NEW YORK — Teachers, tutors and babysitters are among life's golden helpers, and at holiday time, many of them get thank-you gifts from the kids and families they serve. A few may be lucky enough to get cash tips or pricey group presents organized by the team or class mom. In some communities, in fact, cash or expensive gift cards for teachers have become a bit of an ethical issue. But many teachers and caregivers end up with a load of small gifts bought on the fly — like scented candles and coffee mugs. We asked a few what they'd rather have.
Selena Yang, 22, in East Brunswick, N.J., is a former sitter and teacher's assistant at a preschool. Edible arrangements were fun, she said, but her best gift was a personalized cover for her Kindle in a white fleur-de-lis pattern against a background of baby blue, her favorite color.
"It had my initials on it," she said. "Not only was it thoughtful but it was unique."
The gift also required the givers, the family of one of her charges, to know a little something about her life outside the classroom. That's a good place to start if you're looking to up the significance factor.
Another of Yang's favorites: A family with three kids she once sat for gave her a simple charm bracelet with a heart, a star and a ballet slipper, the latter marking the 17 years she spent dancing.
Some helpers cherish handmade gifts, cards and drawings, keeping them for years. The simple gesture means a lot to high school teachers, one said, because it indicates a busy, hormonally challenged teen put in some time.
Does the helper drive a lot? One babysitter touted an emergency car kit as THE best gift ever.
In San Francisco, Juan Bunci, 31, is a part time SAT tutor. His best was a $250 gift card to a website offering harbor cruises, dinners out and a variety of other outings.
There are many sites filled with fun classes, trips, restaurant deals and other amusements and services around the world in a broad range of prices, so look around.
"I used it to go sailing in the bay and also took rock-climbing classes," he said. "I'm hoping more of my clients give me these because I really don't want more crappy stuff."
Candi Wingate, president of the nanny search site Nannies4hire, said a variety of variables are at play when considering holiday cash or other gifts for sitters, including years with the family and the number of children involved.
For Jan Fogel, 59, in Washington, D.C., a generous check meant a lot from one Chevy Chase, Md., family that had one toddler when she began and three kids by the time she left seven years later.
"It was my first Christmas with the family and they'd given me an envelope just before I left the house," she said. "While waiting for the Metro train home, I opened the envelope and found a check for $1,000. I started to cry. No one had ever been that generous to me before."
Wingate suggested tracking down a caregiver's favorite clothing store for a gift certificate, or offering tickets to the movies, theater, concerts or sporting events.
She also urged employers to think seriously about how much they can afford and how little the caregiver might have.
Are you rolling in it? Then up the offering to a gym membership or several trips to a day spa in addition to cash. How about paid vacations, paid trips home to a nanny's community of origin or use of your family's summer cottage?
If that sounds like a lot, consider a cell phone or cell phone upgrade, a netbook, DVDs or books, scrapbooking materials, a designer purse, or a pair of fancy boots.
There may be others in your life for whom a very personal gift is not appropriate, but a grand gesture might be.
New York family nurse practitioner Noreen Mulvanerty, 50, used to work in emergency rooms. She says she's received plenty of memorable gifts over the years but there's one she'll never forget. It was from a young, out-of-town house painter who had fallen 10 feet from a scaffold, lacerated his liver and landed in intensive care with no friends or family around.
"I visited him every day," she said. "Finally he was released and a week later he returned with a dozen red roses and chocolate. He came in and picked me up and said, 'I love you like my mother!' "