Most folks tend to think about volunteering and charitable giving around the holiday season, but contributing to a worthwhile cause should really be a year-round goal. (Riiiight?) And giving doesn’t necessarily have to mean money either. You and your family can offer up your time, skills or simply some unwanted toys to local charities and nonprofit organizations to make a difference.
Plus, as cheesy as it might sound, you’ll get something back in return. Studies have shown that volunteering has emotional, social, psychological and physical benefits including making you feel healthier, helping to lower stress and producing overall greater satisfaction. Giving also creates a kind of win-win situation: You’re happy because you give and you give because you’re happy, according to a Harvard Business School study. “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop (with happier people giving more, getting happier, and giving even more).”
But unfortunately fewer folks seem to be doing it. According to the University of Maryland's Do Good Institute, since 2005, the national volunteer rate has declined from 28.8 percent to 24.9 percent in 2015. Plus, the percentage of Americans giving to nonprofits annually declined from 66.8 percent in 2000 to 55.5 percent in 2014. In addition, high school and college students are less likely to volunteer or give to charity today than they were 15 years ago.
If you’re looking to inspire your kids to pay it forward, take advantage of a day off, and teach them the importance of lending a helping hand. Within your community, you may be able to find causes and initiatives sponsored by local churches, civic organizations, schools and libraries, as well as nationwide services such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
To help you get started, here are some family-friendly charitable ideas and volunteering activities to consider.
Read to Kids
Volunteer with Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit organization that works with medical clinics and practices to offer books and reading experiences that create “literacy-rich waiting rooms.” Volunteer readers show parents how much fun reading with their kids can be and provide tips for getting children excited about books. Not all sites need readers, but you can donate new or gently-used books for children and teenagers to a local program. Also, check out your local library to find out if it is seeking volunteers for its own reading program.
Organizations like Citymeals and Meals on Wheels enlist volunteers to prepare and serve food throughout the year. In addition to delivering meals, volunteers often act as a safety check and provide a friendly face, since the clients are typically homebound seniors. Citymeals also offers a program that pairs volunteers to elderly neighbors who are in need of companionship and just want to chat. This is a great way for kids to meet their neighbors and become invested in the community.
Work at a Local Food Bank
In addition to meal delivery services, you can also help feed those in need by spending time at your local food bank or pantry, most of which rely heavily or entirely on volunteers. Jobs there usually involve sorting, packing or stacking items—easy tasks even young kids can do. To find the food bank nearest you, search the Feeding America network for locations.
Visit a Nursing Home
Your kids may already be familiar with visiting their grandparents in an assisted living facility or nursing home, but if they’re not, the Legacy Project, an independent group that aims to connect all generations, recommends chatting with them beforehand and offers tips for starting the conversation: “Talk about what to expect during a visit to a nursing home (e.g. residents in wheelchairs, unfamiliar smells, some residents may not seem responsive, etc.), and answer any questions or concerns children may have. Talk about their feelings about visiting older adults: “Many older people never have visitors and spend their days alone and lonely. Why do you think this is? Do you think it's because we don't want to think about growing old? Why or why not? Have you ever been in a nursing home or other seniors' care facility? How did you feel?” If your child is comfortable in this kind of environment, consider visiting on a regular basis to play games, watch movies or just talk.
Host a Yard Sale
Instead of dropping off your donations at Goodwill or Salvation Army, make it fun for the family and organize a yard sale, dedicating the proceeds to a local charity. Have your kids gather up any unwanted toys and clothes and then let them help you price and sell the items. Bonus: It offers up the opportunity for a math lesson, too.
Play a Game
Freerice is an easy online game from the United Nations World Food Programme where you answer multi-choice questions like “bag means:” and when you answer correctly the site’s sponsors make a donation to the organization (the cash equivalent of 10 grains of rice). The game automatically adjusts to the player’s skill level, increasing or decreasing depending on how you’re doing, so it’s suited for all ages.
Help Furry Friends
Sign up to volunteer at a local animal shelter (visit the Humane Society for ways to help) where you can walk the dogs, clean up after the animals, and hand out toys and treats, or you might be assigned to simply pet and play with the critters. Some animal shelters require that volunteers be middle-school age or older, but some allow younger kids to volunteer if they‘re accompanied by a parent. But make sure that your child knows how to handle animals, because there's always the risk they may bite or scratch.
Donate to Schools
Through DonorsChoose.org, you can donate to different classroom projects such as a class in Dallas in need of pencils and notebooks or a teacher asking for flexible seating so her students can learn better. Once the project you’ve chosen has been fully funded, DonorsChoose purchases the requested items and ships them to the school. The charity, which supports schools across the U.S., was started by a Bronx high school teacher who “figured there were people out there who'd want to help—if they could see where their money was going.” The site posts photos of projects, and some donors even receive letters from teachers and students.