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More turn to gifts that give to charity

Matthew Thibodeau, 7, holds a photo of his adopted manatee, 'Whiskers,' at his family's home in Oviedo, Fla. Matthew Thibodeau, 7, holds a photo of his adopted manatee, "Whiskers," at his family's home in Oviedo, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Kelly Hodoval's best-ever Christmas gift was a manatee.

Not an actual 1,000-pound sea cow, of course. Rather, when Kelly was about 10 years old and mad about manatees, her mother made a donation in her name to the Save the Manatee Club.

Instead of finding toys or clothing under the Christmas tree, the Orlando youngster opened a package containing an adoption certificate, a photo, and a life history of "her" manatee, along with a fact-filled membership handbook.

"I was absolutely ecstatic," recalls Kelly, 19, an environmental engineering student at the University of Florida. Since then, she has given the gift of manatee adoptions to her boyfriend, her best friend, and her father.

"My Dad's not much of an activist, so he was kind of 'ugh,' " she says. "But the others were quite thrilled."

A manatee adoption certificate is "something unexpected," she says. It brings "a different kind of happiness, much deeper and longer-lasting" than a more conventional gift.

Giving gifts that "give back" is a growing trend, according to the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy, a nonprofit group in New York. Increasingly, individuals and corporations are making donations to charitable organizations in the name of the people on their gift lists. Or they are purchasing items from companies that donate a portion of the proceeds to worthy causes. About 50 percent of this charitable giving is done between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"I think people feel it's just the right thing to do, especially at the holiday time, when people think about helping others," says Cathy Robbins, 49, founder and president of Good Cause Greetings in Springfield.

"Most people I know have too much stuff," says Robbins, who donates 10 percent of her company's proceeds to organizations that support children's causes, literacy, homelessness, and medical research. "They would prefer to buy cows for villagers in poor countries, or sewing machines to help women start up home businesses.

"There are endless opportunities to do good in the world. Americans in general have way more than they need, and we're aware of the needs of others," says Robbins.

Actor Marlo Thomas, who serves as the national outreach director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis , says the idea of buying good-cause gifts "certainly has caught on with us."

The hospital's Thanks and Giving campaign, which Thomas helped launch three years ago, offers gifts ranging from tree ornaments to jewelry and clothing to raise funds for the hospital. Purchasing the gifts "makes people feel good to know they're helping sick children," says Thomas.

Some good-cause gifts are stocking-stuffer size, but when enough are purchased, the proceeds can have an enormous impact. Through the sale of $10 angel-shaped pins, the Chico's chain of clothing boutiques hopes to raise $100,000 for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence this holiday season.

Good-cause gifts don't need to be expensive to have a big impact, says Barbara Thibodeau of Oviedo, Fla.

Her 8-year-old son, Matthew, was delighted with Whiskers, his adopted manatee -- once he understood the creature would not be delivered to his front door .

"He's always drawing pictures of Whiskers," she says.

On the other hand, a donation of $100 or more to Heifer International purchases livestock for impoverished farmers, while a $1,000 gift to Mercy Corps helps build a clean-water well in a developing country.

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