The Gift of Giving Back

What better gift to give your kids?

By Jamey Bradbury

Tree decorated? Check. Cookies baked? Check. Halls decked? Presents bought and wrapped? Double check! While you’re knocking things off your holiday to-do list, don’t forget to check out opportunities that give your family a chance to focus on others – particularly those in need.

“Giving really means a lot to kids,” says John Fugett of Anchorage Family Counseling. “And giving during the holidays lets you teach your kids it’s something you should do year-round.”

The holidays provide ample volunteer and charitable giving opportunities – but don’t sign up for the first event that pops into your mind, cautions Sue Brogan, a certified volunteer administrator who works with the United Way of Anchorage. “There’s heightened awareness around the holiday season about giving, but I encourage people to think broadly. Well-known agencies may have already started recruiting their volunteers early-on and may be full.”

Call ahead to find out an organization’s volunteer needs. And if they’re full, don’t get discouraged. There are plenty of ways your family can offer a helping hand over the holidays. Here are a few ideas:

• think big If you or your kids are new to volunteering, consider getting involved with a big event, like Anchorage’s Neighborhood GIFT, where volunteers organize donations of toys and food to give out to the city’s struggling families, or volunteering with a soup kitchen. “For a family getting their feet wet with volunteering,” says Brogan, “sometimes those things are an easy way to get started. They’re big and well-coordinated, and everyone has a job to do, but it’s a lot of fun.”

• take your time Putting money aside throughout the year to be donated at Christmas not only heightens the anticipation and gives your kids a long-term goal, it can also mean a bigger donation for families in need. Tanya Masley, program director with Anchorage’s Promise, lets her kids collect aluminum cans and turn them in for money, which they save until the holidays. “My dad takes all the grandkids out at Christmas, and they donate the money to the Salvation Army bell-ringers,” she explains. “At the end of the day, they use the remainder to buy gifts for Toys for Tots. They have a whole day of giving.”

• get personal “Ask your kids what they care about,” Brogan suggests. Whether it’s animals, seniors or the homeless, find a way to give to the people and causes that touch your children’s hearts. Organizations like Fairbanks Rescue Mission, Covenant House in Anchorage and the Salvation Army all have holiday-giving events. Your family can also create its own clothing, food or toy drive, volunteer to decorate Christmas trees at a Pioneer Home or save money to donate to an animal shelter.

• adopt a family “The more you connect your kids to the people they’re helping directly, the more they see the impact of their actions,” explains Fugett. What better way for your family to make a difference than to adopt a family in need? Through organizations like Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Juneau, you can buy presents and food for a specific family. Letting your kids help pick out the presents helps them experience the joy of giving first-hand.

• be social When Tanya Masley needs an idea for how to get her family involved in giving, she checks Facebook. “I’m on a page called Anchorage Pay-It-Forward; people post during times of hardship and ask for help,” she says. Similar social media groups, like Pass It On Alaska, make it easier to connect with those who have a need during the holidays.

• share a tradition While your holiday-giving thoughts might go immediately to volunteering or donating goods or money, remember that often the best gift you can give someone is inclusion. “Think about what you like to do as a family during the holidays, then see if there’s a way to share that tradition,” Brogan offers. Love to sing? Go caroling at your local hospital. Enjoy crafts? Volunteer to make decorations or Christmas cards with a kids’ group. Whether you’re reading holiday stories to the elderly or making dinner for a neighbor family, there’s a way for your kids to use their interests and talents to brighten someone else’s day.

Ready to give back this holiday season? Do it! And don’t stop once the tree has been tossed and the presents unwrapped. Your Christmastime giving can help transform the way your kids see the world, says Brogan: “It plants that seed for connection and a better understanding of our community, who lives alongside us and what’s going on. Giving broadens your perspective so you can find your own place in the world.”