“No gifts please!” Tips for hosting (and attending) charity birthday parties

When I was a teenager, my mother decided that one of our Christmas gifts would be a goat goatfor a family in Africa. I admit, at the time, I may not have been as excited as I could (or should) have been. However, the idea grew on me.  My husband and I asked for charitable donations in lieu of wedding gifts, and now, with two kids, our birthday party invitations contain the phrase:  “No gifts please. We hope you will consider making a donation to the following charity.”

There is a growing trend of “charity” birthday parties for children (and adults). There has been some debate about whether this takes the fun away from children (maybe it’s time to redefine “fun”), whether children can handle it (they can), and whether this request is tacky (isn’t the expectation of the pile of gifts tacky?).

giftsLook, I know this post might sound a bit preachy, but I’ve heard too many people say they’d like to do this but can’t figure out how it would work or whether their kids could handle it. So, given this growing trend, and the growing mountain of toys and shrinking storage space faced by many families today, here are some tips if you are considering a charity party as an option:


For host parents:

  1. Involve the child in researching and choosing the charity if they are old enough. Don’t underestimate their ability to care or understand!
  1. Consider having the party somewhere related to the charitable request. It makes it more tangible.(For example, many nature centres host birthdays, and you could raise money for conservation. We had one at the humane society.)
  1. If you think guests would still like to bring something, perhaps they could bring books, toys or food to be directly donated to a local charity instead.
  1. Be prepared for confusion. For many, this is a new idea, and kids sometimes go to a dozen parties a year, all with piles of gifts. Just keep repeating yourself.
  1. If someone DOES bring a gift, have your child open it quietly and away from the other guests, so no one feels badly for not bringing something.
  1. Try to select a charity that isn’t controversial or offer more than one choice. (For example, a secular charity may appeal to a more diverse range of families.)
  1. If you have a child who actually volunteers to do this on their own without your suggestion, I salute you. You have superior parenting skills. Please share your secrets! On the other hand, typical children might be a bit resistant to the idea. We didn’t find it was a big issue since we started doing this from a very young age. But, just imagine if this became the norm! The expectations could change altogether.
  1. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. We request charity donations from friends but have gifts from family (at a separate gathering). For people with large extended families, this makes a lot of sense.
  1. Of course you can still do traditional birthday things, like pizza, cake, rock climbing,
    mini-golf, movies, games, Quidditch tournaments or crafts. But, be prepared with cakeextra activities. Most parties leave a long stretch of time for gift-opening. If you are having this party away from your home, make sure the party planners (at the bowling alley for example) know what you are doing ahead of time.
  1. Congratulate your child on their maturity and emphasize how they are making a difference in the world. (If possible, contact the charity to let them know about the party. Sometimes, they will send a card to thank the child, or even put their picture in a newsletter.)

For attendee parents:

  1. Under no circumstances should you bring a gift (no, not even a small one) when thiscard request is on the invitation. This WILL make other children feel badly, and puts the host parents in an extremely awkward situation.
  1. It is a great idea to give the birthday child a card (possibly homemade?) that indicates that you have made a donation in their honour. Many charities provide e-notifications or cards for this purpose. At the very least, please let the child know that you have made a donation.                                                                                
  2. Please understand that the “no gifts” request is not an insult or a comment aimed at your family’s choices. This is a personal choice made by the family involved. It has nothing to do with your child’s party. You are not being judged.
  1. If possible, make sure your child understands what is going on and won’t be asking where all the presents are (loudly and repeatedly).
  1. You are always free to select a different charity, or to not donate at all. This is fine.
  1. Seriously. Don’t bring a gift.


After doing this for a few years, many of our friends are catching on, and I’m doing less explaining. Our older child is excited to select a charity, and everyone has a great time. I’d love to see this idea become more popular.

If you have done something similar, I’d love to hear from you!

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November 9th To-Do List: When Bad Things Happen

This election got under my skin and I didn’t handle it well.

So, I’m going to write a to-do list for myself for today and the days to follow.

My to-do list:

  1. Meditate – Focusing on breath (something I have control over) is calming in stressful times. A little loving-kindness meditation couldn’t hurt today either. (Whether or not you believe in any sort of supernatural power behind this practice, it is healthy for the meditator to focus attention through that lens.)dsc08930
  2. Find a green space – Green spaces are healing. Research on stress demonstrates profound benefits of nature time. Most importantly, green spaces remind me of the interconnectedness of all species, and my role on earth.
  3. Accept impermanence – Everything changes. Accepting that fact is the path to peace.
  4. Acknowledge the complexity in politics – With some help, I came to understand that we only see a tiny fraction of the actual, established political operating system. Keeping perspective here means that I don’t really understand all of the forces at play. I can’t predict the future, or use historical events to assume an inevitable outcome.
  5. Don’t let Trump win twice – Donald Trump won the election last night, but he also beat me. He got into my head, and he made me afraid. That was his plan all along (although I THINK he wanted people to be afraid of other races and religions and not of him, I’m not entirely sure at this point). Fear is the path to the dark side.
  6. Remember that the medium is the message – Social networking and constant media coverage now shapes our relationships with the big issues. I must be careful about how I am being manipulated.
  7. Be mindful of the children – Children hear everything, and they internalize our fear. While I think they should be appropriately informed about issues, they often don’t have the capability to process what is going on. We can be matter-of-fact without getting all apocalyptic.
  8. Have compassion – The right and the left wings both belong to the same bird. Every person who voted had a reason for what they did. It appears the public felt a need for change and that this was their only option. Try to account for the forces that led them to this unfortunate conclusion.
  9. Focus on positive actions – When it comes to a number of issues, the path ahead appears to be somewhat steeper, so it is time to dig in for the climb.
  10. Be grateful – I am incredibly privileged to live in the time and place that I do. I do not want to forget that. As a Canadian, I am grateful to have a leader right now that shares many of my values, but human rights violations around the world hurt all of humanity, regardless of borders.

Last night was a very long, sleepless, panic-stricken one, but, the sun rose, the cats walked across my face, the kids bickered at the breakfast table, and the newspaper, shockingly, had multiple other stories that didn’t focus on US politics.  Breathe in. Breathe out.

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Bad things come in big packages: Part 2

On the way home from a doctor’s appointment this morning, I found myself stuck in quite a jam at a roundabout. Then I remembered, Costco opens today.

For those of you who don’t regularly read my blog, please take a look at this post.                 Bad things come in big packages: The real costs of Costco

I get it. Most people love Costco. Obviously people like to save money. Sometimes, there are limited other options because the big stores have eliminated them. But, when you step back and look at the bigger picture, there are so many other costs to big box stores that were never considered.

I wrote this post two and a half years ago, when the store was still up for debate.  Now, I knew at the time that there was no stopping Costco, but I had hoped at least there would be SOME discussion that would take place among our politicians and in our community.

Perhaps we could have had some discussion about:

– Economic costs and the risks to small business

– Environmental costs

– Social and cultural costs

– Health and safety costs

(Please see linked article for my full discussion of these issues).


The ONLY discussion I heard in this community was over the traffic. But, those concerns were supposedly adequately addressed to the satisfaction of Council, and the Costco moved forward quickly.

So, it was with a heavy heart that I watched the cars inch through that roundabout, drivers carrying wallets full of dollars that they will use to vote for the direction of our community. Now, I’m far from perfect in my spending habits, and you could say I have no right to throw stones, but I’m still putting this out there, also as a reminder to myself. There may be one big election in the US today, but make no mistake, we are voting in a very significant way, every single time we pull out our credit cards.


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Snake vs. Frog: An Epic Battle

Early this fall, my husband and I were hiking at our local conservation area, when I noticed something dramatic happening on the path. Usually, when you see a garter snake, it is only for a moment, as it slithers quickly into the grass or the bushes. They are hard to photograph, and we’ve only managed a small image once (See my other blog site: Featured Species). In this case, however, the snake stayed put, and this was because he had a firm grip on the hind leg of a live leopard frog. He wasn’t going anywhere.


It was an epic battle for survival.  The frog thrashed desperately around, and the snake, millimetre by millimetre, continued to swallow the leg. Size-wise, we couldn’t imagine what the snake would do once it got past the leg.  Of course I’ve heard about snake jaws (and how they aren’t actually connected), but it is difficult to envision in real life. We were able to get an incredibly close look at this interaction, as neither animal was particularly concerned about our presence.

Would you watch? Would you help the snake? Would you help the frog?

Unabashed, flag-waving Trekkies that we are, this quickly turned into a discussion on the prime directive (see prime directive) of non-interference, and we decided let nature take its course. Who are we to decide who wins?


Now, during this encounter, something strange happened.  My husband had his camera (see pictures), and was focused on getting a good shot. When another couple came up behind us on the path, I pointed out what we were watching. With not even a glance at the snake and frog, they hurried on their way. As a student of human behaviour, I find this almost as fascinating as the animal battle.

Wouldn’t you stop to watch that? Or at least take a quick look? Although clearly somewhat gory, it was undeniably fascinating. I wished my kids had been there to see it. What a great ecology lesson! We know we aren’t alone in this. There’s a nature channel for a reason.

Eventually the frog and snake thrashed their way into the bushes, and we continued our walk. I was left with three questions.

1. Could that little garter snake’s mouth actually stretch wide enough to fit that whole frog? (A Google image search on the topic would indicate yes.)

2. Are my husband’s amazing frog-snake pictures too gruesome to put on a wall? (If your answer to this last question is yes, ask yourself if a picture of a fish being caught by a bear, an eagle or a human would pose the same problem.)


3. Why wouldn’t those people stop to look at the frog and snake?


I suppose, on the flip side of this, I could ask: “What made us stay?”





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A Surprise Photography Adventure Weekend (or…the Search for the Elusive Moose)

About a month ago, an e-mail popped up in my inbox. “Congratulations!” it read… “You have won a trip…”

My immediate reaction, of course, was “SPAM.” As my finger headed over to the trash button, I happened to notice the words “Algonquin Park” in the following text.  I thought, “That’s funny, you don’t usually associate spam with Algonquin.”  Reading further, I noticed the trip was a guided “Photography Adventure” tour at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park. SPAM or not, I had to look further.

Apparently, a donation I had previously made to the station had automatically entered me into a contest arranged through WorkCabin.ca.

What a happy accident!

As my husband is an avid photographer, and I am an avid “doer of things that involve canoes, hiking, wildlife, and the natural world in general,” clearly this was going to happen.

So, we arranged babysitting, waterproofed our hiking shoes, and headed up this past weekend to the Wildlife Research Station nestled in the spectacular fall colours of late September in Algonquin Park.

Let me tell you a little about the WRS from their website:

“The WRS is situated on Lake Sasajewun in Algonquin Provincial Park and operates as a not-for-profit organization.”  It is “A leader in wildlife research through experiential learning.”


“The goals of WRS are: To Educate: scientists, the public and policy makers;

To Conserve: biodiversity, ecological integrity, and a culture of field-based research; and

To Inspire: environmental stewardship, a community of collaboration, and a connection with nature.”


During the weekend, we hiked through pristine wilderness, canoed through glassy lakes, searched for elusive moose, took more than a few pictures (yes, even me, and no, not with my cell phone), met some really interesting people who are genuinely passionate about the work they do, and temporarily cured ourselves of Nature Deficit Disorder (See Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv). The research station is not generally open to the public and we felt immensely lucky to be granted this privilege.

dsc08931As I am a wannabe naturalist (see my other blog – Featured Species), I wasn’t as focused on taking photos as I was on trying to retain all the details of the flora and fauna being pointed out by our incredibly knowledgeable guide. Did you know that wood sorrel (which, if you’re like me, you would probably mistake for clover) tastes like Granny Smith apples?

We had so many great conversations, but we spoke at length about the importance of environmental education that occurs away from a desk or lecture hall. If you’re at all familiar with me or my blog, you’ll know I’m a huge advocate of experiential environmental education for students of all ages. You’ll know that I don’t believe that a trip to a landfill (for three consecutive years) qualifies as environmental education for a JK/SK/Gr1 student (but I digress).


With degrees in Biology, Environmental Studies, and Planning, one might assume that I had my fair share of field courses and time in nature. Yet, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of course field trips I took in my 12 years of university education (and that is probably generous). Most of those lasted less than half a day. I actually took a course in plant identification, which never left the building. Yes, my Masters and PhD involved field work, but those were self-directed.

In this one short weekend, while spending time with an experienced guide, I know I learned more than I learned in whole courses.  THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT MUST BE LEARNED IN THE FIELD. Are you hearing me, school administrators, funding sources, teachers and professors?


If you feel that researchers need wild places that are untouched by tourists in order to gain accurate information about the health and long term sustainability of the natural life of this beautiful country….


If you feel that students need places to visit to be fully immersed and connected with the natural world, and inspired to pursue a career in conservation….

Perhaps you will consider making a donation to the not-for-profit Alqonquin Wildlife Research Station. http://www.algonquinwrs.ca/Donations.html

(You’re probably not going to win a trip, but is that really the point anyway?)

Thanks again to our hosts at WRS, (station manager Tim Winegard), and WorkCabin.ca (founder Gregg McLachlan), for this incredible opportunity. I hope we have the chance to cross paths again!



Photos by Cathy McAllister, processed by Paul Habsch



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Being Brave

My youngest son just started junior kindergarten. This morning we had a little talk:

“My darling, I have a very important job for you.”

“What is it?”

“Well, there are going to be some kids in your class who are sad or scared. I need you to be brave and help them out. Maybe you can ask them to play.”

“Or to be my friend?”

“Absolutely! Do you think you can do that?”

“I don’t know. What if I’m one of the scared ones?”

“Oh love, that’s ok. You just have to take a deep breath and keep going. Helping people is the most important job in the world.”

Then, I took a long walk in a beautiful, quiet forest, and came up with the long answer.

To my sons:

Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means taking a great big breath and doing the things you need to do anyway, even if you’re scared. 

Some days that’s all you’ll manage, and that’s OK.fear4

But sometimes, after you do those things you need to do, you might have a little bit of that big breath, a little bit of strength, a little bit of bravery left over. If that is the case, you have the great privilege of giving it to someone else. You get to put out your hand and help another person be a little less scared, or sad, or hurt, or lonely.

You see, there’s a special kind of bravery, the very best kind, and it’s called being a hero. Now, real heroes don’t fly or wear capes or have x-ray vision. You can find real heroes everywhere. They’re called teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers. career-1501615_640They’re called volunteers and good neighbours. Heroes are the politicians, researchers, lawyers and writers who spend every day trying to make the world a better place. Heroes are the kids who stand up for other kids being bullied, and the kids who spend their free time raising money for charity. These are real-life heroes, all the people who use their extra strength and bravery to help others.

And do you know what the greatest part is about being a hero? Every time you help someone else, it makes you just a little bit stronger. It also means that on those days that you don’t feel like you have very much bravery, someone else might be willing to share some of theirs.

Now, you’re going to school, and you’re going to learn a lot of things. But the most important thing I want you to learn, my love, is how to be the best kind of hero you can be.

This morning, we lined up at the Kindergarten door. I kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand. He grabbed my face and kissed my cheek too. I stepped back while he stood in the line. I watched him take a deep breath, and I took one too.


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The Suburban Buffet

My husband likes to grow food.IMG_20140808_093734

Now, when I say “grow food,” I don’t mean a tomato plant or two. This year, he has been working on (with varying levels of success) strawberries, rhubarb, beets, radishes, zucchini, beans, peas, carrots, turnips, green peppers, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and yes, tomatoes (and I look after the herbs). Did I miss any?

We love that the children will happily eat out of the garden, and there is just something special about freshly picked produce. It tastes better, and you know exactly what went into growing and storing it.

You’d think with this level of farming, even on our suburban lot, that we’d be feeding ourselves all summer with nary a trip to the grocery store. Not so. Some crops just inexplicably failed (seriously….who can’t grow zucchini?), some fall victim to insects, but the majority have become an unauthorized, well stocked food bank for a veritable zoo of local fauna.

woodchuck.jpgNow, when I say “zoo”….I don’t mean a squirrel or two. In the past year, we have repeatedly had mice, chipmunks, a whole family of raccoons, countless squirrels, every type of local bird, rabbits, toads, snails, neighbourhood cats and a groundhog (who is nearing size of a small bear and lives under the deck.). I won’t even try to list the insect infestations.IMG_20140716_095310

My husband has tried a variety of half-hearted attempts at deterring the animals, from applying cayenne to the tomatoes, to building a cage for the strawberries. But, to be honest, I kind of enjoy seeing all these animals hanging out in our yard. Tomatoes don’t provide much entertainment value. On the other hand, watching my husband quietly stalking the groundhog with a big cardboard box, with the intention of running out and pouncing on it, is pretty damn funny. (What he planned to do if he actually caught it is beyond me).

Politicians in our community are considering a ban on “feeding wildlife” (with the exception of well-maintained birdfeeders). Uh oh. I hope they mean intentional feeding.

I’m thinking if we want a return on our investment of gardening supplies, effort and timeIMG_20130625_182241, we are going to have to take up hunting small mammals instead. How does pesticide-free, garden-fed, locally-grown, free-range groundhog sound? And, I’m about to go all Mr. McGregor on those rabbits.

At least they left us some rhubarb.

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