Thanksgiving has come and gone for Canadians, and is coming up soon for those who live in the United States. Families get together to spend some time with each other, while turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and other comfort foods that many associate with the holiday bring us together to prepare and indulge in a festive meal—all in honour of giving thanks.

But how many of us actually do something tangible to give thanks? This is a great time for us to reflect on our many blessings, and also to think of those who may not be so blessed. It’s also a great time to think about how we can give back, whether that’s to your own community or to an organization that helps others around the globe.

Here are just a few ways that you can give back, at little to no cost to yourself, in the coming year.

Milk bag mattresses

If you live in Canada, or some parts of the United States where milk is sold in bags, you can give back to either your own community or to those overseas, in a variety of ways:

    • Collect and donate the outer bags that your milk is packaged in to an organization in your community (churches and schools often collect these bags).
    • Organize your own collection with your church, school or neighbourhood. Facebook is a powerful tool, and it wouldn’t take much to reach out to your local Buy Nothing group or another community organization’s page in order to organize a large-scale collection program.
    • Volunteer your time to weave mats with a local community organization or on your own—if you crochet, it’s a great way to pass the time while your kids are at hockey, swimming or other activities!

For more information about how these mats help local shelters and developing countries, check out this website.

Food donation

Basket of vegetables

Food bank collections often occur around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but you could consider donating food on a monthly basis to your local Food Bank. People are hungry all year round, but we often feel more generous during the holidays, which leaves the shelves lean or empty at other times of the year. You can help in a variety of ways:

    • Commit to purchasing a few extra food items for the Food Bank near you once a month, or whenever you go shopping. Organize a food drive of your own in your community.
    • Find out whether your local food bank takes cash donations to purchase perishable items, including milk, meats and produce, and commit to donating on a schedule, or at certain times of the year when people aren’t feeling so generous.
    • If you grow a garden, find out whether your local food bank will take produce from your veggie garden, and consider donating some of your excess produce to feed those in need.


This one seems obvious, but many people don’t actually sit down and think about going outside their comfort zone when it comes to volunteering.

    • Consider finding an organization that means something to you, and dig in a little deeper than you normally would, whether that means a bigger time commitment or a commitment when others may not be available, such as a shift at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving or Christmas (or even on weekends, when you have free time).
    • Look at your family and neighbours, and find a way to help someone by, for instance, cutting your elderly parent or neighbour’s grass, shovelling or clearing a single Mom’s driveway after a big snowstorm, offering your professional services to fix something that someone’s been complaining about but can’t afford to fix (i.e. replacing a flapper on a leaking toilet, fixing a faulty electrical socket, offering your labour to do a brake job on your neighbour’s car, sewing a seam, hemming a skirt, etc.). It’s up to you how much of your time and energy you want to invest, and it can make a huge difference in people’s lives!
    • If you love to run, you can support an organization by raising money while running in a race! Many organizations offer you the option of fundraising when you sign up.

Donating to the homeless

Homeless man

If you’re like me, you have purses, shoes, winter clothing and samples that you just won’t use. Instead of donating to a secondhand store, consider directly helping out the homeless by donating to organizations that will distribute your items to those who need it most:

    • If you have purses to donate, fill them with items that a woman could use—a water bottle you no longer use; hand/body lotion; shampoo and conditioner samples from hotel rooms, races or  other sources that you really don’t need; a handful of feminine hygiene products; ChapSticks from conferences that you’ll never use, and so on. Be creative!
    • Contact your local homeless shelter to see if they need blankets, sleeping bags, warm socks or winter outerwear that you don’t use anymore, and donate your items directly to them.
    • Donate rattier blankets and pillows to animal shelters.
    • Donate your out-of-date professional clothing to a Dress for Success or a similar organization for those who are seeking work and need a suit or outfit to wear for interviews.

Personal aid items

If you have any medical or assistive items at home that you no longer use, they can be donated through a large variety of organizations:

    • Donate your old eyeglasses: There are donation boxes at almost every eyeglass store or optician’s office, and through those, you can pass your old frames on to organizations either locally or overseas, to help those who can’t afford them.
    • Donate your old hearing aids. A quick search of the internet will point you in the right direction to pass your (or your deceased relative’s) hearing aids on to be cleaned, refurbished and gifted to someone in need.
    • Mobility aids: again, search the internet for places that pass much-needed mobility devices on to those who need them. Crutches, canes, walkers and wheelchairs can all be gifted to these organizations. When my great-grandmother passed away, we had a whole storage room full of these items that very, very slowly got given away, mostly to secondhand stores. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to pass them directly on to those in need.

Old soles

pair of old shoes on steps

Are you a runner with a closet full of old running shoes that have outlived their running life, but could still be used for walking? Dress shoes you thought you’d wear, but got tired of? Collect all the extra shoes and boots in your house and look for an organization that will redistribute them.

Some local organizations may need dress shoes, boots, runners and other types of shoes for the homeless.

    • The Re-Use Shoe Program at Running Free accepts donations of all kinds of shoes, and will even give you a credit towards a new pair of shoes with every donation! These shoes are then either distributed to the homeless or to other organizations around the world.
    • Give Your Sole is an organization that collects shoes at some races. When you sign up for a race, see if they will have a collection box there so you can send your old kicks to a new home.
    • Nike has a ‘Reuse-a-Shoe’ program that recycles old running shoes for communities in need.
    • One World Running also collects shoes (in good condition) to send overseas, and sends more beaten-up shoes to Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program.

Keep in mind that many organizations also need shoes for children.

These are just a few ideas that will cost you little to nothing, yet enable you to give back. There are many more great causes that need your support year-round, and not just during the holidays. If you’ve got children, get the kids involved and be creative!

Brainstorm and figure out where and how you can give back. Remember that it doesn’t have to cost you much, and it’s a great way to teach our children what a true Thanksgiving is.

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