‘Sick of stuff’ Seattleites seek more meaningful holiday gifts (like goats)

Kenyan children play with a donated soccer ball in part of the World Vision display at Northgate Mall. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Cardboard Kenyan children play with a donated soccer ball in the World Vision display at Northgate Mall. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

On a Sunday afternoon a week before Christmas, Northgate Mall is a mosh pit of shoppers.

It’s a familiar scene. Our cheerful, if harried, consumerism is as much a holiday ritual as any traditional meal or family gathering.

But by the Victoria’s Secret, between the kiosk advertising the new Fiat and the one selling massaging recliners, is a life-size cardboard goat.
“If you could have the best gift ever, what would it be?” asks Kelly Hopkins to distracted passers-by. “In countries where people wake up without clean water, nutritious food, health care or education or business opportunities, a goat can be a really good gift!”

Buying a goat or a cow for a poor family for the holidays isn’t a new idea (Heifer International is perhaps the most well-known organization that does this); neither is sponsoring a child or donating to a water project.

But this year World Vision, the Christian humanitarian organization based in Federal Way has upped its game. Instead of an ad on TV or an envelope in the mail, it has headed straight for the capitalist heart of America: the shopping mall.

A new program places representatives in boldly designed kiosks right in the middle of malls.

Seattle is one pilot city, with kiosks at Northgate and Southcenter. The experiment is also running in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.

World Vision canvasser John Lawrence chats up mall-goer Gary Higashi, encouraging him to donate to children in the developing world. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
World Vision canvasser John Lawrence chats up mall-goer Gary Higashi, encouraging him to donate to children in the developing world. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Kelly and her fellow World Vision canvassers are taking advantage of peak holiday shopping season. They’re here every day, all day (even during extended holiday hours).

Stopping shoppers at the height of consumptive frenzy to remind them about global poverty might sound as futile as passing out feminist literature at a strip club.

But Hopkins says it’s exactly the right time and place.

“They’ve got time and money to spend. And people are like ‘We’re tired of stuff … I don’t know what to get Mom or Dad or brother or sister,'” she says. “[But] we’re here to give people the opportunity to redirect their funds into something that someone actually has desperate need for.”

Some consumers are already queasy in the face of recent tragedies like the garment factory fire in Banglades that killed 112 people. The factory produced for popular retailers like Wal-Mart and Sears.

“The Bangladesh fire was such a shocking, horrific event that I think that people are thinking more about where their products are coming from,” says Morgan Currier of United Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Washington.

Currier says she sees a renewed interest in conscientious consumption and thinks the holiday season is a good opportunity to shop ethically. Her number one tip for doing so is “don’t shop at Wal-Mart, just don’t go there.” (For a more comprehensive resource you might check out the National Green Pages, a directory of conscientious retailers).

What your donation will buy for a sponsor in the developing world. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
What your donation will buy for a sponsor in the developing world. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Whether people are “tired of stuff” as Hopkins believes, looking for ethical alternatives as Currier hopes, or just feel more generous this time of year, something is working.

World Vision reports that the Northgate campaign alone has raised over $29,000 since it began in September. An amount Cheryl DeBruler, Marking Operations Specialist, calls a “huge success” for a new campaign.

Hopkins measures that success in a string of colorful plastic beads dangling from a corner of the kiosk. Each bead represents a newly sponsored child who will receive a monthly donation to help secure food, water, education and health care for the next year.

But it’s tough work to secure those beads.

Despite her high-energy attempts, many people don’t hear her over the low roar of shopping. Others hurry past offering a guilty smile or muttered excuse.

Behind her is a large photo featuring smiling Kenyan children in blue school uniforms posing on a dirt road. They have access to clean water because of a World Vision project.

I find myself wondering if I would stop. My own bags are stuffed with things my family doesn’t need, things produced under circumstances I know nothing about. I avoid doing the math on how many child sponsorships my morning’s shopping might cover.

Just as I’m about to walk away, Hopkins catches the eye of a man with a graying goatee and leather jacket. She smiles big. His name is Ray.

“What’s your ideal gift?” I hear her ask as I gather my shopping bags, “Have you thought about a cow?”

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville


  1. For the past couple of years a friend and I have been sending goats and chickens, bags pf rice and such to a young Senegalese girl . In exchange, we recieve wonderful letters and photos thanking us and rhapsodizing on how the whole family is benefiting from a better diet that includes more more eggs and from building up a small flock of goats, which can be traded like cash, or, though I shudder to think of this, enjoyed as occasional food. When we found “our” little girls brothers were in school, but she wasn’t, we offered to send her to school and she was delighted to receive our offer, At times we have funded so many goats and chickens that the family shared some of them with other members of the village, which we thought was wonderful. Every our little girl and her father lavishly thank us and express their fervent wishes that we may someday visit them, which I am sorely tempted to do, though my compadre is less enthusiastic enthusiastic. It has occurred to me that if each affluent neiborhood in the west would assist a poor village in Africa or South Anmerica, the world would be a better place. An a similar, much larger scale effort has existed for 25 years between the sister islands of Bainbridgeand Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanols within the very large Lake Nicaragua. The Bainbridge dwellers import vitally needed and very delicious coffee that farmers grow on Omtepe, and roast it on their island so I can be sold for cash to cafeine-derived local people it is a staple. Bainbridge and Seattle dwellers who buy the coffee have funded all kinds of beneficial projects over the years including classrooms, libraries, health clinics, scholarships, cultural exchanges in which residents of both islands travel to their sister islands, etc. How great it would be if every neighborhood in the West could partner with a similarly sized neighborhood in a developing country to increase peace, friendship, understanding and welll being among all the participants. I wouldn’t mind spend a few weeks on Ometepe to help out however I could, work on my Spanish and learn about a different culture. Some of my friends have had a blast doing this. The idea of giving things that people in these villages need is fantastic. It helps us by enabling us to make other beings happy by giving them things they need and enjoy, and it helps us break our sad habit of accumulating stuff. Google “The Story of Stuff” to learn about the downside of having too many possessions.

  2. Wow, this sounds like such an incredible program for a great cause. Thank you for sharing this story! These are much better gifts than anything you could buy at the North Seattle Mall

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