When my oldest son Michael turned five and had his first official birthday party, he didn’t ask for gifts, he asked for toys for the after school program at St. Lawrence Place, a shelter for homeless families with children. Two years later his younger brother, Colin, did the same. Two more years passed and it was time for son number three’s birthday party. As we started working on the invitations, we reminded him we were going to ask for soccer balls and sidewalk chalk for those same homeless children, but this time something different happened.
My child said he wanted to keep the presents.
Aidan taught me a lot that birthday season. He taught me it’s never too early to start talking about helping others, and how we can all give back, but he also taught me it’s not about you (the parent) and your hopes and dreams of the perfect child and budding philanthropist. He taught me it was OK that he wanted to keep his own presents.
So how do you help your child find his cause?
If your child loves animals, talk about a nearby animal shelter you can help. Have a talk about people in our community who are less fortunate. My same hard-headed but tender-hearted Aidan wore pink every day for three years in support of his dear teacher, a grandmother and a great-aunt – all who fought breast cancer at some point in his young life. Trust me, as a mother of five very different boys, I can tell you just like adults, each child will find their own, different, passion. Help them do some research – visit the organization if it’s possible (always check first, as some agencies have strict rules about visitors). Make it as personal as possible.
Now, this is where the giving comes in … and you help them decide how they can actually share their own time, talents and treasures.
10 Simple Ways Your Kids Can Give Back to the Community
Here’s a list of ten easy and fun activities your family can do this spring and summer to help support our community and build a better understanding of what “giving back” really means.
1. Give birthday gifts to those in need. Shelters like St. Lawrence Place and Palmetto Place can always use new socks and underwear for children, individually packaged snacks and cleaning supplies. Ask for these items instead of gifts (if your child approves, of course!) or ask for a small item for a shelter in addition to any other gift they want to bring.
2. Walk or run as a family! The more pink you wear the better at Get in the Pink for Share Our Suzy (May 7, 2016) or the higher the heels the better for Walk A Mile In Her Shoes to benefit Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands (April 14, 2016). Walks and runs are held regularly to benefit local non-profits … you support a great cause while spending a morning outside together.
3. Let your children help you sort through your old towels, sheets and other linens and bag them for the animals at shelters such as Pawmetto Lifeline or the Humane Society. If you have an especially large home (and heart) and a fenced yard, you could even volunteer to be a foster family!
4. Collect food items or help sort food donations for a food pantry such as Harvest Hope Food Bank. Children must be at least 10 years old to sort food in Harvest Hope’s warehouses (and accompanied by an adult), so your younger children could help organize and plan a neighborhood food drive instead.
5. Collect hotel toiletry items for Transitions and Oliver Gospel Mission. Your child can ask family and friends to save their hotel leftovers and keep them in a bucket in order to keep an eye on their collection progress. Once you’ve got your donation ready, have your children write a note to accompany the donation and let them ride along for the delivery (call ahead and be sure the office is open and drop-off’s are accepted).
6. Set up a lemonade stand and donate the proceeds to a local organization. Chances are you have most of the supplies in your pantry already – add a colorful poster, some roadside salesmanship (with adult supervision, of course) and your own well-placed social media and your children are guaranteed to raise money for their cause. Tag me and I promise I’ll come buy a cup … or five!
7. Fix lunch for homeless children during Spring Break or Summer Camp at St. Lawrence Place (March 28 – April 1 or June – August). The full-day camp hosts up to 35 homeless children each day, and families and groups are welcome to prepare and serve a healthy lunch for the children on-site, or you can make the food at home at home and just drop it off.
8. Visit a skilled nursing facility, and take a few cards and some treats with you. I know this one may sound odd, but as I took care of my aunt for the past few years, I noticed how so many of her “hall-mates” wanted to talk with my boys each time we visited. They were just lonely. We got permission to leave treats – oranges, peppermints, small lotions – and the boys would deliver them with a smile and a kind word. Think of who you may know and reach out to them or their family. If you don’t know of anyone, call the administrative office of a home and ask for the activities director.
9. United Way of the Midlands helped over 5,300 volunteers find a match with dozens of agencies throughout the Midlands last year for one-time volunteer opportunities, special events and projects. If you need more ideas, or even more structure, check out their website!
10. Start a Little Free Library book exchange. First, see if there is already one in your neighborhood. If there is, stop by and chat with the library steward and ask for their advice as you get started. Then, following the steps outlined on their website, you and your children can create your own reading get-away for your street!
Remember, most organizations require volunteers to be 16 years old, and even then, may ask a parent to stay with them while they volunteer. Keep one important thing in mind … while your child and this lesson in service are important, the mission and daily operation of the organization is also important. You want it to be a good experience for everyone so your child will want to do this for the rest of their life!
Last May those same three boys who shared (or didn’t share) their birthday gifts years ago begged me to stay home on the last day of school. After a quick parent poll, it turned out most of my friends were struggling with the same decision … and then one (not even sure which one) came up with the idea: they could stay home if they volunteered.
That last day of school turned into a day of service for close to 15 children. All ages, from all schools, all doing one thing: helping paint a room used for childcare at a homeless shelter for families (the same one they’d sent soccer balls to all those years ago).
One thing is for sure, my boys will continue to make a difference in their own way … and so will your children!