Pulling paper angels off a Christmas tree has marked the holidays as vividly as colored lights, wrapped presents and Santa Claus for as long as I can remember.

From an early age, I would select a donation tag from the Salvation Army's Angel Tree. The paper angel contained the wish -- usually a toy or clothing item -- for a needy child who might not receive any other gift that Christmas.

It seemed so small a gesture, yet even today, that simple act of charity still resonates. So every Christmas, I take my daughters shopping to buy toys for children they will never meet.

One example of holiday giving includes selecting from an angel tree donation tags that specify toys for needy boys or girls and their ages.
One example of holiday giving includes selecting from an angel tree donation tags that specify toys for needy boys or girls and their ages. (Gina Halferty/San Joaquin Herald)

Charity doesn't have to be grand in size. Many readers wrote about stocking their cars with bottled water and small food items to give to homeless people they pass on the streets. Several others wrote about encouraging their children to participate in food or clothing drives.

Joni White, of Boulder Creek, recently realized that involving her children in service projects has made an impression on 15-year-old Cameron and 13-year-old Cassidy. This Thanksgiving, Cassidy suggested they do something "different and meaningful." That's how the Whites came to volunteer at the Santa Cruz Community Dinner, serving Thanksgiving meals to 1,100 people in need.

Here are a few other stories from our readers:


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  • Cheryl Breen, of Walnut Creek, credits the think-outside-the-box approach of her daughter's middle-school teacher and adviser for the after-school club Teens Take Action. The students decided to make 700 brown-bag lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples and juice boxes, then distribute them to homeless residents in San Francisco.

    "Along with parent chaperones, the teens got on BART with their goods and headed into the city. Each student's backpack was jammed with lunches. They got off at a stop closest to where there was the most need. At first, the students were rather timid, seeing the sadness of this unfamiliar world.

    "But as soon as they started seeing how happy these bagged meals were making the recipients, the kids started picking up their pace -- almost running from person to person, happily handing out their wares.

    "That evening, my daughter, Molly, shared with me that she had given out one bag to a man who told her, 'Thank you, but I've already received one.' We could see the pride in her face, and she happily exclaimed, 'But, Mom, I told him he could have the second meal, too!' The kids totally took ownership of how their efforts could directly help those in need."

  • Chandra Brooks, of San Jose, has taken her 8-year-old son, Kasiah, to community events and fundraisers to show him charity through action. Sometimes, that comes at the expense of an activity he wants to do.

    "I want to instill in him how fortunate we are, and that sometimes it's not always about what we want to do, but what we should do.

    "(Recently) I took him to participate in Beautiful Day at James Lick High School. We painted picnic tables and scraped gum off the blacktop. He asked me, 'Mommy, why are we cleaning gum off the blacktop; how is this helping people?' I had to explain to him that James Lick High School does not have the money to hire people to clean the school, so they need help and we are helping them. I find explaining to young kids in very basic and simple terms is the best. You don't have to make it too complicated, just simple and to the point."

  • First-grade teacher Alexandra Krider, of San Jose, wanted to teach students in her after-school program about the value of giving during the holiday season.

    "I was able to secure for them a volunteer job where they performed community service. They worked at a local creperie for about 45 minutes (they worked two days -- in groups of six) where they washed tables and chairs, filled the sugar containers, washed books and cleaned off the tea containers. They made the place look very neat.

    "As a reward, (management) brought over delicious banana and peach-filled crepes. So they learned that with hard work comes reward -- and they got to taste a new food."

    Contact Ann Tatko-Peterson at atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/atatkopeterson.

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    As we head deeper into cold and flu season, what remedies have worked on your children's coughs, stomach bugs and other ailments, especially when they were too young for traditional medicine? Email your advice, full name and city of residence to atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com.