Give back to get in the holiday spirit

The holidays are the perfect time to volunteer as a family.

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Holiday Ornaments
Karen Lewis Taylor

Have you caught the holiday spirit? Are you dashing from store to store, making your lists and checking them twice, fussing over the decorations – that kind of spirit?

If it feels like you’ve come down with a seasonal delirium rather than the anticipated joy and cheer this month, here’s a cure: Add a little service to your list. Commit to giving something special to your community during the holiday season, and enlist the help of your children to determine how you’ll do it together.

It may sound crazy during a time that’s already so busy, but the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s provide an ideal time to inspire the spirit of service in your family.

“The stories we tell at Thanksgiving and during the winter holidays provide many opportunities to talk about sharing,” says Tom Rhodes, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. “Whether it is the Indians sharing their food with the Pilgrims or the Magi bringing [gifts] to the baby Jesus, these stories inform our culture.”

Putting the ideals of the holidays into action can provide your entire family with a renewed sense of focus and purpose.

“I sometimes find myself caught up in the frenzy of the season,” Lory Mills of Hillsborough says. “Last year, in an effort to stay in the spirit of the season, we sat down as a family and agreed on some organizations that we wanted to make donations to. ... It provided a forum for good dialog about what was important to each of us.”

Since many social service organizations need extra help to meet the demands of winter programs, such as food and coat drives or Christmas presents for disadvantaged children, families can easily find ways to translate the holiday spirit into concrete acts.

“It’s pretty common … to have an enhanced culture of volunteerism at this time of year,” says Amber Smith, co-founder and president of ME3, a Raleigh-based organization that coordinates volunteers for nonprofit organizations in Wake County. “Parents will have many examples to show their kids that helping out makes a difference.”

With the recession still taking its toll on local families, the need for social services this year is likely to be great. And if your own family is scaling back on its celebration, community service can provide your children with a healthy dose of perspective along with the satisfaction of helping others.

“Getting children involved in a community project will bring them ‘front-line’ experience in understanding the needs of less-fortunate members of the community,” Smith says. “Even when money is tight, there are still ways to contribute through the gift of your time.”

It’s no secret that volunteer service has a number of benefits. It helps meet the needs of the community, it builds connections among people who work together for a cause, and it furthers the notion that determined individuals can change their world.

Studies show that volunteers also enjoy enhanced self-esteem, confidence and sense of well-being as a result of their contributions. When you involve your children in volunteer efforts, you share those gifts with them, too.

Mills is an active community volunteer who frequently includes daughters Zoe, 11, and Tsehaye, 9, in her work.

“For me, volunteering is an outcome of believing that every living thing has value,” she says. “When we value each other, it feels good to connect in an intentional way. … I benefit and my family benefits as much as any recipient of a volunteer effort.”

Ginger Young of Chapel Hill agrees. “I think that whenever any of us does a good deed, we feel connected to something larger than ourselves — and that gives our life meaning,” she says. “I (also) want my children to be aware of their incredible good fortune and to feel an excitement about and a commitment to giving something back, to sharing their bounties with others who have less.”

The example set by parents is crucial in developing a child’s commitment to service.

As Rhodes says, “(Volunteering) is primarily an opportunity for children to learn about the importance of helping others. Seeing the example set by their parents and actually taking part in a volunteer activity will reinforce the lessons learned through books and stories.”

Volunteering together “strengthens relationships within the family itself,” he adds.

Claire Johnson of Hillsborough, now 15, volunteers regularly with her grandmother. She started serving meals at a homeless shelter three years ago as a birthday present for her grandmother.

“I enjoyed it so much that I just kept going,” Claire says.

Corinne Everett, director of volunteer services for The Volunteer Center of Durham, applauds families who instill the value of volunteering in their children through shared service.

“Kids working with their parents will develop the mindset, ‘Not only is it important for me to give back, it’s fun to give back,’” Everett says. “They’re more likely to grow into adults who have a strong sense of community involvement.”

Young’s son Cal recently proved this when he wrote to Mike Hanas, his principal at Carolina Friends School, suggesting that students do something to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January beyond the morning assembly. His proposal that students spend the afternoon engaged in community service “has been very enthusiastically approved by our MLK Day Planning Committee,” Hanas says.

“Cal’s initiative is one excellent example of what [young people] are capable of when we expect them to change the world,” Hanas says.

Claire, too, is motivated by the notion that her contributions can make a difference.

“I believe that every small bit of help someone gives can change a person’s life,” she says. “I know I might only be making small changes, but if millions of people were to make a lot of small changes, that would add up.”

“Children can be the instigators of volunteer efforts in many communities,” Smith says. “There are a plethora of inspiring stories about kids who see a need and ask their parents to help them get involved. They just need help cultivating their ideas into opportunities.”

The Triangle offers many ways for families to get involved and make volunteering a new tradition this holiday season, but it’s important to do your homework before you sign up.

Parents with younger children will need to consider issues of safety, suitability and ease of supervision. If your teens are interested in volunteering independently, it is important to verify that the organization will allow them to work without parental supervision.

Both Everett and Smith, whose organizations match volunteers with nonprofits that need help, recommend assessing your family’s interests, skills and availability as a group.

“Ask, ‘What causes are we interested in? What do we want to get out of these experiences? When are we available to volunteer together?’” Smith says.

Mills has found that her family’s interests influence the kinds of service projects they take on.

“For example, our family loves the outdoors and has enjoyed participating in school work days to help clean up and beautify the school,” she says.

They also traveled to Ethiopia, the girls’ native country, where they collaborated with young filmmakers working on a documentary about the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on families there.

Young encourages her kids to follow their hearts.

“I really haven’t chosen any of the volunteer activities we have engaged in. Rather, I have supported my kids as they have pursued their interests,” she says.

This includes the family’s work at a no-kill animal shelter, which was spurred by Carrie’s longing for a pet, and an MLK “Day of Service” book drive that netted 4,000 books for the Orange County Literacy Council.

Families ready to match their interests and availability to local groups are likely to find that many organizations use trained coordinators or an online survey to connect volunteers to particular areas of need.

Everett, the director of volunteer services at The Volunteer Center of Durham, says she usually tells people, “If you have a hobby, I can translate it into an opportunity for service.” She notes, “With families, it can be a bit of a broader match, accommodating everyone’s interests and abilities, but we can usually find some connection that makes the volunteer work a natural fit.”

In addition, Web sites such as and, schools and local places of worship can help connect people to service projects that suit their families.

Everett recommends tying your child’s good fortune to the opportunity to share it.

“Ask, ‘What are you thankful for, and how can we help another child enjoy that same thing this year?’” she suggests. “Consider the holidays as an opportunity to kick off a year-long commitment to volunteering with an organization.”

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