At a time when worry and fear threaten to eclipse the comfort and joy of Christmas, Hal Taussig is defying the grim economy with the most powerful antidote he knows - generosity.
Specifically, he is giving away thousands of dolls and toy bears to three local organizations whose missions he deems worthy of support.
Taussig, 84, is president of Untours, an unconventional travel agency based in Media (www.untours.com). Over the years, his business has been successful enough that he could be living in a mansion and driving a Bentley. Instead, he lives in modest frame house and rides his bike to work. He and his wife, Norma, epitomize Thoreau's idea of simple living. They follow the motto, "Live simply that others may simply live."
For Taussig, giving is not just a seasonal affair but a year-round practice.
Since 1992, he has channeled $5 million in profits from his business to the Untours Foundation, which he and his wife founded to lend money to fledgling enterprises around the world that create jobs that improve the lives of the poor.
"The story of Christmas is really about a homeless family and a child who became a refugee," says Taussig. "I'm hoping the dolls will make people aware of the vast and growing gap between the rich and the poor."
Taussig got involved in the doll business after meeting Gretchen Wilson, creator of Little Souls, adorable dolls that have since become valuable collectibles. The two discussed the idea of launching a line of dolls and bears for children. In 2000, Taussig invested $400,000 so the offshoot company, Little Souls International, could begin producing the dolls at a factory in Sri Lanka.
He had one nonnegotiable condition:
"I wasn't interested in slave labor. I would lend the money only if the profits could be given back to the workers."
The dolls, marketed under the brand name Dandles for $19.95, sold well enough the first year to generate a profit of $22,000, and in early 2001 Taussig traveled to Sri Lanka so he could personally hand out shares of the profit to the factory's 450 workers. Each received about $50.
"It may not sound like much to us, but it was a lot for them," Taussig says. "It was enough to give every worker a month's extra pay."
Orders were streaming in from hundreds of stores across the United States, and two salespeople had just been hired, when the Bridgeport warehouse fire broke out in May 2001. The blaze crippled the parent company, Little Souls, which manufactured dolls at the site, and destroyed the records - though none of the Dandles dolls - of its affiliate, Little Souls International. Little Souls dolls are still being made, but the subsidiary company Taussig was involved with limped along for a while and folded in 2005.
What survived was the Dandles inventory - about 60,000 dolls, which Taussig inherited as payback for his loan and stored beneath his business in Media.
Over the last several years, Taussig's colleague, Elizabeth Killough, has given away at least 10,000 dolls and bears on behalf of her boss and sold thousands more, enough to raise about $50,000, which has been returned to the foundation to provide more low-interest loans.
Now, Taussig is about to give away another 3,000 dolls - 1,000 each to the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Delaware County Literacy Council, and Presbyterian Children's Village.
The Friends of the Free Library will use the dolls to raise funds to save the 11 branches slated to be closed because of the city's budget crunch, said executive director Amy Dougherty.
The Delaware County Literacy Council will give away a book and a bear as a way to encourage reading. "A toy bear is a snuggle thing," said the council's executive director, Madeline Bialecki, "and we think of parents snuggling with their children and reading as way of bonding over books."
Darlene Hewett, president and chief executive officer of Presbyterian Children's Village, a social-service agency with facilities in Rosemont and Southwest Philadelphia, said the dolls are welcome gifts that will brighten Christmas for many of the children and families the organization serves as it seeks to heal spirits broken by violence, addiction, mental illness, racism and poverty.
Taussig is satisfied that his investment is being used wisely.
"If you want to find Jesus, don't look in the manger," says Taussig, who attends First United Methodist Church of Media. "Go where the poor are. Jesus said, 'When you give to the poor, you give to me.' "