When my daughters were little, I talked to them about what compassion means, how to be compassionate, and how to show compassion.
Mind you, this was sprinkled into their daily diet of Dora the Explorer and Handy Manny, along with activities like chasing the dog around the house and pulling all the labels off of our canned food.
Needless to say, my speeches about morality and empathy didn't really keep their attention.
So I switched gears. Instead of talking about compassion, I decided to show them what compassion can look like.
But how to do that? I wanted to find specific things we could do together as a family that would engage their interest.
So one chilly December many years ago, we started to sponsor an animal for the holidays. This gift of compassion is now something they look forward to every year. It's fun for them, and makes us feel good because we're helping organizations doing important work with animals.
While the deadline for Christmas delivery has passed on some of these packages, I find it's a fun thing to do with the kids during a quiet time on the holiday itself -- it gives us all a reason to focus on the meaning behind the season during a consumer-driven time.
You can sponsor animals from many organizations, but here are five whose work I believe in:
1. World Wildlife Fund
You can choose from more than 100 species based on popularity or threat level (extinct, extinct in the wild, or critically endangered) from the World Wildlife Fund, whose global efforts include protecting wild animals and their habitats. Animal choices range from favorites like sloths and tigers to gentoo penguins and wombats. All sponsorships made through the gift catalog come with a formal recognition certificate, as well as a color photo and description card of the sponsored species. Sponsorships of $55 or more come with a soft animal plush of your choice.
2. Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute works to save wildlife species from extinction and trains future conservationists. The program has a $75 package that includes a stuffed animal and a photo-filled five-card set that includes a postcard, certificate, and Build a Zoo animal cards.
3. Farm Sanctuary
Farm Sanctuary operates a 275-acre sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, and a 26-acre sanctuary in Los Angeles, California, where they rescue, rehabilitate, and provide care for animals rescued from stockyards, factory farms, and slaughterhouses. The program helps provide the necessary support to care for a rescued farm animal. To sponsor a farm animal, you can choose among 10 animals ranging in price from $10 a month to $200 a month. Farm Sanctuary will send you information about your new special friend.
4. Defenders of Wildlife
Choose from 37 wildlife animals from land, sea, or air. The Defenders of Wildlife are dedicated to the protection of all native animals and their habitat and have packages ranging between $25 (which includes a certificate and photo) to $75 (which also includes a large plush animal -- filled with 100 percent recycled plastic!).
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated to ocean conservation. Their goals are to stop overfishing, the destruction of habitats, and the killing of ocean animals. You can choose from 15 ocean animals to sponsor. Packages range from $35 to $115 and include everything from a certificate to cookie cutters and stuffed animals.
There are thousands of different types of organizations and nonprofits doing important work in our world. Whether you choose one of these ideas -- or something else entirely! -- I hope you and your family can find a way to give back this holiday season.
Ellen DeFrancesco is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Long Beach-Oceanside-Rockville Centre, N.Y.