — Los Angeles and Cape Town. Together with spending more time on myself (as opposed to work), realizing creative projects and blogging more for the Huff Post, that’s my New Year’s resolution: community.

Just because the holiday season is over doesn’t mean the season of giving gifts need to be over. We can give to our community; to family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, every day of the year. And what we reap in return is priceless — people who will be there to share in the good time and support us through the bad times.

Below you find a list of some of my favorite things when it comes to random acts of kindness for your community, including friends and family.

  1. Compliment someone. A few years back myself and my best friend decided to send each other one compliment a day for a month. By the end of it you have a list of 30 things someone likes about you. If you do it with two people you have 60.
  2. Leave love notes for people. Sneak a note into your friend’s handbag thanking her for your friendship, or complimenting her on something. Leave a note hidden in your date’s laptop case telling them how much you love them. Sneak a note into your mom’s cookie jar. It’s the kind of surprise that will put a smile on anyone’s face.
  3. Some years ago I stumbled across this woman who decided to Pie It Forward for a year — she baked a pie a day for someone (unfortunately I’ve lost the name of her blog — there’s a book out with that name now, but I’m not sure the author is the same). I love this concept. Whether you are great at baking pies, making cupcakes, or whipping up cream cakes, why not give some away? If you aren’t great at it, it’s the perfect excuse to learn. You can do a Julie and Julia and make a recipe a day from your favorite cookbook (it’s the story that got me blogging in the first place, though not about recipes!), learn to make kombucha (Kombucha Kamp offers free advice, as do sites like the Kitchn and being a California girl I kinda dig kombucha and enjoy making my own), or why not sourdough bread (something I’m personally going to tackle in 2016 — please recommend blogs/books in the comments if you know of any)? Set about making a batch of whatever you choose and hand it out to the homeless, people in your neighborhood, your kids’ teachers, your work colleagues, or your family. This is a wonderful thing to do together with friends, dates, kids, or colleagues as well — the act of doing it with others in and of itself builds community. And learning something new together as a group always reminds me of the film Italian for Beginners where a group of people come together to learn Italian and their entire lives change because of it: they create a community.
  4. If you’re a great artist, wordsmith, photographer…share your gift with a global community through a blog, or set up a small gallery to share it locally. You can even create a “shop” where people get your art as a gift. You can also donate to hospitals, prisons, schools, etc.
  5. Teach free classes, or do mentoring in your community. As an entrepreneur coming from a background in film I was relieved to find organizations such as SCORE exist, where people volunteer their time to mentor entrepreneurs (beware not all mentors will work great with you/understand your business — choose wisely). Way to go for uplifting a community! If you get a group of people together to do the teaching/mentoring you’re bound to meet people yourself as well.
  6. Do something for the elderly in your community where they get to socialize. My own gran is very lonely and not living in Sweden myself I often feel helpless. As people get older and their mobility decreases it makes it harder for them to attend events. They also often lose a lot of friends, sometimes their life partners. The end result is that their social life often comes to an abrupt end.
  7. Put together a neighborhood patrol that volunteers to come round and help people, business and charities with chores. Community support for whatever you’re doing is vital. Here in South Africa we constantly have to rally together as there are disasters like fires in the townships where people lose their homes, but we all need a helping hand from time to time, even in less dire circumstance.
  8. Start organizing courtyard, or street parties. We meant to have a block party in Hangberg with the youth at Little Angels on NYE but alas gangs from another township threatened to come in and shoot. Today Hangberg is proudly taking steps to stand up to crime. So the bad fueled something good in the end. On that note: rally together your community to stand up for something together, be it planting more flowers around town, raising funds for a new school, or helping a neighbor with cancer.
  9. I’m looking into something called the Blue Zones this year — Dan Buettner set out to explore the places on earth where people lived the longest. What he found was that it were places where people also had the strongest sense of community. He decided to start a project around this where people could come together to create their own “blue zones.” I want to see how we can use this in Hangberg.

More than anything? Choose to do what you love. Community work should be a joy, not a chore.

By Maria Montgomery. I originally wrote this post for the Huffington Post