Advent calendar / Thankfulness / Sharing light project

On December 1st, in the year known as 2020, I sat down with a large piece of paper. I did not purchase a special piece of paper that was just the right size, I found the largest piece of paper I had at home. I could have taped some paper together. That would have been good enough. I got out a pencil and a ruler. I sat down with Maggie and Sam. I showed them how I could measure the paper and use division to figure out how to divide it evenly to make 25 rectangles organized in rows of 7. A calendar. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 in the boxes. An Advent calendar minus the chocolate or doors to open. No doors to open. We will make our own doors.

I had asked them, after Thanksgiving and on a day when they were talking about things they didn’t have, to make a list of things they were thankful to have. I asked for 5. Later that day, the focus on not having continuing, I asked them to make it 10. They wrote their lists.

On December 1st, with our grid in front of us, we looked at these lists. I explained my idea: We will choose one thing we are thankful for. And then we will find a way to share that thing with others who might not have it. We have a budget of $10 each day for 25 days to share something. What should we share first?

Of course the first big question was what about the chocolate? Won’t we get our chocolate. Yes, I said. We can still have chocolate. But in what form? What will the chocolate look like? When will we eat it? Fears were put to rest and it was emphasized: we have so much. We have so much. Let us use this month to think about sharing light. Spreading light. And I promise we will also eat some chocolate.

On the first day, it was a roundabout process and no one including me quite understood what we were doing. We had been for a walk in the woods the day before, Maggie had climbed a tree, she had a lot of insect bites. They were itchy. Somehow we started to talk about malaria. On our first day, the children decided they wanted to give malaria nets to protect children. Google time. We found an organization called Nothing But Nets. We read some of the stories of refugee families, families where the father had had malaria 300 times in his life, where children missed significant time in school because of malaria. The kids saw that $10 provided nets for 2 children. I said: our budget each day is $10, but if you want to do a job, like sweeping the deck, that can be a $10 job. We could give 4 nets. They swept the deck. That was also a learning experience about teamwork and project management. Sam especially wanted to read the stories and see the pictures of the people who now had nets. We decided, after the fact, that that day we were giving thanks for our health by sharing health with others.

On the second day, the kids chose to be thankful for our dog, Otis. We decided to support the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and looked at their wishlist on Amazon. The kids wanted to send a dog bed and some baby food (they use it to feed the dogs medicine) but the total for these items was way higher than our daily budget. They mopped the kitchen and the dining room, they cleaned the kitchen cabinets, the bathroom vanity, the stairs. We read about raccoon rescue, hungry squirrels, we saw the photos of dogs and cats for adoption. We all agreed we’d like to find a way to volunteer there once it was possible again.

Here’s a thing. I always want to help. But I don’t know what to do. What is the BEST thing to do? What organization is working to solve the REAL problem. Teach a man to fish. Etc. That baby food I bought was made from chicken that was definitely not free-range.

I don’t have the answer. I don’t know the best, absolute most useful, perfect solution to whatever. Okay. But four kids who are alive on the Earth right now are going to sleep beneath a net and not get sick. One living creature who has probably not had a super amazing time in life so far will have a more comfortable night of sleep and take his medicine. I can share imperfectly. And as I do, I will learn more. I’m already learning more.

On the third day, the kids both came up with being thankful for trees. All on their own. We thought we would plant some trees. We found One Tree Planted where they say $1 given = 1 tree planted. We read all about what trees do for the atmosphere, for providing water, for livelihoods, for erosion, for habitat. We read about restoration in Haiti (where I told the kids my brother had spent some time helping people) (when the kids asked why the people in the photos in Haiti were frequently not smiling, this led to a very interesting conversation), we looked at how restoration in the Pacific Northwest is helping protect Orca whales, we looked at California because the kids knew about the wildfires, we looked at Appalachia because that’s closest to where we live, we looked at the Andes because Dave spent some time doing fieldwork there. The kids wanted to plant a tree in all of these places, and on the website you can choose to plant 2 trees here and 2 trees there.

As usual, we talked about what we could do with our $10. Two trees in five places. The kids washed all the sinks in the house, emptied the compost (a job they are not fond of) and we planted four trees in all five places.

This was an exciting day for me. It’s not hard! (I thought.) I want to plant trees for everyone! (I thought.) This is the best project I’ve ever done! (I thought.) We are learning so much!

Day 4 started off tricky. The kids could not agree about something to be thankful for. Eventually they chose Food. Let’s give to a food pantry they said. So we talked for a bit. What is it about food that you are thankful for, what do we want to share? Healthy food. We are thankful that we have healthy food that is grown in a healthy way that is good for us and also for the farmers and the Earth (we have recently watched both Kiss the Ground and The Biggest little Farm so this is on their minds). So we went to The Farmlink Project where they say $1 donated equals 10 pounds of food that, in part because of Covid, would not get to market otherwise, would have to be thrown out (and food waste is also a significant contributor to climate change, excellent comic about this link here) and here there are so many more people in our country without enough to eat right now. So $1 = 10 pounds of food = 8 meals. We did the math. The kids are a bit tired from all of the chores lately. With our $10 budget we can give 100 pounds of food (!) and 80 meals (!!). Okay, they said, let’s stick with $10 today. Well, I suggested, what about one small job. If you earn $2 extra that is 20 more pounds of food, 16 more meals for people who need food. They chose to do $8 worth of jobs and then when we sat down to make the donation they decided to give $1 of their own money each to round it up to 200 pounds of food and 160 meals.

I just found out in finding the links for this note, that today is World Soil Day, so clearly I will make a suggestion to the kids based on that fact. Otherwise, they have talked about giving thanks for toys next.

This project has been so interesting and has helped to put me into a very different frame of mind. I’m excited every day to see where the conversation will go, what we will learn together, what questions they will ask, what will spark their interest, what is being done in the world, how we can help, in a tiny way, but a way that feels concrete. I like that we can say: 4 nets, 20 trees, 160 meals, one dog bed. I know some of this is a bit of a fundraising gimmick. But I am not going to let the cynic in me win today. I am not going to not give because I don’t know the best place or because I am not sure which option is the most efficacious.

What if we all planted trees for each other in December? What would that be like? What would the world be like?

What if we all supported farmers and found ways for excess produce to get to the people who are hungry in November?

One dollar equals one tree. One dollar equals 8 meals.

Sam said to me after one conversation: If many people do one small thing, it becomes a big thing.

In hopefulness,


See the full list of the 2020 project here