As a child, I anticipated the holidays for months. Leading up to December, it felt as though every moment -- watching TV, talking with my friends on the playground, dinner discussions with my mom -- centered on the notion that if I was a good boy all year, Santa would give me presents.
However, what we would get was never certain. We would ask for toys and mom's answer was always: "We will see," which meant, "Don't count on anything and you won't be disappointed." As a young kid, it was difficult knowing that I might not get what I wanted even if I played by the rules and stayed out of trouble.
As I grew older, I understood that she was not holding out to be sure we behaved or because she didn't love us. The truth was she didn't know if she could afford to get us the things we wanted and still be able to put food on the table, clean clothes on our backs and pay the rent.
As it turned out, Mom/Santa never let us down, but I know now that she made tough choices. She worked lots of overtime at her minimum wage job and put aside her own needs to make sure our Christmas was joyous. But even with that, she needed help from relatives and neighbors who looked after us, fed us, and took us in at night, so she could work those extra hours. While poor, I think about how fortunate I was compared to some of my friends who got nothing because their parents were unemployed and had no money to buy toys. The holidays were a sad time for them. But if not for the generosity mom received, it would have been a sad time for me.
Many parents today are saying, "We will see" to their kids because they won't have the money for holiday gifts. But fortunately for some, there is a Santa who is looking out for them.
The Marines at Toys for Tots know that to a child living in poverty, a gift is more than a toy -- it's a message of hope. They have seen the girl that gets a toy stethoscope and later becomes a surgeon. They have seen the boy that receives a basketball and grows up to be an NBA star. They understand the impact a simple holiday gift can make. Through toy donation drives and fundraising campaigns hosted by Marine reserve units, Marine veterans, and volunteers across the country, they work to ensure that all children get to feel the magic of the holiday season.
It wasn't always this way, though. Twenty-five years ago, Toys for Tots suffered through a scandal where millions of dollars intended to help children were instead mismanaged. Fortunately, the organization's scandal turned out to be just a blip. That CEO was sent to prison, and the organization, under the new leadership of Lieutenant General Terry Cooper, returned to the principles that made it strong: the Marine ethos of "always faithful" and adherence to holistic charity standards that helped restore the organization's trustworthiness.
In our work evaluating charities, I occasionally hear from donors who worry that they may fall victim to charity scams. They want to give, but they are unsure. What I find most striking is that their biggest concern is often not the injustice that their money might be stolen; it's a feeling that an opportunity will be missed to help their chosen cause, relieve a misery or bring joy to a family during the holidays.
I see their relief when I can tell them their favorite charity adheres to standards that reinforce donor values. Standards that assure that every dollar will be treated as a precious and potentially life-changing gift. Standards that make clear the otherwise fuzzy relationship between cause, charity and donor. Standards that enable them to believe that problems yet unsolved have people working ardently to one day solve them.
I can see how charities uplift our giving spirit when they live up to standards that give us confidence in them. This is no small matter. Americans are incredibly generous. We give more than any other people on the planet. This holiday season, we should give to charities primarily because their work touches our hearts. And we should also give wisely to charities, like Toys for Tots, that have worked hard to remove our doubts.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the 92nd Street Y, founders of #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that will take place this year on December 1. These stories highlight the work of organizations and people around the world who are committed to giving back and doing good this #GivingTuesday.