Terry heart handsThe guests have gone home, torn wrapping and tissue paper litter the floor, opened presents are scattered about. We look around and ask ourselves, "Now what?"   Are the gifts still giving us a warm fuzzy feeling or is there something more we're looking for? Orange County and Irvine have worthy charitable organizations where we can help others in need, and begin to fill that spot in our hearts not satisfied by electronic gadgets, designer shoes or gift cards.

Here are six ways to make our OC community a better place, so take a look to see if you'd like to spend some time helping out in the new year.  

6.  CHOC Children's Hospital  CHOC was voted "The Best Place to Volunteer" by the Orange County Register in 2011.  Over 700 volunteers give over 6,000 hours per month. There are many unique opportunities for enthusiastic, compassionate, energetic, qualified and committed individuals of all ages and backgrounds to join CHOC volunteer team. Whether you are motivated by a desire to help out in your community, are looking for exposure to careers in the health care field, or simply want to "give back", you will find your volunteer experience a rewarding and exciting one. 714-997-3000

5.  Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine solicits and coordinates funding efforts and volunteers to supply food, education and advocacy for the hungry through nonprofit partners and direct feeding programs.  949-653-2900.

4.  StandUp For Kids targets homeless and at-risk youths age 21 and younger in the Irvine area. In addition to helping homeless and at-risk youth with immediate necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and personal hygiene, StandUp For Kids offers assistance in finding housing; education assistance; vocational development; counseling; health services; transportation to self-help meetings; and legal assistance. Volunteers also conduct life-skills training, covering such areas as budgeting, banking, apartment cleanliness and safety, shopping and cooking, nutrition, and hygiene. Laundry services and lunch and snack facilities are made available, as well as mail and message services. 714-356-KIDS (5437)

3. Families Forward is an Irvine-based nonprofit organization that assists homeless and low-income families. Our mission is to help families in need achieve and maintain self-sufficiency through housing, counseling, education and other support services. Families Forward began with only five apartment units and one part-time counselor. Since then, we have grown to include fourteen homes, a food pantry, program and career counseling, and life skills training.  9221 Irvine Blvd., Irvine, CA 92618   949-552-2727 

2.  Catholic Charities of Orange County   Catholic Charities of Orange County provides social service programs to reduce poverty, strengthen families and build healthy communities.  CCOC provides food distribution, professional individual, family and group counseling services and parent education programs, limited employment services, accredited resettlement, immigration and citizenship services, and a camping program for developmentally disabled individuals. 1820 East 16th St., Santa Ana, CA 92701   714-347-9600

And the number one way to warm your heart is...

Continually do little acts of kindness each day.  Graciously let a car cut in front of you on your freeway commute.  Hold back that snarky comment and think of a kinder response.  Smile at the person who is slowing you down at the grocery store. Hold the door open for someone, and thank the person who holds open the door for you. Offer to put away someone's grocery cart when you're walking past them into the store....you get the idea.

 Why did I rank this  #1?

I do it for 6 year old Ben Wheeler, who lost his life this December in the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT.  The horrific event hit home like a ton of bricks when I learned my college Drama Department friend lost his son, Ben, in that first grade classroom massacre. As fellow classmates gathered to grieve and rally in support, I silenlty vowed to do little acts of kindness every day in honor of Ben. 

 Here's Ben's Obituary:

Terry Ben WinklerBenjamin Andrew Wheeler, 6, departed this life on Friday, December 14, 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Benjamin was born in New York City on September 12, 2006, a son of David Cole and Francine (Lobis) Wheeler. Ben was an irrepressibly bright and spirited boy whose love of fun and excitement at the wonders of life and the world could rarely be contained. His rush to experience life was headlong, creative and immediate. He was a devoted fan of his older brother, Nate, and the two of them together filled the house with the noise of four children. He loved the local soccer program, often running across the field long after it was actually necessary, but always smiling and laughing as he moved the ball nearly always at full tilt. He was becoming a strong swimmer and loved his lessons. Eager to learn, he couldn't wait to get to school to see his teacher and his growing group of new first grade friends. Ben was also a member of Tiger Scout Den 6 which met at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Firehouse. Earlier in December, Ben performed at his piano recital and sitting still long enough to play one piece was an accomplishment he reveled in. He loved The Beatles, lighthouses, and the number 7 train to Sunnyside, Queens. In a conversation with Francine before school on Friday, he said, "I still want to be an architect, but I also want to be a paleontologist, because that's what Nate is going to be and I want to do everything Nate does."

Terry Ben Wheeler Lighthouse

The image of the lighthouse has become a symbol for Ben's life. Be the lighthouse in your community.

If you would like to help his family (David, Francine and 9 year old Nate) with funeral costs and bereavement care you may donate to the Benjamin Wheeler Fund via PayPal to benwheelerfund@yahoo.com. 

Thank you so much for your thoughts, prayers and help.

Terry Winkler  is the founder of Enter Stage Write, an Orange County theater, entertainment and lifestyle website.