Alternative gifts becoming the norm for some United Methodists


Terry Everett wants a cow for her 64th birthday.

Everett, whose birthday is Sept. 28, doesn’t live on a farm or have an overwhelming affinity for steak, but she does have a giving spirit and a heart that longs to bless and serve others.

So in lieu of traditional birthday gifts, she has asked her family and friends to contribute at least $1 to help purchase a cow for a family in Kenya. Through Rev. Bobby Gale and his Unto the Least of His ministry, cows, goats and sheep can be purchased and given to families of the Maasai tribe in Kenya.

$400 buys a cow; just $50 can buy a sheep or a goat. The gift of livestock can be life changing for a Kenyan family, Rev. Gale said. 

Asking for alternative gifts is nothing new for Everett. A few years ago she learned that a single mother at her church was in need of a new refrigerator. For her birthday that year, Everett’s husband bought a refrigerator – for the single mom.

“My husband called her and told her that he was going to pick out a fridge for me and he needed her help,” said Everett, a member of Bonaire United Methodist Church.  “And then he was so happy to see how happy she was when she got the new refrigerator.”

Last year, friends gifted her with items for the church’s Backpack Buddies program. A few years earlier she was surprised with a canned goods birthday party. She was able to donate two overflowing grocery carts full of food and more than $100 in grocery store gift cards to a local food pantry.

“I came (to the party) thinking that it would just be my women friends and me sitting around talking about getting old, and instead there were all these people who had bags and bags of food and gift cards,” Everett said.

Taught gratitude at a young age, Everett was raised to understand that she is fortunate and blessed.

“I was taught that God has given me this life and that I am supposed to be doing something with it,” she said. “Over and over we’re told in the Bible that there will be an accounting and that we are given things to bless others and that we’re supposed to love God first and then love our neighbors, so this very much ties into my faith.”

Jack Hendricks turned 6 in July, and when inviting friends to his birthday party he asked for canned goods instead of gifts. 

One of Jack’s friends had done something similar a few months earlier, and the Hendricks family loved the idea of giving instead of receiving.

“We talked as a family about what a great idea that was, so when Jack’s birthday came around … we asked if he wanted to do the same thing and he thought it was a really good idea,” said Amanda Hendricks, Jack’s mother.

A few days after his party Jack, a first grade student at Richmond Hill Primary School, carried a big box full of food into the Richmond Hill UMC office and donated it to the WAY Station, the church’s food pantry.

“Our kids are so fortunate, they really have lots and lots of toys and are very blessed with lots of good things,” Hendricks said. “It’s good for them to be able to appreciate that there are other kids who might not even have a good meal to eat and might need some food, and that they might think of that at a time when they are so used to getting more stuff.”

 Jack still got a few presents for his birthday, but said that helping others made him feel good. 

“To share some of the blessing and honor of his birthday and to be able to help other families was a great thing,” said Hendricks, who has two other children, Cole, 7, and Amelia, 2. 

Hendricks said that this new tradition will likely become the norm for future birthday celebrations. Her husband Tim already celebrates his birthday by giving to a Kennesaw State scholarship fund honoring his mother. 

“It’s a nice way to honor things like birthdays and holidays and it helps someone else out at the same time,” she said. “As churchgoers, and especially as United Methodists, we are always trying to find ways to help people and reach out to those who are less fortunate. It’s our faith and our belief in God – it’s because of Him – that drive us to do good for other people. We try to instill that in our kids and hopefully it catches on and every little bit helps.”

Rachael and Jason Lee are trying to teach their three daughters – Kendall, 8, Jordan, 6, and Colbie, 1 – that Christmas is about giving instead of receiving.

The family gives alternative gifts instead of more traditional, store-bought presents.

“We wanted to, in a very tangible way, represent what Christmas is about, and it’s about giving,” said Rachael Lee, a member of The Chapel, a United Methodist congregation in Brunswick. “We have been given the best gift ever, our Savior, and so we thought that being able to give alternative gifts that give back would be an additional way to represent that message to our family and friends.”

A few years ago the family gave a goat in honor of The Chapel’s staff and their ministry to the congregation and community. The girls gave chickens in honor of their cousins. Each gift recipient was given a card explaining the gift and its meaning and significance.  

Purchased through Heifer International, a global nonprofit organization with the goal of ending poverty and hunger, the animals were given to needy families around the world.

The Lees have also given Toms shoes as gifts. With each pair of Toms shoes they bought and gave to family members, one pair was given a child in need.

Giving alternative gifts helps the family connect to the real meaning of Christmas.

 “We made a decision … that we were going to work really hard in our family to set the tone for Christmas and make it not all about the toys and the marketing and the commercialization,” Lee said. “We wanted to work really hard to bring us back to the ultimate message – that we receive the best gift ever in Christ.”

It’s a challenge to not be self-centered, she said, but it’s a way they’re living out their faith.

“Giving significantly just seemed like one way we could serve God more intentionally.”