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If one person can change the world, think about what a whole family can do! Lending a hand in your community helps your family grow closer and builds character in your children. "Volunteering is a hands-on way to teach kids of any age about compassion, tolerance, and good citizenship," says Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering. Whether you have an hour or a weekend, there are ways to get involved.
Adopt an area park, playground, or beach and make regular visits to keep it trash-free. Choose a favorite family spot so you can play after your work is done. Another way to green your 'hood is to teach your friends and neighbors how easy it is to do earth-friendly tasks like composting, recycling, or organic gardening. (Super-sneaky tip: Include the neighbors' kids in your lessons since they're often the ones who convince their parents to make changes.)
Learning about a natural disaster on the news might spur your family into action to help people displaced by a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or flood. But before you start collecting donations, check aidmatrixnetwork.org (cosponsored by FEMA) to find out what supplies are truly needed. Then start your own family relief drive and ask friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates to pitch in. Another option is to raise money for a cash donation, which usually ensures that your help gets to families in need quickly.
Serve dinner to residents at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and you'll teach your children a hands-on lesson about getting past stereotypes. Contact local charitable organizations to find out where your family can serve. Or go to LHJ.com/dogood and use Volunteer Match to search our database to find opportunities in your area.
Is there a cause that's close to your family's heart? Chances are there's a local event (like a walk, bike ride, 5K race -- even a marathon) that helps raise awareness and money for it. So sign up to participate together. You can also enlist family members who aren't joining in to be training partners or help with pledge drives. Younger kids can make signs and hand out water, fruit, or energy bars. Want to start your own event? Find resources at serve.gov.
If you have older kids, volunteer with a group like Habitat for Humanity -- a great way to do some work that makes an immediate difference. Helping build homes for low-income families is really rewarding (and maybe you'll learn useful skills while you're at it). Even if younger kids and older family members can't swing a hammer, they can still help fix a neighborhood: Check with local schools, churches, or community groups to find out how to pitch in.
Make group visits to area hospitals or nursing homes to do crafts projects with kids or read to seniors. Younger children can also help deliver meals to the elderly. Do you have a performer in the family? You could arrange to have your child's dance class, school choir, or drama club put on a mini show. Check with hospitals, VA medical facilities, and nursing homes near you to find out how you and your clan can spread cheer.
Sending letters and care packages to American troops serving overseas is one way to help children understand the sacrifices our military personnel make -- and a great way to say thank you. Recruit little kids to make drawings and stamp envelopes. Older ones can write notes and gather treats like books, phone cards, and coffee. If you don't know a soldier, search for "Support Our Troops" at military.com for a list of letter and care-package programs.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.