Kids and Kindness

Giving thanks. It’s a simple concept, rooted in so many of us. But how did we come by the understanding of gratitude? For me, growing up in a family that valued giving over having was key. What we lacked in financial wealth, my parents made up for in graciousness toward others. There was never a time when the Butters clan was too poor to volunteer assistance of one kind or another. How thankful I am to have been born into altruism. It was clear from day one that my hands were meant for lending. I never knew any other way.

Helping kids become helpers is crucial in developing strong identities of generosity and usefulness. “There is an unexpected magnificence in our children and an underestimated power in their ability to change our world for the better,” writes Mary Gordon, author of “Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child.” It is through our children that we can go beyond the frontiers of science and technology to explore the recesses of the human heart. We have managed to harness the power of the wind, the sun and the water, but have yet to appreciate the power of our children to effect social change.”

That’s why I’m proposing that we — parents, grandparents, and mentors of young people — bestow a gift upon this new generation that has little to do with having. Let’s begin teaching our kids ways to offer the best of themselves to others in need. How? By volunteering. Kids as young as 4 years old can contribute to a greater good, and they’re thrilled to do it. Here are seven ways to start ’em off on the right foot.

1. Start a Stuffed Animal Roundup
Begin your roundup right at home. Encourage your child to pick a toy or two that he is willing to give kids who have less to cuddle. Branch out by asking friends, neighbors and schoolmates to contribute to the cause. Toys can then be offered to a local charity, homeless shelter or even the police department. Officers can keep toys handy in their patrol cars to console kids involved in traumatic incidents.

2. Create Homemade Happy Meals
Gather up a bunch of craft supplies, and get busy creating “healthy meals” for homeless kids. Paper bags can be glitzed up with glitter, stickers and cheerful messages. Fill bags with healthy “store-packaged” treats like cookies, popcorn, granola bars, crackers and dried fruit snacks. Your child can add a small toy, game or book to each bag as an extra dose of delight. Deliver your happy packs to a local shelter for women and children.

3. Pamper Homeless Pets
Animal shelters are always in need of supplies: towels, blankets, newspapers, pet dishes and more. Organize a neighborhood drive to gather up items for homeless pets in your area. Kids will also love the idea of baking their own treats to take to the animals. (Find recipes at www.greatpetrecipes.com.) Go the “extra mile” and volunteer to walk a dog while visiting a shelter.

4. Spruce up Your Street
Your child may not get excited about cleaning her own room, but she will likely be tickled to tidy up around town. Grab a couple of garbage bags, gloves, a shovel and a wheelbarrow (or a little red wagon!) for easy transport, then set out to spruce up your yard, street or even the local park.

5. Share a Story, Sing a Song
Nearly every child is a natural performer. Maybe yours is a storyteller, singer, dancer, artist or acrobat. Whatever her talent, encourage her to share it with seniors at a nearby nursing home or hospital. The residents will relish the charming entertainment, and your child will love putting her special skills to good use.

6. Collect Pennies for Pet Food
Another way to help out at retirement centers is to offer pet food and supplies. Many seniors own pets but have little or no income, making it difficult to care for their furry friends. Neighbors, supermarkets and pet stores may be willing to donate money or products for your child’s cause.

7. Donate Doodle Books
Save your cardboard food boxes and scrap paper! When you have a stack, use scissors to cut boxes so that they form book covers, then snip scrap paper (blank on one side) to fit. Staple or sew paper into the covers to create “Doodle Books” that you can deliver to waiting rooms at local businesses and medical offices. Bored kids (and their parents) will be so grateful!

Expanding Horizons

As kids grow, so do volunteer opportunities. Teens can help close to home by organizing creek cleanups, tree plantings and snow-shoveling parties. Expand a budding benefactor’s horizons by visiting VolunteerSpot.com, a website that connects willing workers ages 14 and older with service-learning projects nationwide.

Copyright 2010, MaryJane Butters.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.