Though the holiday season can be fraught with stress and a last-minute to-do list, it’s also a time of extreme generosity—a month-plus of merriment that often sees total strangers reaching out to lend a helping hand in the name of humanity and the spirit of the season. From anonymous donations to charitable flash mobs, here are 20 such stories from this holiday season.
1. MALL SANTA LEARNS SIGN LANGUAGE SO THAT HE CAN COMMUNICATE WITH ALL KIDS
Every kid deserves to tell Santa exactly what he or she wants for Christmas, but deaf children can have a difficult time communicating with their local St. Nick. Not kids in Racine, Wisconsin: The Santa at Racine’s Regency Mall knows sign language. He signs with kids who are hearing impaired, so that he can ask them—and they can tell him—what they want for Christmas. Because the warm fuzzy feelings of the holidays don’t just come from getting the right present—they come from feeling like part of a loving, inclusive community.
2. MOM BATTLING CANCER IS SURPRISED WITH A FLASH MOB DONATION
When Amanda Kofoed, a 30-year-old Idaho woman, discovered that she had stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma earlier this fall, she had to put her teaching degree on hold and prepare for six months of chemotherapy treatments. When she worried aloud to friends about her lack of insurance, as well as the future of her four young children, a group called the PRAYnksters (which is known for staging random acts of kindness) stepped in with a plan. They took Amanda and her husband, Clint, to a coffee shop, ostensibly to help them film a GoFundMe video. But as the camera rolled, nearly 200 children and adults flooded the coffee shop, all piling cash on the table as Amanda and her husband fought back tears. Amanda received more than $13,000 that day, and her GoFundMe has more than doubled its goal amount thus far.
3. “LAYAWAY ANGEL” PAYS OFF NEARLY $200,000 IN BALANCES AT WALMART
An anonymous angel visited three Pennsylvania Walmarts this month, paying out thousands of dollars at each location to clear strangers’ layaway balances. In the last two weeks, the donor has left $74,000 in Harrisburg; $46,000 in Lebanon County; and another $46,000 in Everett, for a total of $166,000 of erased debt. “When customers quietly pay off others’ layaway items, we’re reminded of how good people can be,” a Walmart representative told ABC27 News. “The joy that comes from these transactions extends well beyond dollars and cents. We’re honored to be a small part in these random acts of kindness.”
4. RESTAURANT OFFERS FREE CHRISTMAS MEALS TO LONDON'S ELDERLY AND HOMELESS POPULATIONS
The holidays will be a little bit brighter this year for some of London’s lonelier residents, thanks to a Turkish restaurant opening its doors on Christmas Day. Shish Restaurant in southeast London posted a note on its window in November with the message: “No one eats alone on a Christmas Day! We are here to sit with you … Any homeless or elderly are welcomed.”
The restaurant’s owner got the idea to offer a free three-course meal to those with nowhere else to go when an elderly woman walked into his eatery last month. She was looking for someone to help her close her window, and also mentioned that she would be spending Christmas alone this year. Inspired to help her and others like her, the restaurant staff shared the message that they would be welcoming the community’s homeless and elderly members on Christmas Day. Many people were touched by the story; so far, approximately 50 people have volunteered to cook, clean, and drive people to the restaurant.
5. LIBRARY GIFT-WRAPPING EVENTS RAISE MONEY FOR CHARITY
Here’s a solution that benefits the gift-wrapping-challenged and charity to boot: At two libraries, teens are wrapping gifts to raise money for charitable causes. The Fairborn Library in Fairborn, Ohio held a “Gift Wrap Extravaganza” on December 19 to benefit the Fairborn Food Pantry, and on December 15 and 16 at the Lane Memorial Library in Hampton, New Hampshire, teens from two local schools wrapped gifts in exchange for donations to benefit charities End 68 Hours of Hunger and the NHSPCA.
6. HOSPITAL WORKER SAVES ALL YEAR IN ORDER TO BUY TOYS FOR SICK CHILDREN
Each Christmas for the past eight years, Jessie Tenyani, a cafeteria worker at Chicago’s Advocate Trinity Hospital, has bought thousands of dollars worth of toys for all of the children at the hospital, the state’s largest pediatric care facility. She sets aside part of her paycheck each month, and this year, she took Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday off from the hospital, rented a U-Haul, and bought $5000 worth of dolly buggies, electric keyboards, soccer balls, and other toys to distribute to kids of all ages at Christmas. “I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to serve these children,” Tenyani told Good Morning America. "I feel great and I feel at peace because what I do is to put a smile on the face of a child who is going through so much, whatever the pain they might go through."
7. SECRET SANTA PAYS OFF LUNCH BALANCES
The spirit of the season is alive and well at HW Good Elementary School in Herminie, Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, a generous secret Santa wrote the school a check for more than $900 to clear the overdue lunch balances of 44 children. The only thing the do-gooder asked for in return was to remain anonymous. “Sometimes, all we see are the sad things going on in the world, so it's really, really nice to know there are great people out there who would give up their things to help others," the school’s principal, Amy Larcinese, told ABC News.
8. WESTJET THROWS PARTY FOR PEOPLE WHO LOST HOMES IN WILDFIRES
It has been over seven months since the Fort McMurray wildfire in Canada devastated about 20 percent of the homes in the area, but there’s still a lot of healing and rebuilding to do. The airline company WestJet generously stepped in to provide the people of Fort McMurray with some much-needed holiday cheer. The airline threw a Christmas party for the town’s residents that was stocked with all the fixings of a great time: 500 stockings, 300 pounds of candy, and 348 parachutes holding special gifts inside. Nearly 50 WestJet employees—who were moonlighting as elves—arrived to help make the party a success. According to WestJet, 826 Fort Murray citizens took part in the celebration.
9. LOCAL BUSINESS GIVES WOMAN A NEW ROOF FOR CHRISTMAS
The roof of Cathy Barker’s home in Jackson, Tennessee is falling apart. Barker, a longtime employee of the Kroger grocery chain, has been battling cancer and hasn’t had the money to repair it. Now she won’t have to: In early December, representatives from the roofing manufacturers at Reed’s Metals surprised Barker at work with the news that out of 100 applicants, she had won the company’s “Covering our Community” award, and they’d install her new roof—worth as much as $6000—before Christmas. Her sons, who’d nominated her for the award, hugged her, and her co-workers cheered.
“It’s really great,” a teary Barker told WBBJ 7 Eyewitness News.
Barker isn’t the only one who will receive a free roof from Reed’s Metals, which has 10 locations in five states. The company says it will provide a free roof to five others, including Baldwyn, Mississippi resident Bobbie Lou Hill.
10. SHELTER EMPLOYEES WILL DELIVER ADOPTED ANIMALS ON CHRISTMAS MORNING
Getting a pet on Christmas morning is an incredible experience for any animal lover, but it can be hard to orchestrate the sudden arrival of a new dog or cat. In Franklin, Tennessee, local shelter employees are more than happy to serve as Santa’s elves. Staff members at the Williamson County Animal Center have volunteered to get up early on Christmas morning and deliver any animals adopted between December 17 and December 24, making sure that lucky pet-parents-to-be get the best Christmas surprise imaginable.
11. “FOOD FOR FINES” PROGRAMS FORGIVE LIBRARY AND PARKING FEES IN EXCHANGE FOR FOOD BANK DONATIONS
Cities across the country are turning delinquent fees into charitable donations with “food for fines” programs. The concept began in Lexington, Kentucky two years ago, when the city offered citizens a sweet holiday deal: donate 10 cans of nonperishable food and get $15 off a parking ticket. The program was a huge success, netting more than 6000 items for a local food bank. This year, officials say, they’re on track to beat that record.
Parking enforcement offices and libraries across the country have taken up the torch, swapping overdue fees and parking fines for canned corn and tuna.
“It’s wonderful to see organizations like LEXPARK engage with our food bank in creative ways to fight hunger and deliver hope,” one food bank executive told Kentucky Forward.
12. FAMILY DELIVERS RECORD NUMBER OF GIFTS TO RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE
In 2015, Marion and Jason Sanford spent nearly six months living at the Ronald McDonald House in Saskatoon, Canada, while their 5-year-old son Rhett underwent surgery following an ATV crash on their family farm. Rhett’s 6-year-old brother, Blaine, was also involved in the crash and tragically died on the way to the hospital. Last December, after Rhett made a slow but full recovery, the family began a “new Christmas tradition” of donating toys to the place that showed them so much kindness during their time of need.
This year, Marion and Jason teamed up with Innovation Credit Union to up the ante: They established 28 drop-off locations across the province, where people could leave donations. As a result, the family filled an entire Mack truck with gifts—the most the Saskatoon Ronald McDonald House has ever received. Of her charitable spirit, Marion told CBC News, "Part of the reason I do this is because I want my son [Blaine] to be proud of me. He would be so excited to be part of this.”
13. MASSACHUSETTS COMMUNITY DECKS THE HALLS FOR A WIDOW IN NEED
After the passing of her husband in February, Amesbury, Massachusetts, resident Jeanne Hallisey couldn’t muster the energy to decorate her house for Christmas. “I wanted the lights up but didn’t have any holiday spirit at all,” Hallisey told the Daily News of Newburyport.
Hallisey solicited help stringing lights and garlands on Facebook, and was overjoyed when dozens of neighbors—armed with coffee, doughnuts, and hand warmers—answered her call. Included in the do-gooders were a handful of players on the Amesbury High School football team and an electrician who made sure all the wiring was safe.
14. SHIRTLESS RUGBY PLAYERS RAISE MONEY FOR CHARITY IN BELFAST
Bare-chested members of the Bangor Rugby Club sang carols at Corn Market in Belfast, Northern Ireland earlier this month to raise money for Action Cancer and other charities. In the video above, you can hear coins dropping into donation bins and see a particularly animated “conductor” leading them along. The club hopes to raise about $5000 for charity—which is nothing to shake a Santa hat at.
15. BEST BUY WORKERS CHIP IN TO BUY A WII U FOR A LOCAL TEEN
Employees at a Best Buy in Valley Stream, New York recently pulled off a sweet game plan. After the staff noticed that a local teen made daily trips to their location just to play one of the Nintendo Wii U systems on display, they chipped in to get him a console of his own, CNN reported. “Consider it an early Christmas present," one employee told the speechless teen when they revealed the $300 gift. The group also added a new copy of Super Smash Bros., a game he often plays in store—and a ride home. According to Inside Edition, the teen was nervous and making the trek home with his expensive gift.
16. STUDENTS COLLECT GIFTS FOR SENIOR CITIZENS
Students at Culleoka Unit School in Culleoka, Tennessee are organizing a gift drive for seniors living in local nursing homes. They’re collecting unwrapped gifts right in their K-12 school, located in central Tennessee. Among the suggested donations: adult coloring books, puzzles, toiletries, robes, blankets, stuffed animals, and radios.
Nowhere near Culleoka and want to bring some joy to a senior this holiday season? Google is your friend. There are similar programs across the country, including the Share the Love campaign in Thousand Oaks, California; a gift drive in North Fulton, Georgia, for elderly Meals on Wheels participants; and the Adopt a Senior program in the metro New York City region. There’s also the national “Be a Santa to a Senior” program, administered by Home Instead Senior Care. Its program in Delaware could really use your help: It’s about 1500 gifts short of its goal.
17. STOLEN DONATION LEADS TO A MUCH LARGER DONATION
Earlier this month, Melissa McMonigle, an English teacher at Ohio’s Northmont High School, was shocked when she discovered that $164 of the $194 her students had raised for a local family in need had been stolen right from her desk. “I was so sad and so disheartened,” McMonigle said. “And my students were angry when they found out.” While that easily could have been the end of the story, what began as a theft turned into a community-wide act of kindness when, according to McGonigle, “Within a 24-hour period, teachers started handing me money in the parking lot. Students who aren’t even [in my classes] started handing me money the hallways. There were parents who came into the main office and asked if they could give money to Miss McMonigle for the needy family. It was happening all day long.” As of December 9, McMonigle's students and colleagues had raised more than $800.
18. TEXAS POLICE DEPARTMENT ISSUES UNUSUAL TRAFFIC CITATIONS
Police in Godley, Texas, are offering a fast track off the naughty list this holiday season. In lieu of fines for minor traffic violations, Mashable reports that officers are handing out “tickets” asking recipients to donate presents to the police department’s toy drive. Police chief Jason Jordan told Mashable the department has “probably handed out a couple hundred” so far, and added that he's currently figuring out a way to carry the program through to the New Year with clothing and school supply donations.
19. POLICE DEPARTMENT PAYS IT FORWARD
When 6-year-old Landon Naumann’s bicycle was recently stolen, he and his mom went to the police station to report the crime. The officer who took the report thought the boy looked familiar—and then he realized why: Landon had previously made a visit to the local police station to drop off goodie bags for the local police force to thank them for all that they do for the local community. There was even a picture of Landon and his goodie bags on the wall. So the police officers reached into their own pockets to purchase a new bike for the boy, which they presented to him as a birthday gift.
20. TEENAGER BUILDS LIGHT DISPLAY TO BENEFIT MAKE A WISH
While a charitable spirit at any age is something to be admired, there’s something extra special about a young do-gooder—and that’s just what 18-year-old Jordan Maywald is. The Austin, Texas high school senior tapped into the holiday spirit by creating an elaborate, 50,000 light display at his home. But this wasn’t a case of Maywald simply trying to emulate Clark Griswold: He posted a Make-A-Wish donation box outside his home, so that in addition to admiring his twinkling handiwork, those who come to gawk at the display can also make a donation to the nonprofit organization. “There's no better feeling than giving money to them for children who are ill so they can go on a vacation or something they want it's just very heartwarming to us,” Maywald said. He’s hoping to raise $5000 this holiday season.