Most of us think of the holidays as a time for family, festivities and giving, and rightly so. But for veterans, the holiday season can sometimes be a challenging time. The sacrifices made during their service have dealt thousands of these noble men and women undeserved, debilitating conditions, leaving them hospitalized, homeless or isolated from the ones they love.
Even if they can celebrate the holidays at home, veterans suffer very high rates of depression and seasonal affective disorder, which can make the holidays overwhelming. Physical conditions also come with unmanageable symptoms or medical bills that stop veterans from enjoying the holidays to the fullest.
The month of December can be particularly emotional for veterans with mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos. After so much exposure to asbestos while working on aircraft, shipyards and military bases, veterans now account for a third of all mesothelioma cases. They are forced to deal with devastating symptoms of a disease caused by the negligence of someone else. Unfortunately, because the disease is so often fatal, for many veterans living with mesothelioma, this holiday season may be their last.
It’s up to us to salute veterans’ bravery and make their holidays special. There are many ways to do so, but here are six ways to contribute.
1.) Volunteer Your Time
Start by contacting a military hospital, assisted care home, community living center or homeless shelter to find out how you can best provide support. Some have pre-determined lists of comfort items veterans need during treatment, such as CDs and DVDs, snacks and warm clothing. Some veterans are simply in need of company, which you can offer through programs such as the Vet’s Christmas Charity Ride. Remember to schedule a time to volunteer in advance rather than showing up unannounced – charities need to stay organized to best support their vets.
2.) Donate to a Worthy Cause
To thank veterans for their sacrifices and provide for military families in need, many organizations offer holiday-focused programs that rely on donations. For example:
- Operation Holiday Joy allocates 100 percent of its funds to food and toys.
- Operation Homefront hosts holiday meal events where military families can pick up food for Christmas dinner.
- The Red Cross organizes a Holiday for Heroes program each year.
- Veterans’ Service Organizations (VSOs), such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, accept donations year-round for holiday activities.
- Wreaths Across America coordinates wreath laying ceremonies at veterans’ cemeteries.
- Your local USO office may be organizing a holiday event.
Bear in mind that some companies offer corporate matching gifts, so it’s always worth checking whether your employer can match your donation.
3.) Organize a Fundraiser
Better still, get the whole community involved. A fundraiser can raise potentially thousands of dollars for veterans and military families in need. You can either host an event – for example, a raffle or bake sale – or set up and share a crowdfunding campaign online through websites like Fundly. Even small donations make a big difference if enough people participate.
4.) Give a Gift
Whether a handmade hamper or a used car, a tangible gift can go a long way. Many veterans cannot afford to provide the perfect holiday celebration for their loved ones (or have mobility issues preventing them from shopping), so donations help them give to others. Soldiers’ Angels, for example, sponsors a program that awards $50-$100 gift cards to buy food and gifts for military children, while Trees for Troops offers free Christmas trees. For deployed servicemen, Full Circle Home offers the chance to send gift boxes to families back home. You could also consider planned giving in the form of stocks, bonds or charitable gift annuities.
5.) Adopt a Family
Some adoption programs, such as the Elks Lodge Adopt-a-Veteran program, support veterans who are lonely or socially isolated. These programs allow donors to visit a vet regularly, send cards or simply lend an ear to their thoughts and concerns. Other organizations, such as Operation Christmas Spirit and Spirit of Sharing, offer adopt-a-family programs, through which military families submit Christmas wish-lists you can fulfill.
6.) Pick Up the Phone
To some veterans, warm wishes mean much more than a monetary gift. Reach out to a VSO to find out how to get in touch personally and show your appreciation for a veteran’s service. The Red Cross is one organization that accepts and distributes greeting cards through its Holiday Mail for Heroes program. Operation Gratitude also delivers letters of thanks – with a special need for new recruits and veterans – as well as some of the ideas mentioned above.
Managing the emotional and financial challenges the holidays present is no easy feat for veterans who have fallen on hard times, even though they and their families are some of the most deserving of happiness and health. Those who served our country now need us to serve them. With a little help, military families can enjoy the holidays stress-free, and veterans without families can know they are not alone.