Tara Bone, contributing writer 

It’s a maddening task that every parent must tackle eventually: cleaning out the toys. Sifting through the dolls, the Legos and the countless odds and ends. It makes a parent wonder where all the stuff comes from and vow never to buy toys again. And then, Christmas comes.

For me, the thought of more toys causes such anxiety that before I know it I’m Woody from Toy Story, drowning in a sea of toys, specifically a sea of Star Wars Legos led by a broken, one-armed Darth Vader. Yes, (deep breath) it’s that serious for this mom of boys. It was with these fears in mind that our family decided to simplify and serve more during the holidays.

This plan was hatched years ago while talking with my sister-in-law about the annual family gift exchange. We both wanted the exchange to be more meaningful and less materialistic. I remembered a friend who did service projects at family parties instead of buying gifts, and we decided to do the same. We were nervous at first. How would kids, ages two to 11 years old, like the idea of giving up their cousin gifts? The results surprised us.

We found a need to make school kits that would be sent to refugee children around the world. With help, the cousins purchased kit items, assembled everything and even learned some life lessons. This service created a dialogue about gratitude, empathy and awareness for world events. The kids were genuinely excited to imagine a girl or boy like them receiving needed supplies. Because they were involved in the entire process, they felt a part of something special.

Since that first service exchange, we’ve tried to focus on holiday service, but some years are better than others. It takes intentional effort to coordinate service, but it’s worth it to keep trying.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of service opportunities in light of recent natural disasters and world conflicts, and kids are eager to help if given the chance. Raising empathetic humans is a gift that lasts forever.

Holiday Service Ideas
  • Host a holiday family dinner for widows/widowers or the kids’ teachers.
  • Bake and take treats to a local fire station, police station or hospital on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day.
  • Adopt a nursing home resident.
  • Participate in local angel trees.
  • Write gratitude cards for gifts received.
  • Instead of exchanging neighborhood gifts, gather money that would have been spent on those gifts and donate it. Have a neighborhood party to choose the cause and celebrate friendship.
Service Resources
  • Contact local churches for up-to-date information.
  • justserve.org – Find local service opportunities.
  • uso.org – Support U.S. military personnel and their families financially, or make cards and send messages.
  • operationgive.org – Send Christmas stockings to soldiers overseas.
  • ringbells.org – Be a Salvation bell ringer!
  • samaritanspurse.org – Send a “shoe box” gift for a child in need, or support other national and international causes.
  • childfund.org or savethechildren.org – Sponsor a child or support a variety of relief efforts.
  • Purchase Christmas gifts from “Fair Trade” websites like Ten Thousand Villages, Global Good Partners, World of Good, SERRV Organization.