A Different Kind of Gift
'Alternative giving' harnesses the spirit of the holidays to benefit cancer research and patient support programs
When Kathy Valley opened the card, three dollar bills spilled out. Inside, in blue, yellow and orange marker, a fourth-grader had written: "Here is the last of my Christmas money. Please use it to take care of people with cancer, from Maya."
Valley, who oversees annual giving to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, keeps the card as a reminder of what her work raising money for cancer research and patient programs is all about. "Sometimes, I look at it when I'm having a bad day and it just warms my heart all over again," she says.
As the holiday season approaches, the youngster's generosity is a reminder that contributions of all sizes can help advance ongoing research to treat and prevent the disease, or make the journey a little easier for current cancer patients. And there are important needs that go beyond financial support -- and beyond the holiday season -- such as volunteering one's time, participating in a clinical trial, decorating fleece lap blankets or making the homemade cards that are given to U-M cancer patients every Valentine's Day.
All of these options might fall under the heading of 'alternative giving' -- giving that focuses on non-material gifts -- which is becoming increasingly popular. One large Midwestern family has a tradition of giving to a different charity each year instead of exchanging presents; this year they've chosen to donate to U-M's Multidisciplinary Adrenal Cancer Program (see "In Rare Cancers, It Takes a Village to Make a Difference," spring 2012).
"After one of our own was diagnosed with this rare disease, we did some research and picked the institution that we felt was doing the most viable research in the country," says Steve, who requested his family's last name be kept private.
Their alternative giving tradition started in 2000, notes Lulu, Steve's step-sister. "It took us a couple of years of talking about it to get the tradition started," she says. " 'How can you have Christmas without presents?' some people asked. But we finally decided this is what we needed to do to teach our children what the holidays are really all about."
Steve says that when the family comes together each year the focus is now where it belongs -- on each other. "Historically it was just a flurry of wrapping paper," he says. "Now everyone spends their time getting to know each other and at the end of the day we gather together with anticipation while the total amount raised for the selected charity is announced."
From the eight children in Lulu and Steve's generation, the family has grown to include 29 grandkids and 46 great-grandchildren -- the youngest of which, at the time of the interview, was just a week old. With such a large family, even modest donations add up quickly. Between 2000 and 2011, they raised more than $90,000, which has benefited a variety of organizations from local food pantries to groups researching diabetes and leukemia.
"We started off with a suggested donation of $20 and it's just grown since then," Lulu adds. "Now some people give $100 or $500, but $20 is still fine. It has given the holidays a very special meaning for all our generations as we've seen how much of an impact just one family can make."
Others, like Pat and Frank Ducato, of Brighton, Michigan, give their time. The couple has been volunteering at the Cancer Center for about three years, she at the courtesy desk in the main lobby and he at the Patient Education Resource Center.
"Frank had been a patient at U-M - they really saved his life about six years ago," says Pat. "Everyone was so terrific that we really wanted to give back."
Frank compares volunteering to golfing. "You don't always hit a perfect drive," he says, "but when you do, it keeps you coming back for more."
He recalled giving some coloring books and kid-appropriate cancer literature to the children of a mom undergoing treatment for breast cancer. "The husband came in on the following visit and said, 'I want to thank you for giving the kids that material, they've been treating their mother a lot differently.' You get so much from being able to help somebody like that."
Sometimes those on the receiving end send letters expressing the ways in which strangers' generosity has touched their lives.
A firefighter named Amy who received a blanket donated by a Brownie troop wrote to express her thanks, "I feel the strength of all of you at a time I am not sure I have any. I hope you continue to do these kind deeds throughout your lives."
Susan, whose husband passed away after complications following a successful bone marrow transplant, wanted to thank the makers of a donated quilt. "Both of us cried when it was presented to him," she wrote. "It proudly rests at the foot of his bed, and it is a good memory of how happy it made the two of us on his last Christmas."
How to help
Gifts to the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center's discovery and patient programs can be using our secure online site. You can also reach us at:
U-M Office of Medical Development and Alumni Relations
Attn: Alternative Giving
1000 Oakbrook, Suite 100
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Or 734-998-6893 (M-F, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
Other ways to give
We also need help with our Warm Fuzzies program, which provides fleece blankets to patients undergoing chemotherapy, and our Bags of Cheer program that ensures each patient receives heartfelt warmth on Valentine's Day.
To find out more about volunteering your time, visit our volunteer page, or call 734-936-8307.
You can help to advance cancer research and discovery directly by volunteering to participate in a clinical study. Healthy volunteers can provide researchers with important information for comparison with people who have specific illnesses. Find out more at Clinical trials at U-M.