Americans are more generous than any other nation in the world, and this is the biggest season of giving. We fill the bell ringers' Salvation Army red kettles, we give Toys for Tots, and we contribute to myriad causes at the supermarket checkout.
This year, the need for generosity and kindness is even greater, with thousands of families displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Many have lost their homes, their belongings, their entire ways of life.
But you can help. By adopting a child or a family through the Secret Sandy campaign, you can bring the holiday season to people who have already experienced too much disappointment lately.
Co-founders Joy Huang, originally from Queens, N.Y., and Kimberley Berdy, of Hoboken, N.J. came up with the idea a few weeks after Sandy hit, when they began to wonder how they could help their friends and family, who had been affected by the hurricane.
"We had collected lots of supplies, and everything we could, and we kept seeing, obviously, the devastation, and had seen such generosity from everyone." Huang said. "Just to see that human spirit come together was incredible."
But, knowing how communities rally in the response of such a disaster, they wondered what would happen when that support began to wane.
"We also thought, okay, well, this is going on now. What happens in a month? In two months? Oh wow, Christmas is happening," Huang said. "What can we do?"
The pair, who met in 1998 while working to produce a play, put their production experience to work and began planning. The Secret Sandy concept came when Huang heard of families who were thinking about exchanging small holiday gifts anonymously.
"Oh, that's like Secret Sandy," she thought. "There went the name, and it was available."
Soon, Huang - who now lives in New York City's West Village - met at a Panera with Berdy and started working out details. Huang's brother developed the website, and a friend from high school designed the Secret Sandy logo.
"We had coffee on Tuesday or Wednesday, the site started being built on Saturday, and went live on Monday," Huang said.
Secret Sandy's aim is to match donors up with a families in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. The children send a letter to Secret Sandy, not only including their wish lists, but also giving them a chance to work through some feelings left in the hurricane's wake. The letter asks them to finish sentences like, "When Hurricane Sandy hit, I was..." and "When Hurricane Sandy was over, all I felt was..."
"It's interesting because the parents are saying it's helped foster discussions about it that they haven't had yet," Huang said. "It's an extra bonus in that regard because they're talking about what they're feeling, what they saw, what they want to happen."
Many of the letters are being filled out by hand and mailed in the traditional way, because some families in affected areas still don't have power.
Using Amazon's wish list, donors can select gifts from multiple price points on a child's wish list, which will then be shipped directly to the recipients. All information will be kept anonymous, but the donors will receive the letters written to Secret Sandy by the children. Secret Sandy hopes to match each child with two donors.
Huang said many at the top of many wish lists are simply beloved things that children lost in the storm.
"A lot of parents were just asking for stuff, like, 'He lost this, can you replace that.' A lot of them are more like, 'What I really miss, versus what I really want,'" she said.
Secret Sandy hasn't forgotten about the parents. They're also collecting gift cards for places like Lowes, Target and grocery stores. Donors are volunteering faster than they can be matched with children, so Huang urges people to send gift cards for the families.
"Please, send us gift cards so that we can give something extra to these families," she said. "They don't need that many toys. They need groceries."
The response has been overwhelming. Just during our 25-minute interview, Huang recorded 70 new donors, bringing the running total to well over a thousand, and the organization's Facebook page has garnered more than 1,200 likes in only two weeks.
"A lot of people grew up here, and they want to give back to their community," Huang said. "I got an e-mail this morning from someone in the Netherlands. It's fantastic to see that there's so much support from people I don't even know. It's heartwarming."
The grassroots organization is also seeking volunteers to keep track of Secret Sandy Toy Drives, pick up, wrap and deliver donated gifts, and more.
Despite their efforts and the overwhelming support they're receiving for the Secret Sandy campaign, Huang is humbled by the strength of the people they're trying to help.
"I'm sure the families would figure something out [for Christmas]," she said. "The fact that we can ease the burden just a little bit... They're safe, and they're together and I think that they are truly thankful for that. But to see a smile on a kid's face after all this time, it's probably priceless."