"I am a sexual assault survivor and Dwyane has experienced hunger in his life, and we think it’s important to share that with our kids so they can understand the value of helping people," Gabrielle Union tells PEOPLE

By Topher Gauk-Roger
November 26, 2020 01:17 PM
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Credit: Michael Simon

Gabrielle Union is giving back this holiday season and hoping to inspire others to do the same.

The actress is teaming up with Amazon to assist charitable organizations in getting what they need most this time of year. Through the Amazon Smile Charity Lists, the online retailer is providing product and monetary donations to more than 1,000 charities around the world. For Union, it was a chance to help those in need without putting anyone at risk amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"I wanted to find a way to give back safely during this pandemic and this program allows people to donate to their favorite charities without even leaving their homes," she tells PEOPL exclusively. "This way, people can do their regular holiday shopping, and do something good while they’re at it. This is a time when all charitable organizations need extra support, and Amazon has created a method for people to give that without compromising their safety."

Union, 48, jumped at the opportunity to "ensure charities are getting what they actually need" through Amazon's wish list system. "It only takes the clicks of a few buttons for people to help," she adds.

Credit: Michael Simon

It was important for the star to highlight organizations close to her and husband Dwyane Wade's hearts: Deborah’s Place, which provides supportive housing and services to women who are homeless in Chicago, and the Women’s Center for Advancement, which helps women and their children stay safe in Omaha.

"These are organizations that respond to the needs in the places where Dwyane and I are from, so we know firsthand the affect these organizations have in their respective communities," she says. "We have dealt with food and housing insecurity in our own pasts, so we know what it’s like for those who need that assistance."

And the organizations couldn't be happier with the support from Union and Amazon. Jannette Taylor, CEO of WCA, tells PEEOPLE in a statement: "The Women’s Center for Advancement cannot thank Amazon and Gabrielle enough for their generous contribution. In addition to bringing awareness to the work our organization does in the community, they donated $25,000 as well as much-needed products for our clients. Being selected by Gabrielle Union mean a great deal to us. With Ms. Union having achieved her level of success, it is heartwarming to us to know that she is very much still connected to her hometown and advocating for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.”

Michelle Patterson, Development Director at Deborah’s Place, echoed the same grateful sentiments. "Because of our partnership with Amazon, Gabrielle and the Delivering Smiles program this holiday season, we are able to ensure that women who’ve experienced homelessness feel celebrated and loved during the holidays," Patterson said in a statement. "These donations will have a huge impact on our residents’ lives."

From their own past experience, Union and Wade, 38, know how important "the kindness of strangers" really is. "It would be a crime for me to not use my platform for good," she says. "Dwyane and I have seen the other side of things and know how difficult it can be, and so it couldn’t be more crucial for us to do what we can to provide support."

Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade and daughter Kaavia James
| Credit: Gabrielle Union/Instagram

The couple have shared their own personal journeys with their kids to teach them the importance of being charitable. They are parents to 2-year-old daughter Kaavia James, while Union is also a stepmother to Wade's daughter Zaya, 13, and his two sons Xavier Zechariah, 7, and Zaire, 18.

"I am a sexual assault survivor and Dwyane has experienced hunger in his life, and we think it’s important to share that with our kids so they can understand the value of helping people," Union explains. "There are so many out there who aren’t as fortunate, but we aren’t so far removed from it. We want them to know the value of using our blessings to help those in need, because you never know when we might be in need ourselves.

More than anything, it's important for the pair to show their kids they actually put their money where their mouth is. "You have to walk the walk, especially now because people will be quick to pull up the receipts," Union admits. "People love flexing on social media, but a flex isn’t enough, which is something we tell our kids all the time. You have to take that ‘flex’ and put it into action."

With the pandemic forcing everyone to "reimagine what the holidays look like this year," the star says her family will be scaling back their plans. "With our families being so dispersed, we originally had planned to have everyone come out," she says. "Our celebrations will be much smaller and more intimate this year than what we’re used to, but as long as we’re together and there’s a glazed ham, we are very content."

"Whether it’s enjoying food with 100 people or five, we’re just happy to be together," she adds.

The pair's hectic schedules have made it difficult to develop holiday traditions, but they've always put the focus on family and togetherness. "We’ve never had the luxury of being consistently at home, so every year is something new," Union reveals. "We've done Thanksgiving on a Saturday if Dwyane has a game or Christmas on the 18th or 29th. It’s all just about finding a day we can all be together. That’s what really matters."

One thing that never changes? The music. "It’s been a holiday tradition since I was a little girl to sing along to the entire original Broadway album of Dreamgirls with my family," she says. "Dwyane now wants to expand that to include the Hamilton album, so we’ll see how that goes."

With the "stress" of the election behind her, Union is "hopeful" about going into 2021 with a new administration "that takes the threat of this pandemic seriously. An administration that follows the guidance of scientists and medical professionals and comes up with concise plans that can hopefully bring real change." 

She is quick to point out that hope isn't enough, saying "a ton of work still needs to be done." She explains, "as exciting as this may be, we need to refocus and hit the ground running in the new year to keep up the hard work. I want to see a world and an administration that supports all people, including people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. I do believe change is in our grasp.”

While 2020 has been brought on new challenges for everyone, Union is focused on one positive word summing up the last year: hope.

"This year we have seen such a huge response from people who are getting involved, taking action and demanding change," she says. "I am seeing how people really are hopeful for a better future, and are willing to do the work to see that through."