Sari Gross started with a small idea to spread holiday cheer. But the difference she has made in her community is the lasting gift.

By Cassie Kreitner

On a trip to the mall during the holiday season in 1995, Sari Gross and her children, Lauren and Bobby, then 5 and 3, walked by a Christmas tree decorated with angel ornaments listing names and ages of people who couldn't afford presents. Both kids asked questions—about the people listed and what they could do to help, particularly since they were Jewish and didn't have a tree. Once home in Wayne, New Jersey, Sari, now 51, and her husband, Steve, now 52, held a family meeting to plan how they could start something similar. "We needed to find a way to nourish our kids' curiosity," says Sari, "and empower them to take positive action on their own."

The family decided that a paper flame would be a good symbol to represent aspects of the holiday season: menorah candles, Christmas tree lights and the brightening of lives with hope. Over the next few days, Sari reached out to agencies for anonymous lists of clients in need, both kids and adults. The Grosses then spent an afternoon writing each person's initials, age, gender and the gift they would like to receive on the flames.

Everywhere she went, Sari asked people to adopt a flame by picking one that spoke to their heart. Lauren and Bobby chose elderly men because they were growing up without grandfathers. "It started out so small," says Sari, "that even if we only reached out to a few friends, there would be enough gifts to go around."

Seventeen years later the concept remains, but Flames of Giving has greatly expanded. This fall, she hopes to receive 1,200 contributions, up from 993 last year. Sari typically contacts three new organizations a year. Donations now come from the general public, small businesses, international companies, civic and religious groups, schools and youth organizations, primarily in northern New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area. Gifts begin filling up the den in early November and quickly spread into the dining room and outside to the garage.

Once all the items have arrived, Sari recruits volunteers (usually her friends' kids) to wrap and sort the presents for delivery to the agencies. She still gets lots of help from Lauren and Bobby, whose responsibilities have evolved over the years. They first handed out flames as Sari's "helpers," then took on larger roles as part of their community service projects for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and as college students they've helped spread the word.

At her synagogue, Sari offers students a flame and information packets to take home to their parents. She makes clear that it's a volunteer activity, and her only request is that they return the flame if they decide not to participate. "We are committed to finding donations for all the flames we create, and that is my constant worry," Sari says. "Whether I buy an extra present out of my own pocket or use the money someone has donated for shopping, we make sure every person receives something."

Sari initially encouraged donors to buy actual items, but she realized there was a growing need in the community for basic necessities and started accepting gift cards to local drugstores, restaurants and retail chains. The organization occasionally gives gift cards for parents to shop for their kids.

Sari's plans include encouraging people to give back all year long. She frequently fields calls from folks offering donations, anything from extra TVs to party favors. Sometimes they're just sharing concern for a struggling unemployed neighbor. In the next year she hopes to launch spin-off groups like Art of Giving, where local students and adult artists decorate homeless shelters, soup kitchens and nursing homes.

But more than anything Sari likes to inspire everyone, particularly kids, to think of their own way to make a difference. She points out that anyone with a list of people in need and a handful of goodhearted family and friends can start a similar project. "We realize gifts don't make life-changing differences for the recipients," Sari says. "But the gifts do make moment-changing differences, and that's what's important."

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Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.