Most people are happy to help the less fortunate, especially at holiday time. But with close to a million nonprofits in America, each with its own compelling cause, it can be hard to tell who deserves your contribution the most. Because it takes so much time to sift through detailed information about a charity, we tend to either give to the one who asks first or to the same groups every year.
Unfortunately, some children's charities that do incredible work never make it onto our radar screen because they simply don't have the manpower or the money to publicize their efforts. We've identified ten such gems. You may never have heard of these organizations, but we hope you'll be inspired to add them to your holiday list.
Clothing for the tiniest children
Four years ago, single mom Sue T. delivered her son Daron 14 weeks early. She was poor, alone, and by her own admission, "jaded and cynical." After searching everywhere for affordable clothing that would fit her preemie, she learned about Newborns in Need, which provides clothing and blankets for poor and premature babies.
"When the boxes arrived with the supplies I needed, it restored my faith in humanity," Sue recalls. Her situation improved, and today, she is a volunteer with the organization, helping other women and infants.
Last year, Newborns in Need volunteers distributed more than 350,000 pieces of clothing and baby gear to 2,000 hospitals, shelters, and families across the country. The organization is looking for donations of blankets, sleepers, gowns, all-in-ones, hats, booties, bottles, pacifiers, and disposable diapers.
More than food for hungry kids
We've all seen the images on the television news: starving children in faraway places like the Congo, Ethiopia, and Liberia. But the fact is, kids in America are starving too. Close to 13 million children in our own country are at serious risk of being undernourished.
Share Our Strength supports food banks and emergency-relief organizations, and works to address hunger's root causes. It teaches low-income families about nutrition and budgeting, helps enroll poor children in federal nutrition programs, and funds groups that teach job and life skills to impoverished families. One of its programs encourages people to donate one hour's wage to battle childhood hunger. Another initiative helps communities hold fund-raisers to benefit hungry kids.
Safe playgrounds for everyone
When 3-year-old Faith Tinoco was starting school back in 2002, her parents were worried that their daughter, born with Down syndrome, wouldn't be able to play along with the other kids at Melody Park Christian School, in Salinas, California. A year earlier, there would have been cause for concern: The school's playground equipment was outdated and inappropriate for Faith's needs.
But thanks to an organization called Kaboom!, Faith's school had just acquired a new playground -- one that was completely safe and handicapped-accessible. Since 1995, Kaboom! has teamed up with corporate partners to create 546 playgrounds in cities and towns across the country at an average cost of $55,000 each. It has also improved 1,500 existing playgrounds to make them safer.
A place to call home
Not long ago, eight siblings in Chicago found themselves alone when their mom went to jail on drug charges and voluntarily terminated her parental rights. An aunt took in the children, then ages 10 months to 12 years, but the arrangement didn't last. Thanks to SOS Children's Villages, the brothers and sisters were able to stay together.
The charity provides homes for 52,000 orphaned or abandoned children in 131 countries, including the U.S. Recently, it expanded its operation in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has left many kids without parents. Every SOS "village" consists of about ten group homes, each with six to eight children and two adults. The goal is to make each village feel like a community, and each home feel like a family.
A prescription for books
Most kids dread going to the doctor's office, but Mikela, 2, who lives in a shelter with her mother in rural Vermont, isn't one of them. That's because this little girl's pediatrician participates in Reach Out and Read, a unique literacy program that distributes books to needy children at each of their regular checkups.
The organization, which trains doctors and nurses to educate parents about the value of reading, provides books to an estimated 1.7 million kids each year. It accepts donations of money and of gently used books, and it is currently seeking volunteers to staff doctors' waiting rooms, to help kids with reading.
Protecting children's rights
Laws require that children's shelters provide abandoned kids with a safe and healthy environment, but some shelters fall short of even the minimal standards. When that happens, advocates from the Youth Law Center (YLC) are on the case. Recently, they discovered serious deficiencies at several California kids' shelters: They were overcrowded and staffed by untrained workers. YLC forced regulators to crack down, and as a result, the shelters were either improved or closed.
The mission of the YLC is to make sure that the legal rights of children in the foster-care and criminal-justice systems are being upheld and that kids have easy access to the services they need.
The promise of education
In 1981, businessman Gene Lang made an extraordinary vow to the sixth-grade class of P.S. 121 in Harlem, the same elementary school he'd attended 50 years earlier. He told the kids that if they finished high school, he would pay their college tuition. More than 90 percent of them graduated, and some 60 percent went on to college -- compliments of Mr. Lang.
The program was so successful that it has been replicated in 64 cities around the U.S. Today, there are more than 180 I Have a Dream projects, pledging college educations to more than 13,500 students. Studies have shown that students in these programs are less likely to be in trouble with the law, better able to resist peer pressure, and more likely to attend college than their peers.
Providing humanitarian aid
Conflicts around the globe have ruined the lives of millions of families. The war in Kosovo led to the deterioration of the nation's health-care system, creating a dramatic rise in infant mortality rates. The economic collapse of the former Soviet Union resulted in the breakdown of families and a rise in cases of child abuse and neglect. Today, in the city of St. Petersburg alone, an estimated 50,000 kids live on the streets.
In those countries and some 20 others around the globe, volunteers from Doctors of the World (DOW) are providing medical and humanitarian assistance. DOW's programs provide medication to combat epidemics, offer prenatal care for pregnant women and their babies, and fight to help protect children's rights.
Blanketing kids with care
Every child needs a security blanket -- especially kids who are seriously ill or who've undergone some kind of trauma. Project Linus makes sure that these children have something to snuggle up with. Volunteers create homemade, washable blankets of all sizes and styles and distribute them to kids "in need of a big hug." Since 1995, Project Linus has given 673,000 blankets to children in countries around the world.
If you want to contribute a homemade blanket, the organization offers patterns on its Website and provides links to local chapters. Blankets can be quilts, comforters, fleece throws, afghans, or receiving blankets, in child-friendly colors. Cash donations to help defray distribution costs are also welcome.
Support for moms and dads
Kids don't come with an instruction manual, but Parents as Teachers provides the next best thing: Its staff regularly visits needy families at home, helping parents feel more confident about their caregiving skills, teaching them how to better interact with their children, and connecting them to community resources that serve families. It also provides screenings to identify developmental problems early. PAT believes that early interventions can help stave off child abuse and other problems.
Having a child with a terminal illness is heartbreaking enough, but the grief is compounded when the disease is so rare that scientists haven't even gotten around to studying it. Debby Bookman's two children have such an illness: a variant of Glycogen Storage Disease Type IV, a metabolic disorder that affects only seven children in the United States.
Bookman is desperately trying to raise $500,000 to pay for research so doctors can learn more about the disease. The Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, mom hopes that some kind of gene therapy can be identified before it's too late for her son, Mark, 12, and her daughter, Rachel, 10. (Kids with this disease have heart defects and muscle malfunction, and they rarely live past age 14.)
The Save-a-Heart Fund has already raised $100,000 for the cause. Donations can be sent to the fund, care of the Philadelphia Foundation, 1234 Market Street, Suite 1800, Philadelphia, PA 19107.