Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not just another bedroom community

Newtown Township is hosting their twice a year book sale next week at the meeting room at the Township Building adjacent to the library. The sale includes not only books, but videos, CDs, audio books, and games & puzzles. I drove over yesterday to drop off a few boxes of books. The books are kept in one volunteer's garage until a few days before the event. The Township sends workers over to load the boxes of donated books and bring them to the sale site. Volunteers then sort through them and separate them into paperbacks, hard bound books, and the other categories, and then a further sort by subject matter: fiction, history, how to, etc. They will be open for business there from February 1-5. Go to the Library's website for more details.

I recognized all of the the volunteers. I have worked with them all on various township events. I spoke with the woman whose garage is the permanent home of the used book collection prior to sale. She has been involved in the library for as long as I have lived here, and is also involved in other community affairs and events. My wife and I occasionally attend a local church where we know the choir director, and we see our library volunteer there as well. She is a person who is involved in the world, not just passing through it. We talked about how we see the same faces at our different events - the same volunteers. I told her that is why I was drawn to the local historical society; because I ended up meeting all of the people who make a difference in the community: the organizers of the 4th of July parade, the people behind the historic sign project in Newtown, the people who volunteer on Election Day, who support the fire department, who put on Heritage Day and the Fall Festival, who run the school tours, who attend the Township meetings, and serve on various boards and committees in the community. I told her that at one time I saw all of these people together in one room and thought "what would happen to the township if a bomb went off in this room?" She said "then we'd be just another bedroom community."

I asked as well what happens to the "leftovers" after the sale. First, the library takes selected items to put on their $1 cart at the entranceway. A second non-profit organization takes selected books to sell and raise money for women in need. A third non-profit then agrees to take the balance. And then the library starts collecting books for the next sale in August.

The Township Library is a public charity, and so gifts of money or property to the Library are permitted as charitable deductions on your federal income tax returns. The Library will give you a receipt - but they do not list all of the property that you gave them, or value it. It is up to you to decide what the value is. The IRS regulations (see Publication 526) state the basic rule that "If you contribute property to a qualified organization, the amount of your charitable contribution is generally the fair market value of the property at the time of the contribution." There are certain record-keeping requirements as well. You need to have a written acknowledgement of the gift from the qualified organization, and then you must list each item, and your calculation of fair market value. At higher contribution levels, more detail is required. I have in the past used a basic Excel spreadsheet for clothing donations. I suppose I can use the same form for the books. But do I make a list of every book in every box? In theory I suppose you need to do so. I have not given it much thought - my main mission was simply to get these boxes of books out of the house. The charitable deduction is icing on the cake. If you are not abusing your deductions, but giving an honest estimate based on some logical method, then I am counting on the IRS not to audit me on this basis alone, and to look at my spreadsheet and agree that I have met my burden of proof.

Public libraries, community volunteers, charitable deductions, and cheap books and CD's, all things to be thankful for today.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to the office ...

My commute to my office is ten minutes. Today, it took me past the post office, where I stopped to mail letters. Two Girl Scouts and their moms had set up a table and were selling Girl Scout cookies. I had money in my pocket, they had cookies, and so we made an exchange. I support their cause - scouting and the values it instills - while they cater to my weakness - cookies.

When I left, I stopped at the traffic light. Today is the coldest day of the year so far, 17 degrees with a wind chill below 10. At the traffic light were college students, Penn State students, standing in the cold and holding donation cans. "Canning" in their parlance. I was a Penn State student; my son is a current Penn State student. I know this drill. They are raising money for The Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children's Hospital, to benefit the fight against pediatric cancer. The fundraising ends with the annual event now known as THON.

THON started at Penn State the same year that I did, 1973, when it was known as the IFC Dance Marathon - and at that time the "marathon" part of it got more attention than the fundraising part. But with each year, as it raised more and more money, its fame spread. In 1992, THON raised more than one million dollars in a year for the first time. Last year THON raised over $8 million, of which about $7.5 million went to the Four Diamonds Fund. Today, it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since 1977, THON has raised more than $69 million. And who is this mysterious IFC that started and continues to be one of the primary organizers of the event? The Interfraternity Council - the fraternities and sororities at Penn State. Many other groups now participate and contribute - but the beating heart of the effort has been "frat boys" and "sorority girls". $69,000,000.00 for pediatric cancer. Not bad for "frat boys" and "sorority girls".

The visit to the post office and the traffic stop each left me financially lighter but feeling good about the world I was passing through. As I pulled into my office lot, I navigated past two runners, running on the coldest day of the year. No sitting at home complaining for them. They are out taking inventory of what they've got inside, and developing the qualities that can deal face to face with adversity in life.

In my ten minute drive to the office, I encountered all of these wonderful people, out making a difference in the world. You can be one of them too. Buy the cookies. Fill the cans. Donate online to THON (see DONATE NOW at the website). Take inventory of yourself and exercise all of those things that we each have inside us that contribute to the common good.

Our Capacity for Wonder

In the summer 2003, NASA launched two dune buggies aimed towards Mars. They both landed successfully in January 2004, and began tooling around on their scheduled 3 month missions. They are still there 7 years later. Spirit stopped communicating in March 2010, but NASA has not given up hope; Opportunity is still moving around, taking photos, analyzing samples, sending back data. Meanwhile, in 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched towards Mars as well, and now continues to circle the planet, sending back data and taking photos, including a recent one showing Opportunity at the edge of a crater it is studying.

In elementary school in the 60's, we brought in TV's and watched every single manned launch. Now, these amazing feats of technology are taken for granted. But sometimes we need to be reminded of the amazing things we can accomplish - and we need to look at pictures of the surface of Mars, and exercise our sense of wonder.