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US Holidays a Time for Giving, Connecting with People

For many Americans, the holidays are a time for reaching out to other people through charitable groups. Among these activities are holiday volunteer efforts, including a toy drive and a group of retail stores that link North American shoppers with craft workers in the developing world.

The Salvation Army bell ringer is a familiar sight at Christmas. The religious organization started in 19th century Britain and operates in more than 100 countries. Bell ringers collect donations for the poor in red kettles.

At one Los Angeles center, the charity offers low-income mothers toys for their children and vouchers for a Christmas food basket.

The Christmas holiday is all about the children, says Salvation Army Captain Marina Martinez. "The people just want to give and just feel happy. In fact, they say, you know what? I have so many children and my children don't need anything. But we want to give to another family," Martinez said.

Four hundred families will get help at this local center, but with the poor economy, the organization's leaders say many more people need their help. One hundred families in this neighborhood are on a waiting list.

The Salvation Army's Robert Brennan says the organization is trying to fill the gap through technology. "The world is changing and we're trying to change with it, so we have online red kettles. People can use their own red kettles and use their email addresses to contact their friends and business associates, encourage them to give money to the Salvation Army that way," he said.

Holiday shoppers in Pasadena, California, make another kind of connection with people half a world away.

Maasai craftswomen in the hills outside Nairobi, Kenya, and craft workers in Nepal make products for one store in the city, called Ten Thousand Villages. It is part of a national non-profit chain started by the Mennonites, a Christian denomination. The organization works with artisans in 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to make sure they get a fair price for their products.

Shopper Fred Dunn often buys gifts in the store. "I'm intrigued by the number of beautiful things from all over the world and the fact that it's fair trade and that they really help the workers in other parts of the world, and I love the things that are here," he said.

Craig Schloneger, the chief executive of the organization, says this kind of holiday shopping is part of a trend. "I think a lot of people now are looking at simpler gifts and are realizing that the gift is just as much about the giver as it is about the gift itself," he said.

Pasadena store manager Sam Bills says each product helps shoppers make connections. "... both in the story that it has and the way it sits in our home and the story that's behind it, but also knowing about where the product came from, how the person that made that product was treated. So it's a whole picture of a different kind of world that we can create by the way that we shop," he said.

Ten Thousand Villages has 75 stores and 300 affiliated partners. It has also expanded its reach through the Internet, creating new connections between shoppers and village artisans.