How Families Can Volunteer Together

Last Updated Nov 30, 2010 9:32 AM EST

The excesses of Black Friday and Cyber Monday have me feeling squeamish. I've been looking for alternatives, swapping used goods online and wondering about ways our family can volunteer this holiday season.

I was touched by this Thanksgiving Day Boston Globe column, about a 78-year-old retiree who spends hours each week at a local Boys & Girls Club. Clearly the Butler family could do more. But I've found volunteering to be a bit of a logistical challenge with little ones. I don't want to have to pay a babysitter $30 to watch the kids for three hours while I work at a soup kitchen. I'd rather just write a check for $30 to the soup kitchen.

Turns out there are plenty of ways we can volunteer together. Katherine Wertheim, CFRE, a fundraising expert in Ventura, California, has worked with myriad nonprofits. She says the effort doesn't always have to be through an organization or on a regular basis. Families can drop in at a nursing home or hold an impromptu clean up of a public space. And it doesn't have to be on Christmas Day. "Soup kitchens need help on December 24 and December 26, too," she says. Here are ways to help out -- while imparting to your children valuable lessons about aiding others, sharing your bounty and being part of a community:

If you have messy teens: Enlist them to help clean the home of an elderly person or someone with a chronic illness. Maybe that person has a lot of clutter to get rid of before moving to a senior home. Or maybe her eyesight is poor and the mail is piling up. Your teen can handle this job -- and they usually get the message, Wertheim says: "They get home and throw out their own clutter. At least a kitchen bag full, maybe two." Check VolunteerMatch, your local United Way, or Faith in Action. Or call your own house of worship to identify those who might need help.

Teens and younger can stop in at a nursing home with their parents, or visit a veteran. Many nursing homes welcome volunteers with a free hour here or there. This also helps kids develop a sense of generations, especially if they don't have grandparents around.

If you have preteens: Ask your child to create a flyer for a neighborhood canned food drive. The flyer should state a time she'll be around to collect cans, which neighbors can leave on their front steps or at the curb. The parent only has to drive the child and cans to the food bank. (Nothing perishable and no glass containers.)

If you have animal lovers: Don't want to get a dog yet? Volunteer to foster one for a few weeks. It's a great test run for the real thing. During the holidays many shelters hold events at malls, with animals on site, promoting adoption. Your child might be able to help care for the animals during the event. Check with your local humane society. Or donate pet food and other supplies.

If you have little ones: Get them some sturdy gloves, bring a few trash bags, and have them pick up litter when they're at the park or walking through the woods. Or pick a soldier through Any Soldier and your children can help you fill a care package. Operation Gratitude welcomes letters from kids and adults.

If your child is patient enough to sit by your side, give blood. She will see that you don't freak out with needles, and maybe her next round of immunizations will go more smoothly. Plus, Wertheim notes, "it's the only time as an adult that someone serves you juice and cookies."

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