The Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair

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Tompkins Weekly 11-21-11

by Christian Nielsen

The Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair was started in 2004 by two young women (Meaghan Sheehan and Angela DeFelice), inspired by a program of The New American Dream. They raised about $8,000 to benefit local non-profits.

It will take place Saturday, December 3, from 10AM to 6 PM, at two adjacent venues in DeWitt Park, in downtown Ithaca: the First Baptist and First Presbyterian churches.

These Fairs take place all over the US, but we think ours is now the largest and most successful. We have even received requests from other states (and from Brazil) to help them get started with their own Fairs. The concept is simple: that sometimes the most thoughtful gift you can give someone is a donation to charity in their honor. Alternative gifts fill a direct and tangible need. Family members and friends are touched to know that the gift they have just received will have a very real and meaningful impact on people and communities in need.

Since 2004, we have had to change venues four times, to accommodate the ever-growing number of organizations wanting to participate. This year we have the pleasure of welcoming Meaghan back, after her long absence in Hawaii. I wonder if she and Angela ever imagined how much their project would grow.

With your generous help, we have raised more than $265,000.  Every cent goes to the participating non-profits, since our organizing committee consists of six unpaid volunteers (and scores more the day of the event).

Gifts start at $5, making it possible for all, including children, to support their favorite causes. They range from books for incarcerated individuals, to a school desk for a child in Kenya, to food for hedgehogs and snakes at Cayuga Nature Center. There are 300 options this year!

Shoppers receive a booklet describing all the offerings, and have the opportunity to visit with the people representing the organizations, to learn about the great work they all do in our community, state, country and planet. The event itself is festive and exciting, and a great way to spend a few hours of a probably cold December day (we will have coffee, tea and baked goods!). As one of last year’s participants remarked: “The IAGF is one of my favorite events of the year – on par with the Ithaca Festival Parade. It represents what I love about Ithaca.” Another one said: “The IAGF makes me very happy!  I also love that families bring their children and teach them to support local community services.”

Small children can be entertained by volunteers while their parents shop for that perfect gift. Once they have decided what to purchase, shoppers will go to the checkout line, where they will receive a free holiday card and envelope, in which they can enclose a provided insert describing their gift and the organization they supported. They can pay with check or cash, and credit cards are also accepted. With one single payment, they can support several organizations. If they wish, shoppers can also receive proof of their tax-deductible contribution.

An additional benefit of the Fair is that it helps reduce consumption, waste, and use of fossil fuels for the manufacture and transport of goods. As we move into an era of more meaningful choices leading to a more sustainable future, alternative gift-giving is becoming a popular option. Rather than participate in the frenzy of “Black Friday” the day after Thanksgiving, we encourage you to spend your money in more meaningful ways. And if you must give material presents, please purchase them from local businesses, so you benefit our local economy.  Happy holidays!

Christian Nielsen is a core volunteer with the Ithaca Alternative Gift Fair. If you see him there please show him your appreciation!

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