Volunteerism has been a part of my life since I was a young elementary school kid visiting the nursing home in my neighborhood. I don’t remember how I got started – maybe through holiday caroling or because I wanted to earn a Girls Scouts patch – either way I kept doing it well after I no longer needed to. It felt a bit weird at first to go hang out with elderly people since I was just a kid, but the joy and excitement that I saw on their faces was all I needed to keep me coming back each week. And what more could a kid want than love and the full attention of lots of adults!
I have continued volunteering throughout my life, most consistently since I was in college. From the nursing home to feeding tiny stray kittens hidden in the gutter as a kid to helping development organizations after the tsunami in India as an adult, I have always found a place to give a helping hand.
It is this love for helping others and being rewarded with a smile, hug or just knowing in my heart that I made a difference that I hope to extend to my son. He is now 12, but we have been volunteering with him since he was a baby in India and in the US since he was 3. I don’t have to tell you, it is not easy to find places that will allow toddlers, preschoolers or even young kids to volunteer. But there are a few!
How to Volunteer with Young Kids for the Holidays
While it is not easy to find volunteer opportunities for families with young children there are a few and as I learn of other I will update this post. The biggest thing to keep in mind is to do things that you personally feel comfortable with. If you do not feel comfortable volunteering in specific situations, you children will read your vibes and also feel uncomfortable.
Also make sure to discuss with your children what you are doing in an age appropriate way. During our first few volunteer experiences in India my son was too young to really understand, so instead he just joined us. At that time I volunteered with a girls shelter, so he would join me on my visits there and enjoyed getting lots of attention from the girls living there.
Thanksgiving Volunteer Opportunities
Even though we volunteer throughout the year in various capacities, we tend to do more human to human volunteering during the holidays. One of my son’s favorite traditions for the past 4 years has been to hand out Thanksgiving meals and care packages to our unhoused neighbors on Thanksgiving morning. Below I share the projects we have participated in ourselves and ways you can also help.
Gobble Gobble Give
Gobble Gobble Give is the organization that we choose to volunteer with on Thanksgiving, but there are many all over the US offering similar services at or around Thanksgiving. With GGG we typically show up on Thanksgiving morning, help at the local center any way they need (organizing donations of clothes, toiletry kits, meals, etc) and then load up our vehicle to deliver meals and supplies to the unhoused around our neighborhood or the neighborhood we are volunteering in. This past year GGG expanded to 4 locations in Los Angeles as well as throughout the US. If there is not a location near you, there are most likely other places offering similar services.
Los Angeles Regional Food Bank
The LA Food Bank is a great organization to volunteer with throughout the year, but especially during the holidays. There are many ways to get involved, including making financial donations, donating food items, participating in #WeFeedLA – a Virtual Food Drive Challenge, and volunteering at a local food pantry. Every little bit helps. “Every $1 donated provides enough food for 4 meals to feed hungry children, seniors and families.” Our first experience with the Food Bank was through my son’s cub scout group. The kids helped unload boxes and restock shelves in the pantry. This was a great experience for kids who had never volunteered before.
LA Community Fridge
One of the newest things to show up during the pandemic in our area are community fridges. These are located in various neighborhoods around town offering free fresh food for anyone facing food insecurity. They often have fresh cooked meals as well as packaged dry goods on shelves next to the fridge.
A great way to give back to your community with young children is to volunteer your time at these fridges. They can always use help stocking empty fridges, cleaning them and updating on which ones need servicing. This is a great year round volunteer opportunity for all ages and especially for those who might feel uncomfortable in more human to human volunteer positions.
Create Care Packages for the Unhoused
One of the best ways you can get your kids involved in volunteering at any age is by creating and handing out packages for the unhoused. While this can be done anytime of year, for the past 7 years we have made this our Christmas Eve tradition.
This tradition began when my son was 4 when he noticed that people who were living without shelfer probably didn’t get wrapped Christmas presents. As a small child who so excitedly looked forward to this time of year he felt very sad about this realization. He asked if we could give presents to the unhoused living in our neighborhood. Thus our holiday tradition began.
Every year our packages have different items based on the weather and what my son thinks is important. One year we had a ton of rain in Southern California so we included rain ponchos and other supplies to help stay warm and dry. Other years it is super dry and hot so we collect unused reusable water bottles. We always include nice thick socks, a beanie hat and food like peanut butter, granola bars, and homemade cookies. For a personal touch, my son also makes handmade holiday cards with an uplifting message to include in the packages.
I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to see my little guy jump out of the car to run give his packages to our unhoused neighbors, wishing them a Merry Christmas. It makes him so happy to see the people tear open their packages and start putting on their new socks, hats or whatever. This is something you can do year round, but is especially poignant at the holidays when so many people are all alone on the streets.
Volunteering Opportunities at Christmas
In a culture of consumerism and over gifting, I wanted to make sure that my son realized how good we have it, especially during the holidays. This was one of the big reasons I have always sought out holiday volunteer projects for myself and for my son. There is nothing better to help put your woes in perspective than getting out and helping others who are less fortunate that you. Below are some of the organizations we have personally volunteered with during the holidays and would recommend to others with or without children.
In recent years our family has started volunteering with The Giving Spirit, another local organization that provides care packages for the unhoused. The way this program works has changed a bit through the pandemic years, but they are once again restarting in person services in 2022. This program offers learning opportunities about various topics – Being Black and Poor, Single Dad and Homeless, etc which offers a great opportunity for older kids to really dive deeper into this topic.
For those of us in LA it is a huge source of discussion as we are facing a unprecedented flow of unhoused on our streets. Once you are ready to volunteer, the winter outreach program has volunteers organized into groups who stuff duffle bags along an assembly line. This is fun for kids of most ages as they really feel part of the team.
This year’s program is slated for Dec 3, 4 and 10,11, 2022. Sign up early as it always fills up. Prior to the pandemic, we volunteered here on our own as well as with our scout troop. This is a great program for a group of friends to do together as well.
One of the best, most organized and meaningful holiday volunteer projects we have come across is with One Voice. Unfortunately due to the pandemic their in person program is still on hold. This year they are collecting gift cards for donation to the families they work with.
In other years, their in person program offers multiple times and days to volunteer which is great for busy families. For the young kids, the best day is their final day of handing out food and gifts to needy families throughout Los Angeles.
Even at 3 yrs old, the first year we did it, my son really enjoyed himself. It’s not the easiest thing to volunteer with a small child, but it is definitely doable.
You could be doing anything from making boxes for pies (with our son and another kid stacking them up for us), moving frozen turkeys from one area to another (hard for a toddler, but he enjoyed the challenge) and the most recent year, our son worked with children on different craft projects. The most coveted position of all is handing out toys to families in need. As much as my toddler was enjoying eyeing the presents himself, he got even more excitement handing kids their gifts.
Your Day with One Voice
The way it works is that you show up at the air hangar in Santa Monica at 8 am on the designated Sunday before Christmas. Once you are there, work locations are assigned to each group. Our location was located in South Central LA. Once you have your assignment, you head out in your own vehicle to your location site to help with setup before the families start to arrive.
It is a long day, but you are free to stay as long as you can. We typically stay until 3 in the afternoon, helping clean up at the end, however, there are many volunteers, so you have a lot of flexibility to leave when you need to.
This was such a wonderful day for us as a family. We met some really great people – even a teenager who had been doing this since he was around our son’s age. It has been a holiday tradition for him all of these years. And now one for us as well. We left feeling so grateful for everything that we have, but also feeling so energized knowing that we were able to help make a small difference in someone else’s Christmas.
Uplift with a Gift
If you aren’t into the hands on volunteer activities, you can still give back while showing your kids what the holiday spirit means by providing gifts for a family in need. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services program assists low-income families served by DPSS by providing new gifts such as toys, clothes and food to help the families and children celebrate the holidays.
In doing this, you can set out with your kids to shop for your the family you have been assigned, have the kids help wrap and even make cards for the family. To do this, contact L.A. County DPSS Adopt-A-Family Program or call (213) 744-4590/ email firstname.lastname@example.org
I will remark here that I do not like the name Adopt a Family as that is not what you are doing! Adopting means a lot more than providing gifts for one time. But alas that is what they call it still. In your own house, try to use other terms like uplift with a gift, family gifting program, etc.
Create A Kindness Calendar
While this isn’t specifically volunteering, every year for our advent calendar I create a Kindness Calendar with a kindness task for us to do each day of in the month of December. Through the years the items on this have changed and morphed as my son has aged, but this is really something that can be done throughout the year as well. Turns our my son enjoys this one as much as (Or more!) than his regular advent calendar.
Some items we like to include on our Kindness Calendar are:
- Feed the meters on a street in Los Angeles
- Leave $5 in a store for someone to find
- Write & give a thank you note to a service worker
- Bake cookies for our local fire station
- Donate a toy or gift to the local toy drive
- Give a stranger a compliment
- Bake cookies for our neighbors
- Pay for a strangers food/drink in line behind you
There are many other ideas you can include in your kindness calendar including things that are fun for your family. The overall thought is that in a month filled with so many “I want” statements that we also take time to really think about what others might need or want.
Other Ways to Volunteer with Kids All Year Long
Initially our volunteer activities often centered around the holidays, but as my son has gotten older, he has looked for more and more volunteer opportunities in the areas that he finds the most interest in. If you want to keep the giving spirit up throughout the year, here are a few other ways you can put your skills to use.
Food on Foot
Food on Foot is a local Hollywood based organization that hands out food, clothing, shoes and blankets every Sunday in Hollywood. They accept volunteers as young as 6 years old. They also have a Thanksgiving day volunteer opportunity that is perfect to start your day off right.
Tree People is a great organization offering various volunteer opportunities for young and old. Volunteer opportunities usually revolve around planting new plants, pulling invasive plants out of vulnerable habitats and maintaining trails in the parks. During the hottest parts of the year, many of the volunteer activities center on watering the plants. This is my favorite job, while my son most enjoys the planting sessions. Most volunteer sessions accept limited numbers, so plan in advance and email in advance to sign up.
Heal the Bay
No one has to tell you that kids love the beach! Plan a beach day around a beach clean up with Heal the Bay. On the 3rd Sat of each month (10 am – 12 pm) Heal the Bay is at a local beach cleaning up with hundreds of volunteers. Gloves and bags will be provided on site. Advance sign up is not required unless you are with a large group. Check their website to find out where the next clean up will be located.
If you can’t make it to an organized event, spent 10-20 minutes on your next beach visit to clean the beach before your fun starts.
Love animals? There are lots of ways to help at local shelters by walking dogs, playing with animals or just helping to social pets. For most of these, you need to be a little bit older, around 8 years and up, but often you can do it as a family.
Best Friend’s Sanctuary
One option we had been waiting years for is volunteering at the Best Friend’s Sanctuary in Utah. They have an amazing array of animals that families can work with, while also enjoying some spectacular scenery (you must be at least 6 yrs old). If you plan in advance they even have accommodation on site.
Closer to home, check out LA Rabbits where visitors can give much needed love and petting sessions to abandoned bunnies (must be 5 yrs old).
Big or small, kids can make a difference in their community. Volunteering with kids is a great way to help children recognize their place in society, the good feeling you get from helping others as well as understanding that even they can make a difference. Since we started so young, my son has grown up with an attitude of service to others. If you need other ideas or help getting started, feel free to reach out.
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