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Sweet Charity

You've picked the perfect bauble for everyone from your baby-sitter to your brother-in-law. Why not play Santa Claus to someone you don't know? The city is filled with organizations that need your dollars more than ever -- and it might well be the most meaningful exchange you'll have all year.

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It may be the season to get high on hot toddies, stuffed with turkey, and tangled in Christmas lights. But glorious gluttony aside, it's also a time when not just our bellies but our hearts are full -- and we want to give something back. From homeless shelters to hospitals, there are hundreds of organizations that could use your help. Here, a few of New York's worthiest causes.

Cultural Institutions

Sixty-year-old New York City Opera (212-870-5624; nycopera.com) is known for nurturing young, up-and-coming artists -- Renée Fleming launched her career here -- and for its affordable tickets (they start at $25). Donors can earmark where their money goes -- to production, rehearsals, or artists' fees. Contributors of $10,000 or more can snag special invitations to parties such as Brooke and Peter Duchin's annual bash thrown at their apartment.

Contributions to the New York City Ballet (212-870-5682; development@nycballet.com) are put toward the cost of 23 weeks of performances, the creation of new works, and funding educational programs. A $1,500 donation gets you access to house seats for popular performances. Give $5,000 or more, and you'll also be invited to private receptions and dinners with the dancers.

By giving money to the New York Philharmonic (212-875-5683; newyorkphilharmonic.org), America's oldest orchestra, donors help defray costs of commissioning new works and bringing music to the non-paying public. Money goes toward tours, free concerts in the park, radio broadcasts, as well as general operating expenses. Patrons who give $75 are invited to attend rehearsals.

At the Museum of the City of New York (212-534-1672; mcny.org), which preserves and presents 400 years of Gotham history (the twelve current and ongoing exhibits range in topic from the first Automat to the Astor Place Riot), a mere $35 donation gets you membership privileges like free admission, discounts on store merchandise, and invitations to the spring and fall receptions.

Medicine and Community Outreach

Founded as the New York Cancer Hospital in 1884, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (646-227-3548; mskcc.org) is the world's oldest and largest cancer facility (it served 18,739 inpatients last year). The focus is on cancer research as well as patient care. Donators can specify where they'd like their gift to go -- toward breast-cancer research, for example -- or money may be left "unrestricted" for the hospital to use as it chooses, on operating expenses, education, and social services.

The Lenox Hill Neighborhood House (212-744-5022; lenoxhill.org), a multiservice community center, helps up to 20,000 people annually -- the homeless, single parents, needy kids, and the homebound elderly. Programs range from support centers for teens and seniors to transitional housing for the homeless to ESL and computer classes for adults. Fund-raisers like the annual Holiday Bazaar at Sotheby's are hot tickets.

Founded in 1988, the Robin Hood Foundation (212-227-6601; robinhood.org) finds and funds more than 100 programs around the city that combat poverty and its causes. A board of directors that includes Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow underwrites operating expenses, so 100 percent of the monies donated go to food banks, charter schools, domestic-violence programs, and the like.

Give to the NYU Medical Center (212-404-3640; nyumedicalcenter.org) and you'll help fund cutting-edge research and general patient care at the hospital. For those who are interested in the actual science, a donation of $1,000 or more grants access to the center's lecture series.

The Parkinson's Disease Foundation (800-457-6656; pdf.org) gives funding to scientists working for a cure to the neurological disorder. The majority of monies go toward research, but the foundation also distributes information on support groups, clinical specialists, and other foundations.

Animal Aid

The Animal Medical Center (212-838-8100; amcny.org), a 92-year-old nonprofit veterinary hospital, tends to over 65,000 four-legged patients annually. Donations go toward research -- no harm to animals, of course -- as well as running the hospital and its postgraduate education program.

Kitty Kind (212-726-2652; kittykind.org), a no-kill, all-volunteer cat-rescue-and-adoption group, finds homes for up to 2,000 cats a year. Not a shelter, the group instead deposits felines directly from the pound and the street into temporary foster homes. Every penny donated goes to medical care and food.

Harlem's abandoned, abused, or neglected "junkyard dogs" have a champion in Sentient Creatures (212-865-5998; sentientcreatures.org). All donations go to food, shelter, and medical care, plus they'll actually pay you $50 a week to provide a temporary home to a pup waiting for permanent adoption.

Food and Shelter

Volunteering at a soup kitchen over the holidays is a tradition in many families, but if you can't make it yourself, you can still help out. Give to City Meals on Wheels (212-687-1234; citymeals.org), a group with a network of 120 centers around the city serving mostly low-income, homebound people. Every bit of money you give them will be put toward meal preparation (they do not take food donations) and delivery.

City Harvest (917-351-8700; cityharvest.org) collects 16 million pounds of unused food every year from restaurants, corporations, and Greenmarkets, and gets it to those who need it, from single-parent families and senior citizens to soup kitchens and food-relief centers. Money goes toward truck maintenance and delivery costs.

To help provide shelter, consider giving to the Partnership for the Homeless (212-645-3444; partnershipforthehomeless.org), a volunteer-run group that joins forces with churches, synagogues, and mosques around the city, maintaining 100 small overnight emergency shelters.

The Bowery Mission (212-684-2800; bowery.org) offers its 62 beds to homeless men who are recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The organization offers meals, showers, clothing, and career counseling.

Children's Programs

Kids' charities may not be able to create a carefree childhood, but they can supply necessary aid and programs for the city's children in need. Variety -- the Children's Charity (212-760-2777; varietyny.org) funds pediatric services in inner-city hospitals, special-education programs, and after-school activities.

One of the nation's oldest and largest kids' programs, the Children's Aid Society (212-949-4936; childrensaidsociety.org) strives to improve the lives of the 120,000 families it serves annually with recreation programs, academic tutoring, and medical resources.

Make-a-Wish Foundation (516-944-6212; wish.org/metrony) grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. The program was founded 22 years ago after a terminally ill boy in Arizona -- who dreamed of being a state trooper -- inspired his community to get him a motorcycle and a tiny uniform and arrange for him to spend one day on patrol.

Nearly a century old, Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC (212-686-2042; bigsnyc.org) provides long-term one-on-one mentoring for 7- to 17-year-old kids from single-parent families and underserved communities. Donations go toward matching kids with volunteers, who mentor children in schools and the juvenile-justice system or are assigned "littles" to take on cultural, educational, and recreational outings.

Established in 1995, PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning; 646-638-0565; pencil.org) is an educational nonprofit that encourages the private sector to get involved in the city's public schools. Their Principal for a Day program invites celebs and CEOs to visit schools and create partnerships with them, like providing management advice or starting scholarship funds. All proceeds target specific school needs, ranging from library books to refurbished playgrounds.

HIV- and AIDS-Related Charities

Established in 1982, Gay Men's Health Crisis (212-367-1585; gmhc.org) offers counseling and legal aid to anyone infected with HIV or AIDS.

An outgrowth of ACT UP, Housing Works (212-967-1500; housingworks.org) has many services for homeless (or formerly homeless) people living with HIV and aids. Programs include needle exchange, mental-health services, legal aid, advocacy, and job training.

God's Love We Deliver (212-294-8146; godslovewedeliver.org) arranges for top chefs to prepare gourmet meals in the company's Soho kitchen, then delivers the food to people living with HIV and AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses in all five boroughs and parts of New Jersey.

Umbrella Organizations New York Cares (212-228-5000; nycares.org) enlists tens of thousands of volunteers annually and works with hundreds of nonprofits and public organizations (schools, libraries, parks) to help diagnose the needs of communities and link projects with the appropriate manpower. Giving money to the organization benefits everyone from public-school children and the elderly to the homeless, hospital patients, and people living with HIV and AIDS.

For more information, log on to the charity guide at www.nymetro.com/charities. The site has links to various needy organizations throughout the city, categorized by cause and by neighborhood, as well as pages on World Trade Center charities and "unusual ways to give."

Additional reporting by Jada Yuan and Leanne Shear.


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