Victoria Marin is a mom with a mission: Twice a year, she and her five kids fill her car with empty shopping bags donated by her local Norwood, NJ, supermarket. Each bag has an instruction sheet attached by the Marins explaining that it should be filled with nonperishable items and brought to a local church that sponsors a food drive. Marin then goes door-to-door with her brood, ages 2 to 14, and each takes a turn hanging a bag on the doorknob of a house along their route. “This creative way of reaching out helps my children learn the importance of giving rather than receiving,” says Marin, whose efforts helped collect 500 pounds of food during the last drive. “Sometimes, a homeowner will greet the kids and thank them for delivering the bags and volunteering to help those in need. Even the baby comes along.”
“A lot of parents feel overwhelmed by the idea of community service,” says Jenny Friedman, Ph.D., executive director of Doing Good Together, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps families find ways to volunteer together. Between soccer practice and dance lessons and general running-of-the-family responsibilities, time is pretty darn tight. But projects like Marin’s prove that it doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference. The best way to get kids excited about taking on a new project? Start with something they already know and love.
Here, we’ve identified five common kid passions and matched them with give-back activities your family can do in just a few hours at home or out in your community. Ready to get started? Let’s go!
1. Helping Other Kids
Kitchen Table Project: Every kid seems to have a closet full of outgrown sports gear. Your little athletes can gather up those bats, balls, sticks, and cleats and donate the pile to Sports Gift. This nonprofit has provided more than 250,000 pieces of sports equipment to underprivileged children around the world. “This is a great way for your kids to truly affect the life of another child who is less fortunate,” says Linda Cohen, author of 1,000 Mitzvahs. Or you can challenge your kid to do a few extra chores and then reward his hard work by purchasing a TisBest charity gift card for him. The card works just like a gift card, but instead of using it to buy stuff, the recipient (in this case, your kid) uses it to support a charity of his choice. All your child has to do is go to the TisBest website, plug in his card code, and pick his charity organizations. TisBest has more than 250 to choose from, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Children’s Defense Fund, and Reach Out and Read.
Out in the Community: If your do-gooders would like to brighten the day of a child who is coping with a serious illness, consider visiting your local Ronald McDonald House. Some allow families to hang out and cook meals, host a movie night, and more. (Call first to find out.) Another option: Help your kids plan a Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale at school or in the neighborhood to help raise money for pediatric cancer research. Or hold an informal stuffed animal drive and collect dolls and toys to give to your local hospital or police department. These are used to comfort children who’ve been injured in a car accident or other traumatic experience.
2. Taking Care of the Planet
Kitchen Table Project: Eco-awareness is a great jumping-off point for introducing kids to the power of social action. One place to start: Recycling. Create drop-off boxes for expired batteries, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and other harder-to-recycle-but-still-recyclable items to place in local shops and community centers, Cohen suggests. Once you get the okay from shop owners to set up your recycling boxes, make a list of the spots where you’ve placed them. Then, choose a day each month (the last Saturday, for example) when your family picks up the boxes that you’ve scattered across town and delivers them to the appropriate recycling center.
Out in the Community: Pick up litter. Yes, it may be obvious — and it’s certainly not glamorous — but litterbugs are still on the loose. If there’s trash in your local park, take before and after photos of your clean-up efforts and send them along with an essay about your work to Wilderness Project. Or next time you’re at a playground, encourage your kids to pick up five bits of trash before they play. “It’s a habit that will help them become stewards in their neighborhood,” says Friedman. “It’s a simple but powerful lesson that appeals to kids of all ages.”
3. Cooking Up Fun
Kitchen Table Project: Sometimes it’s not what you cook but how you present it. Decorate paper lunch bags and drop them off at your local Meals on Wheels. Or have your kids decorate a food collection bin for your kitchen. After shopping, they can put one or two nonperishables into the box when you get home. Deliver it to your local food pantry when it’s full.
Out in the Community: Contact a soup kitchen to see if they offer any family-friendly volunteer opportunities. Most sites like these are best for kids ages 12 and up, but some welcome younger children who want to set or decorate tables. Or you could sign up to deliver food from Meals on Wheels and take kids of any age along. If you can’t find an organization near you that allows children to do hands-on helping, consider baking treats and bringing them to your local heroes who work the night shift at the fire station, police station, or hospital.
4. Making and Creating
Kitchen Table Project: Help your child harness her creativity by making care kits for the homeless. After decorating small paper grocery bags or shoe boxes, fill them with warm socks, lip balm, a water bottle, and granola. Your kids can include a drawing or warm greeting.
Out in the Community: Do a crafts session with residents of your town’s elderly care home. Little kids can make candy wreaths by gluing sweets onto cardboard rings or decorate tea tins to make coin-holders, Cohen suggests. Have the older ones bring a few blank sketch pads and colored pencils or paints so thatthey and the senior residents can do some interactive art projects. They might draw portraits of each other, doodle cartoons to make each other laugh, or paint pictures for each other’s bedroom walls.
5. Cuddling Up to Furry Friends
Kitchen Table Project: Kids and animals are a natural fit. Call your local animal shelter to see if they’d like homemade cat toys or dog biscuits. When you get the green light, set aside a weekend morning to crank a few out. To make a cat toy, you’ll need new baby-size socks, cotton balls, dried catnip, and nontoxic permanent fabric markers. Start by adding 1 Tbsp of catnip to the toe. Stuff the rest of the foot with cotton balls. Then tightly knot the ankle of the sock. Decorate with fabric markers. To bake dog biscuits, preheat the oven to 350°F. Next, mix together 1/2 cup of cornmeal, 6 Tbsp of oil, 2 cups of whole-wheat flour, and 2/3 cup of water or broth. Roll out to 1/4" thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters and place on a cookie sheet. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool and store in a tightly sealed container. Deliver to some happy pooches!
Out in the Community: Older children (around age 12) may be able to help a local humane society by walking dogs. If your kids are little, think simple. Try making backyard treats for the hungry little birds in your neighborhood. Just collect pinecones, coat them in peanut butter, and roll them in birdseed. Then go the extra mile and give one to each of your neighbors. Makes a great gift!
4 Sites For Family Outreach
These websites match families with outreach activities and projects, from simple to grand.
1. DoingGoodTogether.org: Packed with suggestions for volunteering with your family whether you have five minutes (really!) or five hours.
2. BigHeartedFamilies.org: New ideas for age-appropriate, kid-tested projects posted daily.
3. VolunteerMatch.org: Plug in your zip code to see where your town could use a helping hand. Then click the “kids” checkbox to find a project that’s right for your crew.
4. Family-to-Family.org: Click the “Kids Helping Kids” tab for simple ways that your little one can directly connect with a child in need, from sending a birthday party in a box to organizing a book drive.
Lambeth Hochwald is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting & lifestyle. Illustrations by Andrew Bannecker.