In my family, Thanksgiving is really about two days: Thanksgiving day, of course, and the Sunday before Thanksgiving when we organize and deliver the fixings for Thanksgiving meals to families living in transitional housing in Seattle. Actually, for me personally, that Sunday (today!) has eclipsed Thursday in truly marking Thanksgiving. In all my years living away from my family, I haven’t missed it, and even this year when I will be making Thanksgiving for Fair Play Boyfriend’s family in Vermont instead of spending it with my own, I’m here in Seattle today for “Thanksgiving Baskets.” Community service and helping others is a phenomenal all-ages family activity, so we’re going to devote today’s post to talking about how to do a little more of that.
First, let me explain what kind of project Thanksgiving Baskets is so you have an idea what I’m talking about. I am 100% not talking about donating money (you should still donate money, if that’s something you do, but it’s not a project you can involve children in). In the first iteration of Thanksgiving Baskets, Fair Play Supermom generated a list of all the things a family first moving into transitional housing (temporary living, for those in “housing stability crisis”) would need to make Thanksgiving dinner, and asked parishioners to sign up to bring 12 of some item (for 12 apartments/families). She brought our family to sort, box, and deliver the meals to the organization, and families living there then came to pick them up. Since then, the project has grown to include the organization’s housing units at a few more sites, and we’ve expanded so parish families can participate by bringing a whole meal (one of each item), instead of 12 of a single item, because families found that to be a more inclusive activity for children. It was easier for children to understand shopping for a single, complete dinner, and wrapping it up to deliver. What delights me most is that although this remains a family activity for my own family in terms of organizing and receiving the actual donations, it has become a family activity throughout the parish at different levels of involvement, for example contributing a meal or item.
The three obstacles to service involvement as I see it are: 1) access to projects like Thanksgiving Baskets where children can actually participate, 2) picking and choosing bite-size pieces of involvement that you can reasonably maintain as a family habit, and 3) having the tough conversations with your child about why you’re doing this in the first place (e.g., what is homelessness, hunger, and why do we live in a world where this happens, because it’s really, really, really unfair.).
First, access to projects.
I’ve never spoken about religion on Fair Play, and I’m not about to start, but I will say that most churches provide excellent access to organized service. Thanksgiving Baskets is a project originally organized by my mother, Fair Play Supermom, the community service liaison between our Episcopal parish and a local transitional housing organization. Religious organizations tend to have long-standing relationships with groups who facilitate assistance and have the resources to organize such projects. Our parish has annual projects like Thanksgiving Baskets, as well as weekly or monthly projects like Teen Feed, a dinner teens (and others) in our parish cook for homeless teens (and others). Be aware that denominations differ greatly in the extent to which a religious message is part of their community service outreach, and that is something about which you will have to gauge your own personal feelings.
If you’re part of a religious organization, this is probably your best way to get involved. If you’re not, never fear. Your child’s school or your own place of work probably does some sort of drive (canned goods, perhaps) during the year. Additionally, projects crop up around the holidays when need is great – because the weather is terrible, food may be in especially great need, you may be feeling especially charitable – and these projects are often advertised in the paper, on buses, and online. Adopt-a-Family projects around the holidays are very common in a variety of settings – where you receive information from an organization (such as a shelter, transitional housing, food bank) about a family in need, and shop for them for Christmas. Kids especially get into this. Year-round, organizations which assist those in need have drives for the supplies they require to provide whatever service they do (food banks – food, and so on). For example, in Seattle this time of year, Real Change: Homeless Empowerment Project, a newspaper with a focus on homeless issues, sold by homeless people, runs a drive called Surviving the Streets to collect cold-weather gear for living on the streets. And if you’re in Seattle, as many Fair Play readers are – you can still participate!
Second, keeping involvement reasonable.
I know we should all be so charitable as to be constantly involved. Yes…but if you’re trying to build participatory habits in your family and in your children, there’s a certain degree to which you have to be realistic and keep things in bite size chunks. That’s where I recommend a few annual projects you always do, perhaps around certain holidays, a la Thanksgiving Baskets for my family. Then, regular participation at a reasonable level in things like food drives or clothing drives at – most important! – a level you can sustain, which might only be a can or two for a drive, and that’s fine. Building these habits also fosters in your child the valuing of service activities. Eventually, you can ask your child to select among some service options for an activity. Inviting their opinion and participation will also build positive attitudes about helping out and giving back.
Finally, having the tough conversations.
It is really uncomfortable talking to kids about all the bad things in the world. It can seem terribly daunting. But here’s the kicker – they see it, even if you don’t talk about it. No matter how many times you walk past that homeless man on the street without saying anything, your child noticed him. So say something! Sometimes it is easier to start with something concrete, like “we’re bringing this food so that people who don’t have any food will have something to eat for dinner.” But I’ll caution you – if they don’t see the value of what they are doing, for example actually selecting, wrapping, and then giving away presents for a family through Adopt-a-Family, it might not stick. Additionally, extremely young children may not understand very well that other people experience things differently that they do – so talk to them, and keep talking and eventually it will get in there.
Those three obstacles (finding projects, participating reasonably, and talking about the issues) are nothing to sneeze at. But if you tackle them head-on, community service can become a rewarding part of your family repertoire. Perhaps it is already! I encourage you to go out and find a project this holiday season in which to involve your family. I’m off to celebrate the season at Epiphany Church boxing and delivering Thanksgiving meals to the East Cherry YWCA! Happy Sunday-before-Thanksgiving, everyone!
Update: Thanksgiving Baskets ready to be delivered, 2012: