Inspire me: Friends sow gift of caring

THIS GROUP OF tennis friends had all the handbags, flower vases and holidays sweaters they needed - more than enough, some said.

So when the holidays rolled around some 11 years ago, they decided to turn their generosity outward.

"Every year we would exchange gifts, and as the years rolled on, we got to the point where we didn't need any more things," said Ann Buys of Columbia.

"We kind of thought that it would be good if we could put that money to good use in the community."

It was in 1998 that Buys and the roughly eight others decided to forgo buying Christmas presents for each other and instead put the money toward a single charity.

Eleven years later, their efforts have raised more than $30,000 for the Children's Garden.

The group initially chose the charity - which serves homeless families or families on the brink of being homeless - out of a desire to help children.

"We just talked about how we wanted to do it and what we wanted to do," Buys said. "We wanted it to be local, and we wanted it to serve children. There are so many needy worthwhile groups and we just decided to stay focused on this one."

Children's Garden offers child care to Midlands children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old as their parents seek employment, medical attention, education or training they need to get back on their feet.

"They help families in crisis," Buys said, adding the group decided to continue supporting a single organization each year rather than spreading their contributions among several charities.

"(Spreading it out) would not be nearly as impactful as to put it all together and come up with a sizable contribution," she said.

So every fall, group members - numbering nearly 20 today -place their anonymous donations in envelopes, which are given to the Children's Garden.

Each December they all gather to hear the total collected that year.

"Everybody just looks forward to it every year," said Marianne Kochanski, also part of the original group. "It's just such a worthwhile effort."

But the women have not just supported Children's Garden with their donations. Most have visited the center, and each year they bring in center director Harriet Atkinson, to talk about the work going on there.

"It's more than just giving a gift," Kochanski said. "It's also being personally involved with what's going on. I think it's really good when someone really understands where their funding is going."

Group members said the first-hand experiences have provided the motivation to continue giving each year. But whether it's their charity of choice or some other, they hope more people will look for ways to support worthwhile causes.

"I hope that they will take this idea and meet with their friends and give to the needy or give to charities and rather than just giving to each other," said Angie Robertson.

Atkinson said such not-so-small actions can make a significant difference for families in need.

"Whether is be a large or small gift, it really does have impact on a program like ours," she said. "What it does is help us help others."