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Nov. 10, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Holiday decorations have been on display for weeks, especially in stores looking to attract early shoppers. But it’s only now that many people are starting to realize that we’re entering the festive season once again. With colder weather and shorter days, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas — even though Thanksgiving is still weeks away. The next two months focus our attention on the things that are truly important in life: family, friends and the blessings we all share.

There’s no doubt it can be hard for some of our neighbors to feel much joy. The change of seasons also brings life-threatening conditions for those who are homeless and struggling to find a warm place to sleep. Domestic abuse never seems to stop and can even intensify during the holidays. Parents without a significant income struggle to provide a joyous holiday for their own children while others are showered with expensive gifts.

But as we enter another holiday season, this is the perfect time to reflect on what we do have. Even a quick look at the evening news proves how much worse life can be; some areas around the globe are engulfed in famine and war. Many people literally have nothing at all.

The holidays also give us a chance to share our abundance. Because we live in such a compassionate community, there are plenty of ways to assist those who need your help.

One well-respected ministry, The Salvation Army’s “Joy” outreach, arranges gifts for children who otherwise would not receive anything for Christmas. You or your organization can “adopt” an “angel” — The Salvation Army’s name for children up to age 12 who are receiving gifts — and purchase clothing and gifts from that child’s own wish list. More information is available by calling The Salvation Army at (919) 718-1717.

Toys for Tots, a national initiative organized by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, is collecting new, unwrapped toys in dozens of locations throughout Lee County. All donations are distributed to deserving children across our community in time for Christmas. Collection points will be announced soon at sanford-nc.toysfortots.org.

NC Treasure Chest Ministry, a local evangelical outreach, holds its annual Christmas gathering on Dec. 7. The event includes a meal, gifts for children and practical help for participants — including financial advice, help creating resumes and more. Money, gift cards, new or gently used toys, and new or gently used clothing are needed to help homeless and struggling families. Information is available at nctreasurechest.org.

And those are just the beginning. Churches and nonprofits all around our area are bringing joy to needy families throughout the holiday season.

But it’s not only about financial donations. With families together and children home from school over the holidays, you can bring joy to others without ever writing a check.

Why not do some volunteer service as a family? Churches, ministries and nonprofits especially need your help at this time of year, and if you don’t know where to begin looking, start at VolunteerLee.com, our community website connecting volunteers with organizations needing their help.

One immediate need listed on the site is bell ringers for The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign. What could be easier? All you do is spend some time ringing a bell where the ministry is collecting donations. You’ll enjoy time together as a family, meet some interesting people and help raise money for neighbors who need your help.

And, you don’t even need help from an organization to make the holidays special for yourself and others. Will you be alone for the holidays? Why not share a meal with someone else who also might also have been alone?

Even when we’re facing difficult circumstances, we all have blessings to celebrate. This season gives us a reason to be thankful for what we have and to focus on what’s important. It also gives us a chance to share not only the tangible things we have, but also some much needed joy.

Jan Hayes is executive director of the United Way of Lee County.