Top ten ideas for gifts that do good

Dear Sam,

Happy Thanksgiving for yesterday!

I was thinking of you and how grateful I am that we can connect through our blog, too. I was delighted to hear that being kind is so good for us – that’s definitely a win-win situation.

Talking about being kind, the season of goodwill is approaching and I’ve been pondering the gifts I need to buy. This year, in the spirit of Staircase 9 17, I’ve looked for presents  which help people as well as (hopefully) making the recipient happy. I thought I’d share my Top Ten ideas with you today:

1. Buying seasonal supplies is a great way to support charities and this year I’ve ordered some cards from Book Aid and my wrapping paper from Alzheimer’s Society.

2. As well as buying online, it’s fun to keep a look out for presents at the craft fairs and fetes that are held before Christmas in support of causes close to home.

coffee Christmas

3. Gifts of food always go down well with my friends and family, so I’m planning to get some Manumit coffee, which supports victims of modern slavery. Lots of our local shops sell Fairtrade goods, too, and I might add in some biscuits, a couple of mugs and a pretty tea towel to complete the present.

4. As well as buying from charities I try to support local ventures, which help to make the area we live in more vibrant and interesting.  We have a couple of art colleges nearby and some of the students sell their work directly, so you can find a unique gift and help someone out at the start of their career.

5. I often give books as gifts and I noticed that there is a range of paperbacks for sale which support Cancer Research UK.  I also have my eye on Stressed, Unstressed, the poetry anthology produced by the ReLit Bibliotherapy Foundation.

6. Beautiful accessories are a favourite option for my friends and I like the purses, jewellery rolls and bags made by Lua, who work with craftspeople in Vietnam.


7. I love to give and receive lotions and potions and I found some lovely soaps produced by Arthouse Meath, which is a collective of artists living with disabilities.

8. We all have people on our present list who already have everything and the ‘virtual’ charity gifts like ‘give a goat to Granny’ have been popular for some time.  I like the idea of matching the gift to the person’s interests. One year I paid for stethoscopes for use in the developing world on behalf of my doctor parents and this year an option caught my eye for booklovers: to support the work of Chawton House Library (which is at the ‘Great House’ near Jane Austen’s home in Hampshire, UK) you can adopt a book  on someone’s behalf.

9. Another idea for those who seemingly have it all is tickets for an evening out. An ideal choice is a charity concert or film screening; you can find out what’s on by searching online or contacting a charity close to your heart to ask about forthcoming events.



10. And finally, why not offer a ‘voucher’ for some help? It can be anything you know the recipient would appreciate, from time to help sort through a collection of photos to babysitting for new parents. It’s easy to print a bespoke voucher and you can pair it with a suitable small gift like a lovely album for the pictures or a  bottle of wine for a pre-dinner drink.

Have you made a start on your seasonal shopping? I’d love to hear how your preparations are going.

Much love,






World Kindness Day

Dear Claire.

Happy World Kindness Day! For Monday, that is. I’m not quite sure why 13th November was chosen as the day, but it’s a good one for us to celebrate exactly what we’re trying to write about: little acts of kindness that can make a difference to others and to ourselves.

World Kindness Day is a day to engage intentionally in small acts of kindness – anything from saying a kind word to a friend to carrying the groceries in for your neighbor; thanking a veteran (since it’s also Veteran’s Day here) or buying a stranger a cup of coffee. Or maybe signing up for Helpful Peeps! The bigger purpose of World Kindness Day really resonates with me: to help us “look beyond our differences and realize we are citizens of the world”:

What’s interesting to learn as well is that we gain ourselves from being kind to others. And there’s real science behind that. I don’t know if you had a chance to see any of the TED talks I linked to last time, but one of them is a fascinating talk about making stress your friend. In 14 minutes you’ll find out about some of the research that shows how one of the stress hormones, oxytocin, is also a hormone that encourages you to reach out to others to get support – and that when you do, or when you connect and offer support to others, the very same hormone strengthens your heart. Physically as well as metaphorically!

Our ability  to connect with each other more as we write this blog together is something for which I am very grateful! And that’s a topic for another day – gratitude. Because before the next couple of weeks are done, we’ll also be celebrating Thanksgiving!

With love,




A helping hand

Dear Sam,

How are you?  I’ve been a bit under the weather with a cold this week and I wanted to thank you for telling me about the TED talks. Being poorly has given me the perfect opportunity to put my feet up and make myself feel better by listening to the inspirational speakers.

In TED’s spirit of sharing, G and I have just joined Helpful Peeps, an online community where you can offer time, skills and knowledge to help other people out. I think their motto strikes a chord for us here at Staircase 917, Life is better when we help each other.  Where we live, people are looking for all sorts of help, from learning a language to advice about handicrafts, so there’s scope to offer support whatever your strengths may be! Apparently, there are members in more than 80 countries – do you know if they’ve reached the US?

And, thinking of the power of words to move and inspire, I’m sure you’ll want to join me today in wishing a happy 103rd birthday to Dylan Thomas. Here he is reading his Poem in October, written in 1944.

Much love,







Ideas to change the world

Dear Claire.

I’m glad you had a happy trip to Italy, and thanks so much for the link to Librivox. What a nice volunteer opportunity. I think it’s a fantastic goal to make all public domain literature free and accessible to everyone.

It’s interesting that you should ask what’s on my Fall reading or listening list, because I’ve made a promise to myself to listen to more TED talks. And TED is also committed to universal accessibility.

I love TED’s mission: To spread ideas. That is, ideas worth spreading. TED’s core belief is that ‘ideas have the power to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world’ 😊

There are now over 2500 talks on, from experts in creativity, education, science, technology and design. And they are all available for free.

I thought you might like this little sampling, covering everything from using paper towels more efficiently, to how money can buy happiness (depending on how you spend it), to completely rethinking the nature of stress and the importance of connecting with others:

TED’s How-To Guide to Everyday Life

Here’s to us sharing more ideas with each other!

Much love,

A word in your ear

Dear Sam,

I’m really pleased to hear you had a good time in Italy – so did we! We’re just back from Sicily and I enjoyed playing Free Rice to pass the time while we were travelling. I think it’s a great idea to combine a game with such a good cause, so thank you for letting me know about it.

While we were away I also enjoyed having a bit more time for reading. For the flight, I took something absorbing but light, one of  Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, Black Sheep. Being in Sicily, I also packed one of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mysteries, The Patience of the Spider, and it was fun to see some of the places we’d visited appearing as part of the plot!

When I’m on holiday I usually take an audio book with me, too. Recently, I’ve listened to several, including the wonderful Barchester Towers , on  Librivox – have you come across it? It’s a great source of free recordings read by volunteers, either chapter by chapter or as whole works. And, if you feel inspired to join in, you can become involved as a volunteer reader if you choose.

What’s on your reading – or listening – list for the autumn? Or, the fall, I should say!

Much love,


Free Rice

Dear Claire,

We had an amazing time in Italy, thanks! And believe it or not Duolingo was the app we used to learn a little Italian before we went. I thought it was very well designed, and definitely made the learning fun. I can’t say I took it to the gym, but putting it to use while walking around Rome in 40-degree-plus heat was perhaps as much of a workout!

I discovered something I didn’t know about Rome, too: it’s the headquarters of the United Nations World Food Programme. And since we’re on the topic of online learning, have you heard of their game called Free Rice? Their mission is two-fold:

  1. To provide education to everyone for free; and
  2. To help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free

It’s essentially a general knowledge quiz, and for every question you get right, an advert pops up – and that advert generates 10 grains of rice for the world food programme, which goes to feed the hungry.

So: an online game that helps improve your learning and benefits a good cause all at the same time. Such a clever idea.

Safe travels. I hope you have a lovely vacation!


Language lessons

Dear Sam,


Welcome home! I hope you had a fantastic time in Italy?

I know you’d been learning some Italian before your holiday – did you get a chance to try it out? Following your good example, we’ve also just booked a short trip to Italy later this year, so I’ve been brushing up my Italian, too. I find that Duolingo  is a fun way to practise – have you come across it? It’s a game-based language learning system that offers a huge choice of different languages –  as well as Italian, French and German you can try out Welsh or Norwegian,  to name just a few.  Amazingly, since it was launched about 5 years ago, more than  1.2 billion people worldwide are now using it to improve their language skills. I’m also a fan because of the ethos behind Duolingo –  the belief that learning another language can open up opportunity and mutual understanding and the pledge that the lessons will always be free of charge, so that everyone has equal access to the opportunity to learn.

If, as in my case, a little pre-holiday exercise is needed, it’s good to know that according to a recent study, learning a language while you are at the gym can help you retain the new information more easily.  An incentive to  give more that just the grey matter a workout, perhaps!

Much love,



In the summertime

Dear Sam,

Buon viaggio for your trip to Italy.  I’m taking a break during August, too, so I’ll be back here on 1st September. I hope we’ll both be inspired by our travels and full of fresh ideas!

Much love,



Kids and kindness

Dear Claire.


Happy summer! I  think this is the week when the children break up from school in the UK, though they’ve been out here for a few weeks already. Which means we’re at that moment when, after those first heady days of the holidays, comes a question that I’m sure you’ll recall: ‘What can I do?’

I just read an article in Parents Magazine here that had several inspiring answers to that question, and also speaks to the mission of our blog: How to Raise Happy Kids: Commit Acts of Kindness.

Another popular activity here for kids is to set up a lemonade stand. It’s a fun way for them to get outside, learn a few business skills, earn a little pocket money for themselves … and I know a few families where the kids pick a charity to donate half their profits to. There are plenty of helpful articles online about how to set up a stand, but I quite like this one: So You Want to Start a Lemonade Stand.

Of course, it’s just the ticket for someone who needs a little refreshment after a walk in the park, and the perfect opportunity to sell some of your bake sale brownies, too!


PS We’re off on our trip to Italy soon, so will look forward to catching up again when we’re back.

“Fresh air impoverishes the doctor”

Dear Sam,

How is your Charity Miles fitness regime going? Well done in signing up for it – I think anything which offers an incentive to exercise can only be a good thing and if you can help others at the same time, even better!

Locally, there’s something along the same lines called The Good Gym, where people go running together and combine the exercise with helping their community by gardening or perhaps visiting an older person who lives alone. It’s a win-win for all involved and I think it’s really inspiring to see such a clever but simple idea in action.

Although, as you know, I’m not much of a runner myself, I’ve been enjoying getting outside into the sunshine lately. Have you heard the Danish proverb, “Fresh air impoverishes the doctor”?  It struck a chord with me as I certainly find that going for a walk is a simple remedy if I’m feeling tired or uninspired or, indeed, a bit overwhelmed by the day’s news. Even a short walk in the park where I can focus on the trees or birdsong can help me reconnect with the present and put worries or problems into perspective. It’s also free and you can enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream at the same time – perfect!

Much love,