We all know the benefits of raising kids who volunteer — how helping others helps children become more compassionate, more connected, and more self-reliant little people. The really good news? You don’t have to make a huge commitment to reap a big payoff for your family — and those in need.
One year, through a local church, my kids and I made sandwiches and delivered the meals to homeless families. On the drive back, I asked the kids what they thought of the night. Zak, who was 8, said he had fun playing with the boy in the cool orange coat who liked all the same stuff as him and went to a school just like his. After he thought for a minute, Zak said, “Really, the only difference is that we have a house to live in.” His perspective had instantly changed.
Ready to see a change in your children? There are so many fantastic ways for you and your family to make giving back a new family tradition. Here are four simple ideas that can get you started right away.
Hold a Bake Sale (good for all ages)
Get started: Visit Cookiesforkidscancer.org, an organization that funds research geared to treating children’s cancers. The website gives you tools and templates, event planning tips, and a starter kit to host your own bake sale. (You can also find a charity that’s meaningful to your family.) Then ask the school, community center, or even a local grocery store if it would allow you to hold the sale. Our Kids Cooking book can get your crew started with fun, kid-friendly recipes.
What the kids can do: At home, they can bake and wrap goodies and draw or decorate flyers to advertise the sale. At the bake sale, they can serve as hosts! Have them invite passersby to check out the treats, pass them out, collect money, and more.
What to know: Little kids, and shy ones, will like the idea of helping others from a familiar spot — the kitchen! If your kids balk at the idea of selling to strangers, you can always whip up a batch of treats and donate them to the local shelter.
Serve at a Soup Kitchen (good for tweens and teens)
Get started: On the web, 211.org and Homelessshelterdirectory.org are good places to check for locations and opportunities. Many shelters are closed most of the day and re-open in the afternoon, and they usually provide an evening meal as well as breakfast for residents. Soup kitchens serve hot sit-down meals, usually three a day.
What the kids can do: At home, they can make sandwiches and bagged lunches to drop off and decorate lunch bags and napkins. On-site, they can help prepare meals (everything from washing vegetables to cooking), set up tables and buffet lines, assemble and serve meals (spoon out portions and hand out plates and beverages), talk to shelter guests, or clean up (clear and scrape plates, wash dishes and equipment, sweep).
What to know: Age requirements for volunteering are all over the map. Sometimes coming in as a group or with another family can make it easier for younger kids to participate. But call ahead to check. Meals are served in shifts, which sometimes can last a few hours, so younger kids can get bored or antsy if they’re not busy.
Stock Shelves at a Food Bank (good for ages 8+)
Get started: Feedingamerica.org lists options near you. You can decide between stocking shelves at a food bank or bringing food to (or prepping sandwiches at) a nearby pantry.
What the kids can do: At home, they can decorate a large cardboard box. When you go grocery shopping, have your child pick out a healthy item to donate. When the box is full, bring it to the pantry. At the food pantry, they can help make up grocery bags for distribution, hand out food bags, pack “brown bag” meals, or make sandwiches. Sometimes you can also do this at home. Just call for guidelines and drop-off times.
What to know: The minimum age requirements for both food banks and pantries can be as young as 8 and as old as 18 — but many are happy to let kids of all ages help. Again, just check with the organization first. Younger kids may like the hands-on activity of making sandwiches or stocking shelves. And you can stay as long as you want — a plus for short attention spans (and busy parents).
Deliver Dinners (good for all ages)
Get started: There’s something satisfying about taking meals or bags of groceries to housebound seniors, disabled people, or others in need. The largest mobile meal service is Meals on Wheels; find your local branch at Mowaa.org. Also check with your local pantry, senior center, or houses of worship. They may also arrange meal deliveries for those who need them.
What the kids can do: At home, kids can decorate cards and napkins or draw pictures to deliver with the meals. On-site, they can prepare meals for delivery and/or pick up meals from the organization and bring them to homes or centers. Once you get to your destination, you may end up chatting with the people there for a short while.
What to know: You’ll probably use your own car to deliver the meals. You may want to prep your kid for some serious socializing if you’re bringing food to housebound elders — seniors especially like seeing kids. If there’s no Meals on Wheels program near you, you can do this for your elderly or sick neighbors.