Charitable Gift Giving

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Baby Bib from World Vision

May 8th, 2016 · Children's Charities

I usually post about World Vision every year around Christmas. But being a new parent, World Vision’s mission is especially poignant this year as the first-ever Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for our family roll around.

Being a new parent has been an amazing experience. I’d heard people tell me that fatherhood would change my life but I of course wasn’t prepared for what that would actually mean. The day before my daughter was born, everything I did was for myself. The day after she was born, everything I do is for her.

It’s also changed the way I look at the world. It used to be when I heard about suffering children, I’d think of the child. But since my daughter was born, I think more about the parents of that child. Like me, they would–and often do–give all they have for their child. But when all they have isn’t enough, that is heartbreaking. When my own child cries out at night because she’s scared or hungry, it touches me and I rush to comfort her and feed her. But I take it for granted that there are mothers and fathers out there who live in areas where comfort and food just don’t come as easily.

World Vision’s tagline is “Building a better world for children” and they’ve done an amazing job at making that mission come true. They’re of course well known for their Sponsor a Child program where as a donor you don’t just write a check, but you can see first-hand how your money is helping a real child through letters, photos, packages, and even visits.

You can also donate to World Vision directly and have your gift go to any cause you select or wherever it’s most needed, whether it’s providing clean water to an impoverished community, saving girls from the horrific world of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, providing medicine and medical care to the sick,  providing clothing to the poor, and much more. Every dollar you give turns into $1.30 worth of impact; 60 cents on the dollar goes directly to local community programs, while the other 40 cents is used to generate and solicit 70 cents worth grants and donated goods.

While most of the “gifts” in the World Vision catalog and symbolic, they also feature actual handcrafted gifts that end up multiplying the value of your donation. You get an amazing, unique, useful gift that you can give to others (or enjoy yourself). A portion of the proceeds goes to an artisan in one of the impoverished areas that World Vision supports, helping them earn a working wage and help their local community out of the cycle of poverty. And the rest of the proceeds goes to help World Vision’s many causes. On top of this, the craftsman are provided with sustainable materials and recycled fabrics to use, which helps the environment as well. It’s a gift that gives four times.

Appropriate for Mother’s Day, I was able to try out this baby bib, handmade in Bali, Indonesia.

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Usually when we hear of Bali we think of rich people going to their fancy vacataion spot in paradise. I had the opportunity to go there for a wedding a few years ago, and I was struck at what I saw. The tourists were all whisked to their gated resorts but on the way from the airport to the resorts you could see how poor the country is.

What’s great about organizations like World Vision is that they go straight to the places that need it most and work from the ground up in helping them–in this case helping artisans in Bali who create this bib by hand using traditional Balinese craftsmanship, sustainable materials and recycled fabrics.

The bib is amazingly sturdy, made from 100% cotton. Most of the cheap made-in-China bibs we’ve had end up falling apart after only a few uses and washings, or having the velcro closure snap off. I can tell with this one that it’ll last.

The material is thick and the size is much larger than traditional bibs, meaning that baby is well protected, something very timely as she’s just entering the phase where she’s flailing her arms and sending pureed food flying all over.

Here’s Maddie sporting the bib in a relatively subdued mode as she enjoys one of her favorite pastimes, chewing on anything random she can find.

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The suggested donation for the bib is $40, and it’s $40 well spent.

Happy Mother’s Day, and don’t forget to help those children in the world who are less fortunate, and their mothers, women who would–and do–give their all to help their kids have happiness, health, and safety in their lives but could use help from those of us who have been blessed with abundance.

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Basketbox – T-Shirts, Onesies, and other Clothing that Let You Wear Your State Proudly

April 25th, 2016 · Uncategorized

I was born in New Jersey and spent most of my life there before moving to New York about 10 years ago. While to most casual observers outside of this area New York and New Jersey are pretty monolithic, the truth is long-time residents of each know that each has its own very distinct culture.

Even though I’ve been in New York for so long, I still get feeling of “home” when I cross the tunnel or bridge into New Jersey.  For some reason, the hoagies (not “heros”) taste a little bit better, it’s nice not having to pump my own gas or make U-turns, and there’s nothing better than a Jersey fresh tomato.

Most people don’t realize that originally the colonies, and eventually the states, were all pretty much independent of each other in the beginning. Each had its own government and each was pretty self-sufficient, and the concept of a federal government was there really to help out with things that no state could do on its own. Of course, over the years the size and scope of the federal government has gotten just a wee bit larger. Plus, things like railroads,the interstate highway system, and air travel started to grey the lines of the borders a bit. Today, if you go from city to city, you’ll see Starbucks, McDonalds, Walmarts, and other things that seem to make everything blend together just a little more.

And yet, talk to anyone who’s lived in their town for more than a few years and you’ll see that there’s still a certain pride in what makes them and the place they live in unique.

Basketbox is a fantastic company that creates apparel which anyone can use to celebrate their home state or hometown. It makes a fabulous gift for someone who’s proud of their roots, whether they’ve lived in their same state or town all their lives, or like me, have been uprooted but still feel a special bond to the place where they grew up.

The concept behind Basketbox’s designs is simple and yet brilliant. They have everything from T-Shirts to hoodies to mugs to pillows to mugs to baby onesies. The design is a simple silhouette of the state (or in some cases like Houston, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, DC, Long Island, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, a city or region) along with block letters that proudly state the demonym of that person, whether it’s “Hawaiian”, “Iowan”, “Californian”, or “New Yorker”.

As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, my daughter was born last August in Queens, New York. And so I jumped at the chance to have try out the “New Yorker” onesie.

The onesie came packaged in a beautiful gift basket, festively wrapped with cellophane that had a colorful, whimsical design and a ribbon tied into a bow.

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The basket contained this onesie and this bib.

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The first thing I noticed about the onesie was that it was made by American Apparel. I first got to experience an American Apparel shirt when I got one at a conference I went to years ago. Over the years, that shirt became my single-most favorite t-shirt. I don’t know how they do it, but where other brands of shirts (even well-known brand) are thick and uncomfortable to wear, my American Apparel t-shirt was soft to the touch from the first day I got it, and only seemed to get softer and more comfortable with every washing. It’s years later now, but that same shirt is still the most comfortable thing I choose to wear, and it’s withstood many, many washings.

I noticed the same thing about this onesie. Maddie loved it as soon as we put it on her. And true to the New Yorker that she is, she let us know it right away.

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Today the onesie and the bib are probably among our favorites; while other bibs (include a New York Yankees one that was given as another gift) have long since been destroyed, this one is a really great quality one. And the onesie is just as soft and durable as my favorite t-shirt.

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Most of all, as the first native New Yorker in the family (her mom is from Taipei and I’m from New Jersey), I love the fact that she can wear her state proudly. The onesie has gotten lots of smiles and great comments wherever in New York we go.

Looking through the other products at basketbox.com, there are lots and lots of other fantastic products, from T-Shirts for dogs…

texas t-shirt for dogs

…to mugs…

mug for chicagoans

…to t-shirts for human adults.

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What’s even more remarkable is that a donation from each order is given to the International Dyslexia Association.

I asked the founder, Emmanual Sullivan, why he chose this charity, and here’s what he wrote back to me:

I chose the International Dyslexia Association because of my own struggles with spelling and reading in primary school. I conquered the handicap, for the most part, during high school. I had to work extra hard during those years and in college to advance. I really didn’t know until later in life that I might have the disability. Looking back, my parents and other family members struggled with it too. It’s something that lingers as well.

So, since my products have a spelling component, I thought the organization would fit perfectly with what we sell. I’ve only recently paired up with the association, but from what I can see they do great things with teachers and others involved with dyslexia. They are also very transparent in their mission and goals, unlike other dyslexia organizations that I’ve researched.

To me, it’s a brilliant pairing, especially given all the questions and debates people tend to have about demonym spelling. “Is it ‘New Jerseyan’, ‘New Jersian’, or ‘New Jerseyite’?” “Is it ‘Seattlean’, ‘Seattleite’, or ‘Seattleer’?” And so on. Not only will Basketbox apparel end the debates once and for all, it’ll let you proclaim your allegiances proudly. It makes a great gift for college students heading out-of-state for the first time, for homesick expatriates from another state, as a souvenir gift for people visiting your state, and much, much more.

Learn more at Basketbox.com.

 

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Ultra Soft Balm from L’Occitane

February 6th, 2016 · Developing Areas, Uncategorized

International Women’s Day is coming March 8, and to commemorate the date L’Occitane has released a limited edition Shea Butter Balm to raise awareness for women’s entrepreneurship worldwide.

The balm will sell for $6 and 100% of proceeds will finance NGO projects for women’s leadership in Burkina Faso. You can read more about L’Occitane’s work with Burkina Faso here, and purchase your own balm here.

L’Occitane has been working with the women of Burkina Faso for over thirty years, the connection being Shea butter. Women of this region for generations have harvested the nuts off the Karite tree and churned them into the paste-like butter. If you’ve ever used Shea butter in your life, you know it can be a “miracle ingredient” for your skin–an all-natural ingredient that’s widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve, or lotion.

I got a chance to sample some of this balm. This particular balm can be used on the lips, body, or hair. You scoop a little out and “melt” it in the palms of your hands before applying, and help nourish, protect, and soften your skin upon application, with a gentle rose scent.

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Today, more than 17,000 women are employed producing shea butter through fair trade cooperatives funded by L’Occitane. To build on this commitment, L’Occitane also promotes women’s entrepreneurship in the region by offering literacy training, microcredit loans and savings programs.

 

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Stella Artois Buy a Lady a Drink Chalices

January 31st, 2016 · Developing Areas

As they did last year, this year Stella Artois is selling Limited Edition Chalices with designs representing a specific country in the developing world. Last year they featured Ethiopia, Honduras, and India. This year, the designs are from Haiti, Kenya, and Peru.

Water.org is a non-profit, founded by Gary White and Matt Damon, that helps to bring clean water and sanitation to the world. Those of us who turn on a faucet to see crystal clear that are regulated by federal, state, and local laws to be safe may forget that around the world over 660 million people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion people lack access to a toilet. In these societies, often the burden of finding and collecting clean water falls on the women.

Each chalice is $13. But for each chalice sold, Stella Artois will donate to water.org enough to supply 5 years of clean drinking water to the developing world. Their campaign is called, cleverly enough, “Buy a Lady a Drink”. You can see pictures of the chalices here along with the designs that inspired them.haiti chalice

kenya chalice peru glass

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The Best Schoolbag / Backpack for Kids from Will Leather Goods @willleather #shareyourwill

January 23rd, 2016 · Education

Recently I had a great privilege of getting an introduction to Will Adler, the founder of a company called Will Leather Goods. Many of you are familiar with Will Leather Goods but if you’re not it’s one of the country’s premier leather goods companies, making everything from leather bags to purses to wallets to belts and bracelets and keychains and even leather notebooks, soccer balls, footballs, and dog collars. If it can be made from leather, chances are Will Leather Goods makes it–and does it with quality craftsmanship, top notch materials, and excellent manufacturing, so much so that they guarantee their products for the life of the product (i.e. outside of normal wear and tear, if your product breaks because of poor workmanship they’ll stand behind it).

We’ve talked in past posts about how “you get what you pay for” these days when you buy cheap mass produced schlock. Will Leather Goods is one of those companies that are holding up the standard that American companies were all once known for before so many of them sold out to the siren song of cheap mass production. I had a chance to experience this phenomenon personally–in the last 3 years I must have purchased about 6-8 cheap leather belts from one of those big box retailers. In every case, the stitching came loose, the leather broke, and in some cases the hardware even became undone (in one case a supposedly metallic belt buckle snapped in two, revealing that it wasn’t even metal at all but metal-painted plastic, and this was from a top name-brand manufacturer!). So I thought I was saving money but I ended up paying double or triple what it would have cost me if I’d just bought one of Will’s belts.

You can check out Will Leather Goods products on their site, or you can check out their products at major retailers like Zappos, Nordstrom, or Amazon. But today I wanted to talk about how this company has given back in a huge way.

We spend a lot of time talking about companies that help charities in remote areas of the world from Africa to Asia. Not a bad thing, of course, but sometimes it’s sad to see when individuals and the media focus so much attention on the needs of people thousands of miles away and are completely blind to the needs of people right around the corner.

As a USA-based family business, based in Eugene, Oregon, Will Leather Goods recognized this and decided to focus on a critical need in the United States–public education. Once recognized as by far the top in the world, we’re now ranked #14 among developed nations for education–having dropped completely out of the top 10 and continuing on a downward trajectory. As the father of a 4-month old daughter this terrifies me. I was blessed to have gone through our school system when it was at its pinnacle of being the gold standard and it’s helped me become successful and productive. But I hear horror stories now of how America is losing its edge.

Oh, you’ll get politicians pointing fingers at each other. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum complain that the other side doesn’t do anything, and yet when we vote them into office they don’t do anything either–although you notice that they all magically leave Washington millions of dollars richer than when they came, while our schools keep deteriorating.

Most of the citizens of the country just throw up our hands in frustration and complain, which quite frankly doesn’t do any good either. And then there are those who actually step up and DO something about it. Will Leather Goods is one of those companies.

Specifically, Will Leather Goods has set up an initiative where they will go to underfunded public elementary schools across America and donate a backpack to children who need one, up to half a million of them across the country.

And it’s not just any backpack. This is a backpack designed by Will Adler himself. It’s gorgeous to look at, made of wax coated canvas in beautiful colors and accents–black and yellow, blue and green, grey and pink, tan and red, orange and purple, purple and red, red and blue, and yellow and blue. It has real leather accents throughout, from the sturdy leather handle to the zipper pulls to the reinforced piece on the back that keeps the straps securely fastened to the bag no matter how much use it gets, to the piece of leather at the ends of the straps to keep them from fraying to two round Give Will badges that read “A Bag to Carry Your Dreams”. This is easily one of the best designed backpacks I’ve seen.

best backpack for kidsI got a chance to sample one of these bags and I can vouch for how beautiful and sturdy it is. Compared to even other moderate-to-high end knapsacks and backpacks, the engineering on this is excellent. The straps are sturdy and thick, and anywhere on the bag that might be subjected to heavy use is reinforced, making it perfect for even the most active Kindergartener to 5th grader. There are two pockets in front, a zippered pocket in the inner front, and a place to put pencils, pens and other supplies. There are two main compartments, separated by a padded divider, the inner one of which can be secured with a velcro flap. On the outside are two additional zippered pockets. It is, bar none, one of the finest book bags you can buy for elementary school kids. 

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One of the nicest things about this bag was just taking it out of the box. Right away you can smell the wonderful aroma of the real leather.

This is NOT a bag that’s going to fall apart after a few uses. The color is bright and kid-friendly, not in a gaudy way like the latest Disney or Spiderman backpack but in a way that’s still fun and reflects the personality of the most important character in your life–your child’s!

In fact, one of the best features of this backpack is that on the back it says “A bag to carry your dreams. My dream is…” and you can work with your child to fill it out, whether he or she wants to be an astronaut, an athlete, a policeman or fireman, a teacher, or president!

top quality knapsack for kids from wills leather, with dream section on back

I love this feature because it encourages the child to grab and hold on to perhaps the most important thing that we adults are squandering–their hopes and dreams. This generation is the first one in the country’s history where a majority of adults cannot say that they are confident that their kids will be more successful than they were. It’s an indictment on all of us, and another reason I admire Will Leather Goods so much for what they’re doing.

Naysayers might scoff and ask, how is handing out a backpack going to solve the nation’s educational problem. But what I think this company has just taken the one thing that it excels at and applied it to helping kids. And one cannot underestimate what even a seemingly small thing can do for a child. If a child who has dealt all his life with bringing an old, torn up bag to school, what a difference giving this bag to him or her would be. Imagine the boost to their low self-esteem and confidence just a simple gesture of giving them this bag and telling them that yes, they are allowed to dream and that despite everything, the American dream is still alive and well for those who still dare to dream it, work hard, and grasp every opportunity.

If only everyone in this country who has lived the American Dream could do the same and use their God-given talents to pay it forward instead of focusing solely on money, money, money, imagine what a difference it would make to our children, who are our nation’s most valuable “natural resource” that we are squandering. Hopefully seeing what Will Leather Goods will inspire this country’s entrepreneurs, small businesses and corporations to do the same.

How can you help? If you buy one of these bags, or any other Will Leather Goods in one of their stores or online, Will Leather Goods will use part of your purchase to subsidize a bag for a child in need. And this includes when you buy a bag for your own child.

I got a chance to interview Will Adler. His story is a fascinating one–he was originally a professional actor who was on many hit shows in the 1970’s (as a kid, I used to watch a show called CHiPS and I actually remember the episode that he was in :)). Then during the big Screen Actor’s Guide strike in 1981 he had to find other work. I’ll let him tell the story below, but suffice it to say that going from where he was to owner of one of the premier leather companies in the world is the stuff dreams are made of, and I admire and appreciate him passing it forward.

I absolutely love the idea of providing donations to kids in underfunded public schools. How did you come up with the idea?

I grew up in Motor City, Detroit and understand firsthand the experience between diversity and education. At a young age, I learned the importance of inspiration, creativity and perseverance to fulfill my own personal dreams. Now as a business owner, we wanted to create the shared value portion of our company based on these principals- education and inspiration. From there Give Will was able to take shape.

As craftsmen we knew we wanted to create a high quality, sturdy, and beautiful backpack that would last throughout the child’s journey as a student. Once the design for the bag itself was solidified, we added the space on the back for each child to write their dream for the future. Writing down their dream is the most powerful portion of the design. It solidifies a call to action for each child to pursue their passion every day and the bag serves as a resource to make this happen! Metaphorically, “A Bag to Carry Your Dream!”

I noticed the back of the bag includes an area where the child can write his or her dreams. What are some of the things you’ve seen kids write in this space? What are other things you think we can do as a society to help kids achieve these dreams?

The dreams for the future that we’ve seen are hopes to become a doctor, scientist, NBA/NFL professional, singer, dancer, policeman, fireman, music producer, video game designer, member of the army, college graduate, fashion designer, and teacher, just to name a few. The excitement and passion we witness from each student explaining their reasoning for their dream is incredibly moving!

As a society, I think we can continue to be open and accepting of any dream that a child has for the future. By simply asking them to express their dream, we open a doorway to provide support and resources to help them fulfill it!

 Where are some of the schools you’ve helped to date? What has the response been like from the kids and the faculty and administrators?

We’ve been fortunate enough to giveaway backpacks in Los Angeles, Portland, and Eugene thus far. We are gearing up to make two donations in my hometown of Detroit in a few months.

The response from the kids and faculty is overwhelmingly positive! Everyone is always so excited that we provide such an incredibly well-crafted backpack for their students to use; and they admire that we ask children to be inspired to dream big!

How did you make the transition from actor to expert leather goods designer?

After graduating from the Goodman Schools of Drama in Chicago, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career in acting. During this time I was fortunate enough to land a variety of roles in CHiPs, Trapper John, M.D and Welcome Back Kotter. However, in 1981 there was a lengthy Screen Actors Guild Strike which stalled my career as an actor. At the time, I had a wife and a newborn baby and needed an income. It was my brother, a well-known Detroit retailer, who suggested I enter the garment industry until the strike passed to make ends meet. I took his advice and began selling handcrafted “Rainbow Belts” on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. I quickly discovered I had a passion and talent for leathercraftsmanship, business, and design. With the success of my business, I never ended up returning to acting and have been in the industry for over 35 years!

I see from your IMDB page that you guest starred on an episode of CHiPs, one of my favorite shows growing up. What was that like?

It was an incredible opportunity to work on CHiPs as a young 22 year old actor! I was on the “Dog Gone” episode and played a hoodlum who stole a dog. I was chased down by Officers Jon Baker and Frank Poncherello. It was all very exciting and it was the first time I realized the illusion of television. The cops never rode the motorcycles like they made it appear on TV! They either had their stunt doubles ride for long range shots or they just sat on the motorcycle and were pulled by a trailer for close range

My thanks to Will Adler for his time and especially for setting an example for all of us of how to give back in such a meaningful way. I plan on looking to Will Leather Goods first whenever I need anything made from high quality leather, and I hope you do too.

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Thick, Soft, Warm Socks made from Bison (Buffalo) Down #comfysocks @unitedbyblue

January 11th, 2016 · Conservation

When you think of luxurious socks, you’ll usually think of sheep and goats. Sheep’s wool has had a monopoly on warmth for centuries, while the wool from cashmere goats are what people think of for softness.

The one animal that people don’t usually think for both warmth and softness of is the American Bison. But if the socks I’m wearing right now are any indication, it’s time to think twice.

First of all, a little about the American Bison.

For years, people referred to these animals as “Buffalo”. From Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed singing “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight”; to the name of the city of Buffalo, New York and the Buffalo Bills; to the biggest celebrity of the late 1800’s, Buffalo Bill Cody; to the design of the nickel that was used from 1913-1938, this animal has left an indelible mark on the United States.

Here’s something you might not have known. In the United States the buffalo was never a buffalo. It’s more accurately called a bison. Specifically there are two subspecies, the plains bison (B. b. bison) and the wood biston (B. b. athabascae). In fact, it’s only distantly related to the true buffalo that you’ll generally find in Africa. But the malapropism stuck and so for the foreseeable future you’re going to hear people using the word buffalo and bison interchangeably.

When the first settlers came to North America there were tens of millions of them. But with westward expansion came the loss of their natural habitat and uncontrolled hunting. By the year 1900 the number got down to as little as 300. The largest animal in North America was at the brink of being gone. Even to the time I was in grade school in the 1970’s we were taught how buffalo were endangered and at the brink of extinction.

What happened next is a model for success in terms of stopping the extinction of an entire species. In the public sector, laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Park System helped bring awareness to what Americans were doing to this animal.

Just a few weeks ago on National Bison Day, Colorado State University published a Vine that showed bison being returned to their old stomping grounds in Northern Colorado for the first time in 150 years.

And in the private sector, the American bison was brought back from the edge of extinction through methodical breeding and building up livestock herds. And happily, we’re at a point today where they have been removed from the Endangered Species list. By the year 2000 the number was about 360,000 and today they number more than half a million.

So when you see bison meat on the menu, don’t think of it as akin to a dodo bird or passenger pigeon sandwich. It’s actually quite tasty (the reason it was hunted to near extinction), and good cuts will taste as good or better than cattle beef but with less fat and cholesterol.

But like I said, something I would never have guessed is how amazingly comfortable bison down is to wear. While the animal looks pretty rugged on the outside, they have an inner coat of incredibly soft down. And when this down is spun it has a consistency that’s genuinely as warm as wool but soft as cashmere.

One thing I’ve discovered about socks is that you really do get what you pay for. For years I bought socks at BJ’s that were made in China. They look decent, but after just a few wearing I noticed threads would start to unravel or there’d be holes in them. So ironically, while I’d maybe pay $3 for a pair of socks I used to pay $10 for, I’d go through five of those cheap socks before the one I paid a little more for would even show signs of wear.

I had a chance to try out some bison down for myself, a product called The Ultimate American Sock from a company called United By Blue. I got the box in the mail, and right away I could see that this was a high quality product just from the box.

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Opening the box I saw the thick socks. Again, I’m used to buying cheap, thin socks stuffed into plastic bags so these looked gigantic to me.

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The craftsmanship of the socks is beautiful. Not a stitch out of place. You can tell just by feeling them that these aren’t going to wear out after just a few washings.

But I still had to be convinced. I’m someone who doesn’t like the scratchiness and abrasiveness of sheep’s wool, so I wondered to myself if I would really like these.

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Putting on these socks, well, knocked my socks off. I was hesitant as I slipped on the first sock, expecting the usual sandpaper-like sensations you get with wool socks. But these socks were amazing. The softness is easily comparable to cashmere as far as feeling soft, smooth, and gentle. They do this by making a blend of merino wool, bison down, nylon, and spandex. They actually have a whole page that talks about the impressive engineering where every detail was thought of, from the spandex rib knit welt to keep your sock up without any irritation, to how they reinforced the toe and heel with nylon, to the rib arch support that helps circulation in your feet, to its moisture wicking capabilities, to the flat and reinforced toes seam.

When I put them on they just slipped on and instantly enveloped my feet with a warm cozy feeling, which was perfect on the first cold autumn day of the year.

I got up to walk in them and it’s like walking on a cloud of pillow, thanks to the padding on the soles.

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The thickness is not only great for warmth and comfort, but as the day went on I could feel them wicking the moisture, which makes these ideal for when you’re doing a lot of physical activity in the cool months.

Here’s how comfy they are–my original intent was to review them and chance back into my regular socks for work. But I decided to just leave them on all day.

If you look through United By Blue’s catalog you’ll find the socks and also other new products like a bison down jacket. You might have a hard time justifying $38 for a pair of socks, but these are not only more comfortable and durable than almost any other sock you’ll be, it’s completely made in America. And “made in America” doesn’t mean like other companies they import foreign material as assemble it in the US. They designed the socks and packaging in Philadelphia, they collect bison down from ranchers in North Dakota, they blend the bison down with American Merino Wool and spin it into yarn in Massachusetts, and they knit and package them in Iowa into packages made in Wisconsin. It’s a great gift for the person in your life who has everything, because chances are they don’t have this yet!

But something I appreciate most about this company is their charitable efforts focused on ocean and waterway conservation. Just as mankind almost decimated the American Bison population by careless, thoughtless and selfish actions against God’s creation, mankind is also just as careless in dealing with its rivers and oceans.

I live in the New York area, and it’s heartbreaking to see what our fellow humans still do. It’s sad when the government needs to publish brochures warning the public against eating the fish that live in the oceans and rivers around us because of all the toxins in them, thanks to years and years of dumping by industry. And as much as has been done to clean up companies people are just as thoughtless on an individual level. I can’t go I go hiking in the woods or talking on the beach without seeing plastic food containers, bottles and cans, tires, candy wrappers.

All it takes are a few selfish and thoughtless people, both on an individual level and a company level, to ruin it for everyone else, not to mention for future generations.

Most of us see these things, shake our heads and say, “someone should really do something.” But then there are those that do.

For every product sold, United By Blue removes one pound of trash from oceans and waterways through company organized and hosted cleanups.

Specifically, they’ll organize and host ocean and waterway cleanups across the country, bringing together thousands of volunteers to pick up things like cans and bottles, tires, appliances, and everything else that makes its way into the aquatic world. So far, they’ve hosted 141 cleanups and removed 252,042 pounds of trash from rivers, streams, creeks, and beaches across 23 states. You can see photos and even sign up to participate yourself here.

Great product, great cause, this is just the sort of product I love to highlight on this blog.

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Life is Good Book – the history of LIG and wisdom from the guys who started it

December 19th, 2015 · Uncategorized

For years you’ve no doubt seen this smiling Life is Good guy everywhere.

life is good guy

I remember seeing my first Life is Good T-Shirt back in the 1990’s and smiling. There was just something about the smiling stick figure (whose name is Jake) as he went about his life doing “good” things, from camping to biking to playing with the dog. I remember really, really wanting one of those t-shirts (and eventually getting a few).

I wasn’t alone. Today, the Life is Good company is a business worth more than $100 million dollars.

The founders of Life is Good are two brothers, Bert and John Jacobs who in their own words “didn’t want a real job but weren’t afraid to work”. In a world where people only seemed to talk about bad news, they bucked the trends and started a brand based on optimism and fun. Clearly, they struck a chord.

This book is hard to categorize. It’s part biography, part history, part self-help book, part business book, part scrapbook, part philosophy book. It’s also an art book, filled with full-color Life is Good artwork.

You can learn the entire story of how the brothers grew up, how they got the idea in the first place, and how they ran their business from a tiny startup to a powerful and popular brand.

The chapters are divided into different “superpowers”: Openness, Courage, Simplicity, Humor, Gratitude, Fun, Compassion, Creativity, Authenticity, and Love. But instead of spouting out theoretical and trite advice that you might find in other self-help books, they share stories from their own lives and business that show how their living out these principles ultimately led to success for them. In each chapter, they also provide practical advice on how you can apply these principles in your life.

This is also not a typical self-help book that’s filled with either pedantic and didactic religious advice nor fluffy new age philosophy, and yet ironically it’s probably more helpful than either of those kinds of books. All it is is a very practical account of Bert and John’s story and simple lessons from their lives that you can apply to yours. It’s one of those rare books (like the T-Shirts themselves) where just about anyone, no matter their background, will read, enjoy, and be hard pressed to put it down without feeling energized, inspired, encouraged, and optimistic.

As with all Life is Good products, a portion of proceeds goes to help the Life is Good Foundation, which partners with leading children’s charities and organizations to help the most vulnerable children in our society.

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Yogitoes – Yoga Towels from Manduka

December 16th, 2015 · Education

Looking for the perfect gift for the yoga practitioner in your life? Manduka is a company that creates top-notch yoga gear, from yoga mats, to towels, to headbands, to bags, to props.
yoda mat by manduka

The Manduka PRO Yoga Mat is both stylish and supportive. It has a lifetime guarantee, and measures 71 inches by 26 inches, with a thickness of 6 mm.

Its surface is closed to keep moisture and sweat from swwping into the mat and breeding bacteria, while the high-density cushion provides exceptional comfort and joint protection on virtually any surface, from carpet to hardwood and even cement or concrete.

It has a fabric-like surface that’s slip resistant (even with a light amount of sweat on it), and actually improves with use over time. There’s a dot pattern on the bottom to resist sliding.

This limited edition was created by Ryan McGinness and the great organization Bent on Learning, a non-profit organization which helps bring yoga instruction to New York City public schools (a city where a little calm and meditation is critical, especially for kids). For every yoga mat sold, two children get a free yoga class.

Another fantastic product by Manduka is their line of Yogitoes towels. I had the pleasure of trying one out. The towel comes rolled up like a yoga mat:

rolled up yoga towel

But when you unroll it you’ll see that it’s made of absorbent fabric that acts like a towel, absorbing all your excess sweat during your practice. The design you see here is a beautiful limited-edition design called “Cloudbreak” that’s as beautiful as it is functional. In total it measures over 5 feet (68 inches). In the picture here you’ll see how beautiful the design is–it looks like a watercolor painting. 

pretty yoga towel

More than just a towel, it actually grips your yoga mat so that you can perform your yoga right on it. With their patented Skidless technology, no matter how much you move or sweat the towel won’t slip.

yoga towel that grips mat

After your session is over, you just take the towel off and throw it into the washing machine.

Each yogitoes towel is made from no fewer than eight discarded plastic bottles, preventing them from entering landfills or polluting the ocean. The recycled bottles are woven into 50% poly yarn that requires 66% less energy to produce.

From products that help children to products that help the environment, you won’t do much better than Manduka for finding a great gift for the yoga fanatic in your life.

 

 

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Mystery Box of Handcrafted Charity Gifts

December 13th, 2015 · Uncategorized

A few weeks ago I wrote about the FabFitFun box, something I dubbed “the ultimately goodie bag” for women.

Recently, I came across GlobeIn’s Artisan Gift Box. It also follows a similar model of being “mystery” box where you (or your gift recipient) receive a box in the mail and enjoy the pleasure of opening up being surprised to find what’s in it. And as with other similar boxes, you pay a nominal fee of about $30-35 each box (you can subscribe to 1, 3, or 12 months of surprises), and you invariably end up getting many, many more times the value of what you paid in the merchandise alone, not to mention the intangible worth of the joy of anticipation and the pleasure of opening the box to reveal the surprises that await.

The GlobeIn box features actual handcrafted goods from artisans and farmers around the world, similar to the other kinds of handcrafted gifts and goods I’ve highlighted on this blog. Each box follows a distinct theme. You can choose to be surprised by getting the monthly “surprise” box for $30-35, or they’ll also let you order any of the past boxes for $50. Past “themes” include “Cozy” (a comfortably scarf from Thailand, Cocoa from Ghana, a mug from Tunisia, a basket from Mexico), “Kitchen” (stoneware from Tunisia, a kitchen towel from Guatemala, premium vanilla from Madagascar, premium salt from Peru, coconut sugar from Indonesia, and coffee from Nigaragua).

Aside from letting you sample local goods from around the world, every purchase helps support the local artisans and farmers who produce these goods. They work under fair trade conditions, meaning that unlike countries that mass-produce cheap goods under inhumane working conditions, each of these artisans and farmers get a fair, living wage for their goods which in turn helps support their families, their communities, and their local economies, helping to break the chain of poverty and despair.

GlobeIn is a remarkable organization that essentially serves as the marketers and distributors for these artisans and farmers. They don’t merely serve as middlemen who box up and ship the products without much thought or care, they add a level of presentation, storytelling and “soul” to these products, which greatly enhances your appreciation of them and ensures that you understand the stories behind those who made them.

It’s a phenomenal way to “travel the world” without leaving your house, and to get an appreciation for other cultures. If you have kids, the GlobeIn box is a great way not to just educate them that there’s a whole world out there, but also to give them an appreciation for the creativity and diversity of different cultures. It’s also a good way to teach them values, that sometimes the best products you can find are not always the cheapest ones you find in Walmart produced in countries with oppression and poor human rights records.

I was fortunate to receive a GlobeIn box. Here’s the “unboxing”

The box itself was a cardboard box with an inspirational sticker: “life should not only be lived, it should be celebrated”. That put me in the right mood to open the box and see what was inside.


globein mystery box

The first thing you see is a booklet that tells the “story” of each of the gifts inside the box.

booklet about handcrafted gifts

It’s a great read in itself. In it, you’ll read all kinds of interesting stories, from the artisans or farmers who created it, to the process they go through to source and create it, to the great things that purchasing the gifts will do for their families and communities. For certain products, it’ll also provide instructions or tips on how to use them.

IMG_3765

Within the box is this Palm Leaf Basket from Mexico, hand-woven by people of the Mixteca region of Mexico using techniques and skills passed down over generations. A tag on the basket provides a profile of Dona Selerna, the master artisan of a 15-woman collective in the poor town of San Luis Amatian in the mountainous Sierra Sur. These baskets traditionally are sold in local marketplaces, which as you can imagine can be unpredictable and not a stable source of sustenance for these women. But now, the collective produces these baskets for GlobeIn, which has brought them much-needed stability.

palm leaf basket from mexico

Aside from being beautiful and expertly hand-woven, the basket is practical. It itself can serve as a beautiful decorative piece in your home, and you can fill it with anything practical. The Suggested Use is to serve candy or cookies for your guests in it, but you can store just about anything in it–medicine bottles, office supplies, coins,

Inside the basket there were other goodies.

The first one I pulled out was one that excited me the most–it’s a dark chocolate bar produced in Switzerland with cacao sourced from small farmers in the Dominican Republic. This particular bar is organic dark chocolate, caramel crunch, and sea salt. The farmer’s co-op in the Dominican Republic is called CONACADO. This is a case where your purchase isn’t just altruistic alone–by supporting small farmers you also support the sustainable ways they have produced their crops for centuries–fermenting the beans in sunlight after harvesting them to enhance their aroma, flavor, and color, and using rich, earthy compost instead of chemicals and those other things that come as more and more small farms are subsumed by giant agricultural interests. You’ll notice the different in flavor immediately–it’s rich, deep in flavor, what chocolate should taste like vs. the soylent green-like stuff that comes out of mass production.

organic chocolate bar

This Muslin bag is out of Haiti. Years of economic hardship and natural disasters have devastated Haiti, but the Haitian Design Co-op in Port Au Prince is helping locals build sustainable livelihoods. This bag is a handy one for jewelry, either to use when traveling, or keeping fine jewelry safe at home.

muslin bag from haiti

These unique handmade greeting cards and envelopes come from Malawi, from the Umoja Group, an association of people with disabilities living at a refugee camp in Malawi. The cards are beautiful and vibrant and higher quality than even cards you’d find in Papyrus or Hallmark. It’s made of recycled handmade paper and repurposed African textiles.

handcrafted greeting cards

Last but not least is this hand-dyed batik table runner which you can drape over your kitchen or dining room table to add a classy accent to your existing tablecloth and further protect the table. These are made from seamstresses in Ghana working for Della, a socially responsible fashion line that pays fair income and provides educational opportunities to its artisans.

table runner

Overall, this mystery box was a ton of fun to open, and what make it all the more special was that not only were all the items in it delightful, practical, beautifully handcrafted, and of far, far greater value than the $35 you paid for it, it’s the knowledge that when you buy this box you can know that your purchase is helping hard-working artisans in developing and needy areas around the world earn a living, improve their and their families’ lives, improve their communities, and break the cycle of poverty and despair.

Want to learn more? Check out GlobeIn’s site and sign up to get (or better yet, give) an individual box, a three-month subscription, or an annual subscription.

 

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A FitBit for the Kids…Sort of

December 10th, 2015 · UNICEF, World Hunger

It’s not hard to see that one of the hottest gifts this year is going to be wearable electronics for the purpose of tracking your fitness and exercise. For years, of course, people carried around pedometers to track their steps. The advent of smartphones changed all that. Suddenly, you could do more than just see how many steps you took in the day. You could see your fitness profile for the entire day…how much you walked, how much you ran, and how much you just sat around.

After years of her talking about it, I got my sister the granddaddy of wearable fitness trackers, the a Fitbit. When they went on sale at Best Buy I decided to splurge and got myself an Apple Watchicon (on our sister blog Gaming.Fit I’ll go through the steps of how I use the Apple Watch as a FitBit).

With everyone in the family wearing wearable technology, the little ones in your household might feel a little left out. They’re already not happy because everyone has a smartphone except for them, and seeing everyone with these things on their wrist except for themselves is bound to make them feel left out.

Target comes to the rescue with a brilliant idea. For the price of about a third of the cost of a FitBit and a tenth of the cost of an Apple Watch, you can pick up a colorful UNICEF Kid Power Band. It comes in orange and blue, and in a very timely and brilliant licensing move, it worked with Disney to also produce two limited edition “Star Wars: Force for Change” colors to coincide with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The inspiration for these Power Bands is obviously the FitBit, which has successfully “gamified” exercise (how many of you with FitBits deliberately walked that extra flight of stairs just so you can collect your “points” for the day?). The same thing happens with these watches. The only difference is, “points” in this case aren’t just theoretical or psychological, but result in very real change in the world.

Here’s how these UNICEF Kid Power Bands Work:

  1. As an adult, you can purchase a UNICEF Kid Power Band for your child or a child in your life, and help them download an app called Kid Power. Out of this purchase price Target will donate $10 to the US Fund for UNICEF.
  2. Kids will wear their Kid Power Bands and the app will tell them to “go on missions” where they can learn virtually about new cultures and earn “Kid Power points” for completing activities and challenges. A group of kids can do this together (this would be an amazing thing to hand out to kids on a sports team, for example, or to kids in a family so they can have friendly competitions with each other as to who’s being more active)
  3.  These “points” aren’t just for show; they’ll unlock therapeutic food packets that UNICEF delivers to severely malnourished children around the world (by way of corporate sponsors and individuals who pledge).

The band is basically a pedometer and accelerometer, so it’s not quite as complex as a FitBit that calculates things like calories, active minutes, floors climbed, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of that stuff is really overkill for kids–just tracking the number of steps is enough for most.

I can’t say enough about this great idea. It encourages kids to exercise, it helps them feel “just like mom and dad” with their own wearable technology, and perhaps most importantly, it teaches them to look beyond their immediate surroundings and realize how blessed they are as well as the value of helping others who are less fortunate than them.

We live in strange times today where one out of every four children in the United States is inactive, meaning they may be on a road to obesity as an adult, while at the same time one out of every four children worldwide suffers from malnutrition, meaning that many will be at risk of starvation. This product is an amazing idea, and a great way to help everyone on both extremes.

Here’s how the band works in practice.

  1. You’ll get these two items in the package–a plastic band with a stylish strap and a thin watch-like face and a USB charger that’s pretty slick in that it attaches to the back of the watch magnetically, much like Apple’s watch.target powerband for kids and charger
  2. When you first plug it in, the words “UNICEF” and “KID POWER” will flash on the watch face.kid power band
  3. The first thing I noticed was that this isn’t some weak LCD watch, but the display was OLED, with the words bright, white, and jumping off the black dial. A battery icon will show that it’s charging.
    charging fitbit for kids
  4. Next, you download the UNICEF Kids Power app on iOS or Android.
    IMG_3314
  5. The app take a little getting used to. The grown-up in the house sets up a master account first, and then sets up accounts for each of the family members. When you set up an account, you enter a screen name, your birthday, choose an icon of various sports, and your email address. That’ll set up the master Family account, and then you can set up sub-accounts for the members of your family and link your Power Band to the right account.IMG_3321
    Admittedly there are usability improvements they need to make. You need to contact them to do things like transfer Family Accounts to someone else or remove Family Accounts, which leads me to suspect that they rushed this to market without building some basic things.

  6. What’s cool is that once the band is charged it’ll display the name you typed in to show whose it is.
    1. Tap on the watch face once and the time of day will scroll in, making this a bona-fide watch.
      watch for kids with pedometer
    2. Tap on it again and it’ll show you an icon of two footprints, showing the steps you’ve taken.
    3. Tap on it again and you’ll see the “points” you’ve heard (one point is equal to about 2,400 steps)
    4. Tap on it one more time and you’ll see an icon of an airplane, which I believe shows the the “missions” that the child has completed.
  7. The whole thing with “missions” takes a little getting used to. It looks like you need to purchase credits with physical money ($3.99 a credit) in order to unlock these. Once you do, you unlock in-app content from people like Alex Morgan, Maya Moore (Haiti), Tyson Chandler (Uganda), Burkina Faso (David Ortiz). While the money is of course well spent, I would have liked to see a little more “freemium” content rather than just blocking everything until someone buys credits.

But overall, it’s a great idea and fills a big gap as far as helping kids get more active and at the same time help those who are less fortunate than them. I definitely recommend picking one up at your local Target or ordering one here.

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