Donate for the Holidays

Be Santa's helper

Donate for the Holidays
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

Tough economic times tend to mean lean holiday offerings, especially for nonprofit and community organizations that depend on public funding and donations in order to provide services. Although this is the week when we traditionally encourage readers to share Austin artisan-food products for holiday gifts, this year we've decided to spotlight nonprofits and community programs that could use financial support during this season of giving. Major nonprofits that deal directly with hunger issues, such as the Capital Area Food Bank, the Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels and More, and Caritas of Austin, welcome donations of food and money all year round, and they would be at the top of any list. Whether you're considering fourth-quarter tax deductions or beginning a new tradition of family holiday philanthropy, any of these other organizations would appreciate an investment of time and/or money, as well. Santa will appreciate the help – and be very proud. – Virginia B. Wood

Donate for the Holidays
Photo by John Anderson

Project Transitions

7101-B Woodrow, 454-8646

Project Transitions provides services, a hospice program, and transitional housing for Austinites who are living and working with HIV/AIDS. The organization operates a five-bedroom residential hospice called Doug's House, offers transitional housing at Roosevelt Gar­dens and Highland Terrace and through its Community Hous­ing program, and also runs the coolest resale shop in town, Top Drawer Thrift. Its annual fundraisers – Holiday Swing, Texas Swing, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and more – are always some of the most attended and fun benefit parties every year. (Make a note that tickets to these events would be great stocking stuffers.)

When we interviewed Executive Director Charlotte Hale about the nonprofit's needs this year, she had this to say: "All of our housing clients are low income, many with no income at all. When they move into our transitional housing programs, they have virtually nothing in the way of supplies for setting up a household, so we can use all types of kitchenware: plates, glasses, eating and cooking utensils, pots and pans, kitchen towels, pot holders, et cetera." She noted that another good gift idea would be a housekeeping basket filled with laundry soap, dish soap, cleaning products, and grocery-store gift cards.

While direct donations of cash or any of the items listed above would be greatly appreciated, there's another way to support Project Transi­tions without spending any money at all. This idea comes courtesy of PT supporters Forrest Preece and Linda Ball, who donated a huge cookbook collection to Top Drawer (4902 Burnet Rd., 454-5161) a few months back rather than mak­ing space for it in their new condo Down­town. Instead of going to the trouble to have a garage, estate, or moving sale, take a spin through the house and gather up gently used clothes, shoes, household items, furniture, electronics, books, CDs, and DVDs for a tax-deductible and greatly appreciated donation. The public spends money at Top Drawer, and the store also provides shopping vouchers for Project Transitions clients. Ho, ho, ho – everybody wins! – Virginia B. Wood

Heifer International


Heifer International originated a unique community model that provides different food- and income-produc­ing animals appropriate to the culture, soil type, and geography of villages in foreign countries around the world. Last year it helped 150,000 families by providing initial training and animals – the offspring of which are then passed on to other members of the community – and trained 250,000 additional families in sustainable farming techniques.

Animals provided are pregnant when possible so that they will bear young and enlarge the herd as soon as possible. No animal is given without training in agroecological husbandry and livestock management, veterinary kits, and in many cases, seeds to provide fodder.

The benefits are compound: The family gets better nutrition from milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, or eggs, as well as having a surplus to sell at market, which means critical extra income for medical care and education. The manure is used to improve the soil for crop production.

Poultry provides nutritious eggs, fertile droppings, and feathers for crafts while eating insects and weeds. The birds require no extra feed and reproduce prodigiously. Hives of honeybees greatly improve pollination and crop production, while providing honey, wax, and pollen for consumption and sales. A water buffalo not only yields rich milk and fertile manure but can quadruple the labor output of a typical farmer. A single pig can live on scraps and garden byproducts, produce lots of manure for compost, and yield 16 piglets a year. Three rabbits can produce 300 baby rabbits in one year, which can triple a Chinese family's income.

Sheep, alpacas, llamas, and some breeds of goats produce not only milk but lots of wool, which can be repeatedly shorn and woven for clothing to be sold for profit. Camels are provided for transport in Tanzania, oxen for plowing and carts in Uganda, donkeys for draft power in Kenya, and guinea pigs for food and income in Ecuador. Heifer even offers tree seedlings, used for fruit production, animal fodder, and firewood.

Another beauty of giving to Heifer International is that you can contribute as little as $10 by buying a share in an animal. There are very few ways that the average Ameri­can can have as profound an impact in poor villages around the world as one can by donating to Heifer; the feeling of satisfaction you get is worth millions. – Mick Vann

Garza's Gardens Program, Gonzalo Garza Independence High School

1600 Chicon, 414-8667

Students/vegetables. Herbs/business. School/gardens. Responsibility/community. What do these terms have in common? A great deal, at Austin Independent School District's alternative Garza High School in Central East Austin. Guided by teacher Martha Cason, Garza's Gardens is a thriving multicredit study program helping students learn success and responsibility alongside economics, business, ecology, nutrition, and horticulture.

Begun nine years ago as a school-ground landscaping effort, Garza's Gardens currently includes 22 vegetable plots and 16 herb beds where students grow organic vegetables and culinary herbs. Each student in the program is in charge of at least two plots; every semester the students research, select, plant, tend, and harvest their own crops.

The original idea was for garden produce to go to the school's cafeteria, but due to AISD consolidation, Garza no longer has an autonomous kitchen; now vegetables are sent home with students or used for class cooking lessons donated by Austin's Les Dames d'Escoffier. One of Cason's goals is creating a viable campus lunch program using garden bounty, not only to feed students and staff but to serve as a community example for making tasty meals from local and nutritious ingredients.

The herb plots constitute the market garden; students apply basic economics to real-world business. Volunteers from Students in Free Enterprise at Texas State University mentor classes in accounting practices and marketing plans. Students grow, pick, and sell fresh herbs at the Triangle Farmers' Market each Wednesday; money earned defrays business expenses, and the class "company" invests profit back into the program. Garza-grown herbs also go to St. Edward's University food service and Farm to Table, a local, organic wholesaler that supplies Jeffrey's and Aquarelle, among other Austin food venues.

Cason has big ideas for expanding Garza's Gardens education and community opportunities. In addition to the garden/cafeteria enterprise, she's planning to plant additional herb and veggie beds and fruit trees, rework the compost system, finish the greenhouse, develop a rainwater-harvesting system, and ultimately, build an atrium-greenhouse classroom. With expanded capacity, she envisions students providing produce, plant starts, and compost to community groups such as the Sustainable Food Center. "The donation of materials, money, or expertise would be gratefully appreciated," Cason says. "I need a rainwater expert, for example. Complete materials for a raised garden bed cost around $250." But, she says, "community support is the most valuable gift we could be given." To make a donation to Garza's Gardens, contact Martha Cason (414-8667, – MM Pack

Donate for the Holidays
Photo by John Anderson

Sustainable Food Center

1106 Clayton Ln. Ste. 480-W, 236-0074

Because I've been a home gardener for many years, a nonprofit dear to my heart is the Sustain­able Food Center. Through its various programs, the SFC strives to increase access to locally grown food and to improve both the environment and long-term health of all Central Texans. The programs include Grow Local, which provides adults and children with resources and education in organic food gardening in community and school gardens; Farm Direct, which oversees the Austin Farmers' Market and fosters relationships with area farmers who provide urban residents with freshly harvested produce; and the Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre, a nationally recognized bilingual program that offers interactive cooking classes and nutrition education, emphasizing the selection and preparation of fresh, seasonal foods that are safe, nutritious, economical, and delicious.

Like every nonprofit, SFC always needs volunteers and cash donations. It also offers a variety of cool products that could make wonderful foodie gifts and are available on its website or at the Austin Farmers' Markets. But SFC also has a list of specific items that it needs; with hard times ahead for many folks, we suggest that you search around and see if you have access to any of these. Rather than selling them for pennies on the dollar, think about donating them to the SFC. – Claudia Alarcón

SFC Needs

A lightly used pop-up tent, 10 feet by 10 feet

100-foot medium-grade extension cords

Eight functioning power strips

Large metal mixing bowls, colanders, Igloo water containers, and tabletop butane burners

Commercial-grade free-flow water containers with lid for hand-washing

A propane grill on wheels for cooking demos

Folding tables, 8-foot or 6-foot, in good condition

Storage shed on skids, 10 feet by 8 feet or 8 by 8

Any new irrigation T-tape or row cover

30-quart storage boxes

Weight scales

Sand bags

25-foot-by-30-foot-by-8-foot deer fence for Gus Garcia Middle School vegetable garden

Chipper/shredder for tool-lending library

50-pound metal scales for 31 school gardens to weigh their vegetable harvests

Use of pickup trucks to bring compost and mulch to new community, school, and home gardens

Harvest baskets for school & community gardens

Tool bench for garden tools for Sanchez Elementary School

Garden gloves for volunteers to use on workdays

Green Corn Project

1210 Rosewood, 249-3171

During this holiday season of dire economic forecasts, what could be more hopeful than giving a vegetable garden to someone in need? For 10 years now, Green Corn Project has been planting small organic gardens for low-income families, communities, and schools around Austin to provide better access to fresh seasonal produce for little to no cost. Green Corn Project was started by a group of people who were excited about the idea of making organic produce accessible to communities that typically cannot afford to buy it. The project's goal is to improve the health of Central Texas families and promote self-reliance through sustainable food-growing practices. Green Corn Project offers programs that demonstrate how easy and economical it is to grow fruits and vegetables in small gardening plots using a bio-intensive method. The method's main aspect involves double-dug raised beds (deep beds where the soil is completely loosened to a depth of between 18 and 24 inches and enriched with compost), which are relatively labor intensive to start but, once they are in, require very little additional maintenance.

Green Corn Project sponsors several programs. The organic food gardening program is its largest and most widely known, providing instruction, materials, and labor to install high-yield organic food gardens for low-income individuals and families. Green Corn partners with Habitat for Humanity in this program, and many of the recipients of Green Corn gardens are also Habitat homeowners. GCP also offers gardening workshops and classes to educate people about bio-intensive gardening and how to implement a bio-intensive garden of one's own. Another project involves developing a Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills-appropriate curriculum centering on nutrition and health for teachers to use with gardening programs.

Donations to GCP typically help the organization support an organic garden for an individual or family for two years. An organic spring garden costs GCP about $250 to install and maintain, but the project will accept donations in any amount, and $40 tickets to its annual fall benefit tasting on the grounds of Boggy Creek Farm would make welcome stocking stuffers. For those who are feeling cash-strapped but who wish to donate nonetheless, there are volunteer opportunities during the GCP's annual Spring Dig-In, when the gardens are installed; see the website for details and schedules. Donate online or by mail, on behalf of yourself or anyone. – Rachel Feit

Mobile Loaves & Fishes

5524 Bee Caves Rd., Bldg. M, 328-7299

According to the gospel, Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And there was plenty for everyone, plus 12 baskets filled with leftovers after all ate their fill. With this gospel story as their inspiration, six parishioners of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Aus­tin launched Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a ministry that uses catering trucks to distribute food to homeless and working poor people, in the summer of 1998. In the 10 years since its inception, more than a million meals have been served with the help of more than 11,500 volunteers in Austin, San Antonio, New Orleans, Nashville, and Provid­ence, R.I. In addition to food, the nonprofit distributes clothing and other necessities and has even expanded to provide Habitat on Wheels, which places homeless people in gently used, fully furnished recreational vehicles.

As you might expect, there's an extensive holiday wish list that ranges from the simple and obvious (grocery-store gift cards, prepaid bus passes, toiletries, household linens) to the grand (got a RV or catering truck taking up room in your driveway?). The complete wish list can be found on the website. Don't be restricted by the suggestions on the list, though; any items that could be of use to brothers and sisters on the streets are welcome.

It's not just treasure that is needed to fulfill the group's mission; time and talent are required, too. Volunteering with Mobile Loaves & Fishes is simple and requires a minimum of training. Recently named Sweetest Santas on the Scene in the 2008 "Best of Austin," Alan Graham and his elves have volunteer opportunities for people with a lot of or a little time to give. Volunteers do everything from picking up food from the food bank to boiling eggs, distributing food, washing and maintaining the trucks, and even doing the paperwork required to keep the organization supported.

Maybe it's the simplicity of the idea or the immediacy of the relief the group provides that has led to its exponential growth in such a short period. Or perhaps it's that Mobile Loaves has remained true to its gospel inspiration and, in doing so, is living out Margaret Mead's observation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." – Barbara Chisholm

Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen

1815 Rosewood, 474-5652

In the tradition of Southern worship, food and fellowship go hand in hand. Nobody knows this better than Lola Stephens of Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen. Stephens moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980; she was sidetracked on her way to California when the money ran out and decided to stay. In the late 1980s, times got tough, and Lola lost her job. Homeless for two years, she never lost her faith or her cooking skills.

Having been there herself, Lola knows how important it is to offer the occasional hand-up to those in need. Her generosity and compassion have resulted in her family growing from only her and her daughter to including three needy children adopted from a friend who was in desperate straits, as well. Her community culinary outreach takes the form of delicious, nutritious meals for those who might otherwise go hungry, cooked in the restaurant's kitchen and served in the cafe's back yard every Sunday when the restaurant is closed.

Lola has taken it a step further now by providing solid fare to the needy during the week, as well. "Whoever comes along to the back door and needs some food, I give them whatever I can get my hands on. Sometimes it's just a hot dog, but it's more than they had," she says. "I'm poverty helping the poor, and if we can just get some middle class helping poverty and some rich helping some middle class, then we can get a chain thing going." Stephens operates as a clearinghouse for just about anything that her less fortunate neighbors need, whether it's food, money, clothes, furniture, or a clothes washer. "I find out what they need," she says. "I just want poor folks to have some dignity." Her church, the Well Bible Church, helps when it can, and she has especially good things to say for the congregation of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church.

Blessed with a new, much larger location on 12th Street, she is looking for some angels to help her get a commercial kitchen built there so that she can expand the restaurant and use it to serve as a community center. Until that happens, Stephens will keep on keeping on, producing her famous incredible Cajun food, great burgers and po-boys, and the best fried catfish in town. You can help by dining frequently at the restaurant (Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pm) or donating cash or food that Stephens can cook for the needy. – Mick Vann

Donate for the Holidays
Photo Courtesy of Urban Roots

Urban Roots

7756 Northcross #203, 342-0424

Urban Roots is a local nonprofit developed by YouthLaunch that combines sustainable agriculture with youth development, and it works, not just for the teenagers involved but for the entire Austin community. This afterschool program addresses real problems of food insecurity and parity and deftly forges new solutions. In a nutshell, local teens from all over Austin work an acre of land as an afterschool job, acquiring life-changing skills in cooperation, commitment, entrepreneurship, public speaking, self-confidence, and nutrition. A full 40% of what they grow is donated to local relief organizations, such as Meals on Wheels and Caritas, providing high-quality, vitamin-rich food to populations that desperately need it, as well as introducing the young people to the rewards of community service. The remaining 60% of what they grow is sold by the teens at area farmers' markets, providing local, affordable, organic produce to the city at large. The money made on sales goes to pay the teenagers a fair hourly wage for their hard work, and in the process, the kids learn about handling money, customer service, and entrepreneurship. Most important of all, these kids get to make a dramatic and positive impact on problems of access and nutrition that more than a few adults have given up on as "unsolvable" and "just the way it is." To feel that you have the power to address big problems in meaningful ways, especially at that age, is transformative.

Because such a large percentage of the crops are donated to the needy, donations are always needed to offset the program's infrastructural expenses, such as insurance, equipment, and compost. This is a nonprofit that improves lives right here in Austin in a direct and meaningful way; clicking the "Donate" button on the YouthLaunch website will pay dividends in our community for years to come. Other wish list items: a market scale, harvesting scissors, a wheelbarrow, a garden cart, hoes, drip-irrigation supplies, a weed eater, a toolshed, and all your old green plastic cherry tomato baskets. – Kate Thornberry

Lifelong Friends Pet Adoptions

20803 FM 1431, Lago Vista, 512/267-6876

Lifelong Friends is an independently owned, no-kill shelter dedicated to saving the lives of dogs and cats that have been betrayed by mankind. While other shelters usually put down any animals that are ill, injured, or frightened of humans, Lifelong Friends has a contract with the city of Lago Vista to take in whatever animals the city brings them: strays, abandoned pets, newborn puppies and kittens who need round-the-clock bottle-feeding, the abused, the neglected, and the terrified. The staff and volunteers at Lifelong Friends work with every animal, treating their injuries, neutering and spaying them, socializing them, training them, and only adopting them to families that are a good match for each pet's needs. The shelter keeps faith with these traumatized animals, providing them with a truly safe haven at last, caring for them until the right "forever home" comes along. A glance at the "Success Stories" link on the website is enough to prove that the Lifelong Friends approach really works. "We get to know every animal individually, and we provide support both before and after adoption," says Director Andrea Phil­lips. "Because we take the time to find homes that are truly a good fit, our rate of return is practically nonexistent."

All the workers at Lifelong Friends are volunteers, because every penny raised goes directly to the care and feeding of the animals. Trainers from Triple Crown Dog Academy volunteer their time to socialize and train the dogs, with an entire program just for the shy ones. Because animals are treated for their illnesses and injuries, the shelter has a yearly vet bill that runs around $65,000 (and that's with discounts from area vets). They turn no animal away, and with the economy tanking, they're seeing more abandoned pets than ever. Currently they're caring for more than 300 dogs and cats that are waiting to be adopted. "Our first wish is to find loving homes for all of them," says Assistant Director Janet Cain, "but a tax-deductible donation can help us keep our doors open until those homes are found." Other wish list items: canned dog and cat food, dog biscuits, Nylabones, large dog crates, 6-quart water pails, pooper scoopers, Kennel Decks (, Tidy Cats clay litter, cat toys, pet taxis, KMR Milk Replacer (not step 2), trash bags, paper towels, laundry detergent, bleach, latex gloves, peroxide, and copier paper. Additional volunteers and veterinary assistance are welcome, as well. – Kate Thornberry


Our foodie colleagues at are busy with their second annual Dish-for-Dish challenge to benefit Meals on Wheels and More. Last year, Dishola donated 600 hot meals to the agency that delivers food to members of Austin's homebound elderly and disabled population. This year, with the sponsorship of Whole Foods Market, the goal is to donate 1,000 meals. Here's how it will work: Starting on Thursday, Dec. 11, for every dish review that readers post to the website, Dishola will donate a meal to Meals on Wheels. The challenge is set to run through Jan. 11, so get busy. Post reviews sharing what you know about the best dishes to be enjoyed around Austin, and the clients of Meals on Wheels will benefit from your knowledge and generosity. It'll be the easiest Christmas gift you can give. – Virginia B. Wood

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Meals on Wheels and More, Caritas of Austin, Capital Area Food Bank, Project Transitions, Heifer International, Sustainable Food Center, Garza's Gardens, Green Corn Project, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen, Lifelong Friends Pet Adoptions, Urban Roots, Dishola

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