No matter how wonderful this time of year may be at its core, the pressure to consume — ever-growing wish lists! Sisyphean shopping trips! skyrocketing credit card bills! — can easily overshadow all that warmth and fuzziness. If that sounds familiar, it may be time to add a new tradition to the list: family giving. “Teaching our children the joy of volunteering and ritualizing time spent with loved ones will have a far more lasting impression than a toy or game that they want at the moment,” says David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago and the founder of Skylight Counseling Center.
In fact, spreading good cheer may be the key to joy during the holiday season: A study by the American Psychological Association found that giving makes people feel better than receiving. The best part? You’re never too young to give back. Read on for ideas to suit every age group; then make this the year that giving brings as much joy to your children’s faces as receiving.
For the Littles
Turn your preschoolers into elves, inspiring them to spread cheer throughout your community.
Make Cards for Soldiers
Who doesn’t love an art project? Hold a “Dear Hero” workshop for your little ones and their friends to make holiday cards for service members, or talk to your child’s preschool teacher about integrating it into the curriculum. (Check out the Red Cross “Holidays for Heroes” card drive program.) Explain that the cards can help lift the spirits of soldiers who are away from home during the holiday season while thanking them for their service, then set out paper, crayons, markers, and stickers and let them have at it (save the confetti and glitter for another project). It’s best to get these letters out before Thanksgiving in order to allow them enough time to be sent overseas and arrive by Christmas.
Deliver Pet Supplies
Whether you have a dog or cat at home or your little ones simply love animals, consider donating to an animal shelter. Local organizations including Felines & Canines, PAWS Chicago, and Wright-Way Rescue are always in need of items like food, treats, towels and blankets, kitty litter and boxes, heating pads, cleaning supplies — the list goes on and on. Bring your kids to the store to pick things out, and let them tag along to deliver the goods, too. Who knows? They may even have the opportunity to hang out with a four-legged friend or two.
Bake for First Responders
Another great way for little ones to express gratitude is by baking holiday treats for local firefighters or police officers. While the cookies are in the oven, talk with your children about how these first responders protect the community (Richard Scarry’s “A Day at the Police Station” is a great way to get the conversation going). Your kids will have a blast dropping them off — and if you love the tradition you can keep it going by bringing treats to the stations on 9/11, the Fourth of July, or at random.
For the Middles
Talk with your elementary-school-age children about income inequality and homelessness, motivating them to give from their hearts — and their piggy banks.
Shop for a Gift
While your family is shopping for presents this year, encourage your child to use a portion of his or her own money to purchase a toy or game for a low-income or disabled child. The Chicago-based nonprofit Grant a Wish, for example, holds an annual holiday drive where companies and individuals can shop for children who may not otherwise receive gifts during the holiday season. Among the common items on the wish lists are toys, games, shoes, coats, dolls, electronic educational games, and cold-weather accessories — and gift givers are asked to cap spending at $60.
Make Care Packages
Encourage your children to spend some of their allowance to purchase items for care packages that can be donated to homeless shelters. Before you go shopping together, it’s a good idea to call ahead to see what items are most needed, including clothing sizes that are in the highest demand. Items shelters often request include unopened travel-size toiletries, such as shampoo, conditioner, soaps, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, disposable razors, and lotion, and you can also consider donating multivitamins, tampons, reading glasses, and new or gently used clothing. For a list of organizations in your community, read our donation guide.
Organize a Food Drive
Talk with your kids about how one in five children in Cook County struggle to access healthy food and are at risk of hunger, then offer to help organize a food drive at school or in your neighborhood. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has hundreds of drop-off spots in the city and suburbs. In addition to gathering nonperishables, your child can drum up financial donations online. Incredibly, the Food Depository’s wholesale purchasing power allows it to double or even triple the amount of food your dollar can purchase at a grocery store.
For the Bigs
Teach your teens the value of volunteering by encouraging face-to-face interaction with the less fortunate in your community.
Serve Meals at a Food Pantry
Serving a meal to the homeless or delivering groceries to the elderly can be a great volunteer opportunity for teenagers. Check out Common Pantry, an organization that’s been helping combat hunger in Chicago for more than five decades. The nonprofit delivers food to elderly clients, has a hot lunch program, and distributes fresh fruits and vegetables on a monthly “Produce Day.” Families can even sign up to bag groceries to be delivered to elderly clients. Note that this is an option recommended for children who are at least 8 years old and are accompanied by a parent or caregiver. The pantry also hosts Thursday shelf re-stocking and welcomes children who are 10 and older with an adult.
Spend Time With a Senior
During winter break, teenagers can also find a wide variety of volunteer activities through Chicago Cares, which links volunteers with projects. Among the opportunities are playing Bingo with low-income seniors, who may feel lonely or isolated; reading to children to help improve their literacy; or assisting in a food pantry that serves low-income individuals affected by HIV and AIDS.
Be a Good Samaritan
On a more informal basis, your teenager can keep an eye on the weather reports (holiday breaks are a great time for this). When a snowy day is in the forecast, they can wake up early and help shovel walkways for elderly neighbors who have mobility issues or might slip on the ice. Your teen can even use social media to help gather fellow shovelers. That’s exactly what a community organizer in Chatham did earlier this year: A tweet asking for 10 volunteers ended up netting 120, and the story of a community coming together to shovel together went viral.
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness, and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.