A week ago today, I received three emails that made me think that some really want to make holiday gift-giving go beyond buying random, thoughtless stuff for loved ones.

The first was a woman who read my column on an acro yoga workshop and was looking for “a meaningful gift for my 65-yr-old mother, who is a yoga enthusiast.”

“She is a breast cancer survivor and a fighter, and it would mean the world to me to do something special for her,” said the woman, asking if I knew of some yoga workshops that she could purchase for her.

Then, reader Jennifer Audi sent an email telling me of a wonderful, grass-roots effort under way by members of the local CrossFit community.

Audi, a coach at CrossFit Integrity, has been working with Capers Preparatory Christian Academy, a private school for children who come primarily from less privileged, working families on Johns and Edisto islands.

This holiday season, she helped coordinate an effort from eight CrossFit “boxes” — CrossFit Integrity, Lowcountry CrossFit, CrossFit Discovery, CrossFit Prosper, CrossFit Wando, CrossFit James Island and CrossFit Frequency as well as East Shore Athletic Club — to “adopt” 29 of the 50 students who wanted to be part of a practical gift program.

Instead of toys, CrossFit members are buying the students “basic needs” — you know, stuff some kids really need — such as dental supplies, socks and underwear, pajamas, shirts, jeans, gloves and school supplies. The list was long.

If members wanted to buy anything extra, they were asked to buy items such as a backpack or age-appropriate books, or provide cash for a Christmas luncheon or school workbooks.

“Providing basic needs are essential tools to being able to function and begin to provide for yourself,” says Audi, adding that her “bigger dream” is for members to start a physical fitness program with Capers Prep.

Her interest in contacting me, however, was not to shed light on what CrossFit was doing, but rather to let the Charleston community know about the efforts of Capers Prep and its dedicated staff.

Finally, I received an email from World Bicycle Relief notifying me that my younger brother, Paul, just donated money in my honor to buy a bicycle for someone in need in Africa.

It was a nice surprise.

In turn, I did the same for him, and we decided that would be our Christmas gifts to each other.

Despite being four years apart, Paul and I share similar interests, including the view that bicycles solve a lot of problems in the world, including providing low-cost, clean transportation and fighting obesity.

Another common interest is thoughtful gift-giving. We’ve often exchanged locally produced care packages. His from Athens, Ga., included coffee from Jittery Joe’s, granola from The Grit restaurant and honey from the University of Georgia Honey Bee Program.

And in this world of Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays and a holiday season that starts before Halloween, Paul and I seek out giving gifts of experience or leveraging gifts for the greater good.

And often it’s easier than breaking down the doors at big-box stores. Here are just a few out-of-the-box suggestions for giving gifts of health.

Clean water

The North Charleston-based Water Missions International is a rock star among charities making an impact on a critical human health need.

“With millions of dollars being spent on ‘things’ each Christmas, we designed the Christmas Catalog to give people a chance to give the gift of a lifetime: safe water,” Water Missions’ Taylor Hall says.

“People who lack safe water often live in poverty because they miss work or school due to illness. Giving safe water can not only improve health, but it can break the cycle of poverty.”

Gifts in the Christmas catalog range from purchasing a “Healthy Latrine” ($400) or a solar panel for a “Living Water Treatment System ($250) to “safe water for one person for life” ($10). They will send a card to the person that the gift is given in honor of.



Like Water Missions, another highly rated nonprofit, Soles4Souls, meets a basic human health need, shoes.

Based out of Old Hickory, Tenn., Soles4Souls’ mission is to provide shoes to people in need globally. Since 2004, the nonprofit has been able to distribute more than 19 million shoes, both new and used, in 127 countries.

“We are able to work with relief organizations and partner with them to have our shoes distributed within their networks,” says Tiffany Johnson, the nonprofit’s outreach coordinator and a native of Manning.

“When someone gives financially to Soles4Souls, they help us continue to do this work, and expand our networks and partnerships both here in the U.S. and worldwide. For every dollar that is donated, we can equate that to a pair of shoes we can offer to someone,” Johnson says. “I believe in our mission wholeheartedly and not just as an employee, but as a former volunteer.”

Internationally, Johnson says, they see and hear about people who walk miles barefoot. Some adults and children have never owned a pair of shoes until Soles4Souls provides them with a pair. And she describes the international need for shoes both “glaring and obvious.”

“We see children whose feet are ravaged from jiggers, swollen and covered with open sores, and orphanages where half of the children present are orphans due to hookworm, which are transmitted mainly through the foot,” Johnson says, noting the biggest preventive steps against both of these are a simple pair of shoes.

Soles4Souls also distributes items in the United States, including shoes, coats and hats to victims of Superstorm Sandy. The charity also accepts unwanted and gently worn footwear.


World Bicycle Relief

As for the nonprofit that my brother and I gave to this Christmas, Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief was founded by SRAM Corporation in 2005 in response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

According to its website, the charity partnered with organizations on the ground in Sri Lanka to distribute over 24,000 bicycles to aid the rebuilding of lives by providing access to education and health care and reconnecting workers to their livelihoods.

After the success of that program, World Bicycle Relief was approached by aid organizations working in Africa to assist with volunteer health care programs in Zambia, where 40 percent of the population was suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS.

In partnership with local aid organizations, World Bicycle Relief worked to provide 23,000 specially designed, locally assembled, rugged bicycles to health care workers treating HIV/AIDS patients. The group also trained local field mechanics to build, maintain and repair bicycles.

Today, it is responsible for providing 120,178 bikes and training 750 field mechanics.


Trips for kids

Since 1986, San Francisco-based Trips for Kids has provided more than 60,000 at-risk youths the opportunities to enjoy nature on mountain bike trips, where chapters “combine lessons in personal responsibility, achievement and environmental awareness through the development of practical skills, and the simple act of having fun.”

The closest chapter, Trips for Kids WNC in Asheville, N.C., was founded in 2010. “In those two years, we have provided trips to 1,000 youth in Western North Carolina,” Director Stephen Janes says.

“We are involved in several school programs, and also partner with local youth organizations to provide mountain bike outings for summer camps.

“Most of these kids have never been outside of their neighborhoods on bikes, much less on dirt in the woods. It is amazing to see the kid’s worldview open up as they experience what a lot of people take for granted. During our rides we discuss healthy habits as well as environmental education. “

Janes says costs run about $50 per trip per kid to provide them with an experience that will last a lifetime.


Chucktown Squash

Closer to home, Chucktown Squash, the only urban squash program in the Southeast, is in its third season in Charleston. Since the fall of 2010, the program has grown from 16 to 28 Sanders-Clyde School students, who live on the East Side of downtown Charleston.

“We’re excited about the traction from the Sanders-Clyde community,” says Chucktown’s new executive director, Sam Candler. “Ideally, as the program grows, and we get support and more people know about it, and we have the resources, we’ll be able to recruit from other schools.”

“Our goal is to take those guys from fifth grade all the way through high school, and ideally we get the same results as National Urban Squash and Education Association, which is 100 percent high school graduation and 93 percent college enrollment.”

But Candler points to signs of the program’s effects, such as an improvement in the first quarter English language arts average grade of Chucktown participants from 79 in 2011 to 92 this year.

One major boost for Chucktown Squash since its formation has been a partnership with the College of Charleston. Students volunteer as tutors and get college credits, along with others, including some Porter-Gaud high school students.

So from Monday to Thursday every week, the kids in Chucktown get at least an hour of exercise, some combination of playing squash, running or doing calisthenics in “boot camps” at the Johnson Center and then head into a classroom to do homework and study one-on-one with a college student.

And that’s not all. The mind-body enrichment goes into nutrition instruction. Students also receive healthy snacks and get lessons on health, from what “super foods” are to the importance of heart health.


Give a share

Buying locally produced food is not only healthy but good for the economy, as well.

Jamee Haley of Lowcountry Local First and Elizabeth Beak of Crop Up suggest buying either a Community Supported Agriculture share for the spring or a gift certificate from a local farmer as a gift for the holidays.

For those unfamiliar with CSAs, people pay in advance of a harvest for a share of a farmer’s produce, which typically includes a box of vegetables and other farm products, once a week over the course of a season.

While Beak says spring CSAs won’t start until mid-April, it is not uncommon for people to buy shares as gifts.

“The Legares sold about 11 via gift certificates last year for a CSA,” Beak says. “All of them would also take one (for use) at the farm stand, to rent a chick or the pumpkin maze over the year.”