Parents  lament about the loss of the christmas spirit. However, Christmas is the perfect time to bring the family closer together by embarking on a project of giving together. It’s hard for our children to learn the gift of giving unless parents or families go out of their way to give support to total strangers.

Volunteering is a great way to bring a family closer together while at the same time teaching everyone, children and parents alike, the gift of giving. It’s what Christmas is all about, and who knows, it may be contagious for the rest of the year.

Volunteering also helps out the community by supporting agencies that provide important services at low or no cost to the recipients. We want our children to be contributing members of society and what better way to achieve that than by volunteering.

Here are some tips to help your family begin a new tradition of community service.

Type of service. Volunteering can take as much or as little time as your family desires. It doesn’t have to be a long time commitment and can even be a one-time endeavor. Does your family or you have certain skills or special needs that would help determine what kind of activity to pursue? Is transportation an issue? What would your family like to learn from the experience? Decide how many hours a week  your family would like to spend and if they want to make it an on-going experience. The more input  that’s received from each family member, the better idea parents will have about where to volunteer and the more committed everyone will be when the decision is made.

Ages. Depending on the type of service, any age child can participate. If you have a baby, she can come with you to visit the elderly, for instance. If you have older children, use their artistic fervor to draw get well cards for those in the hospital. Although children of all ages can participate, parents need to choose activities wisely and make sure that their children are mature enough to handle  the project.

Deciding. Look carefully at any organization that needs your help. What is their mission? What are their goals? How are they funded? What will your family be doing exactly? It may be a good idea to get a reference from the organization for a past or present volunteer. Call the reference to find out what the pros and cons are of working for that particular organization.

Although there are many organizations that need your families help, don’t restrict yourself to those alone. If you recognize a need in the community, create a solution on your own. It might just be picking up the trash at a park or beach your family frequently uses, or it may be a larger project your community needs.

Don’t forget that our island has a lot of wilderness areas that are in need of help. Besides volunteering to help people, animals, and  our community, our parks, trails and state lands are also maintained by organizations that use volunteers.

Preparing. Just like anything new the family embarks upon, it’s a good idea to have a discussion on what to expect on the day you’re going to volunteer. Ask your children, “What do you think is going to happen? What do you expect? How will others feel about our arriving to help? Are you feeling excited, nervous, scared?”

Help children prepare for the day by describing what you think will happen from the beginning to the end. You have spoken with the organization your family will volunteer with or thought out your project already, so share the time table of events with everyone else.

If you want to take the experience deeper, go to the library and read books together on whatever issues will be involved with the work your family will be doing.

During. On the day of community service look out for situations, behaviors, or issues that your family would want to talk about later. The situations that affect you probably have the same affect on your family. Or maybe not. It would be fun to discuss and find out how each member of the family perceived the situation.

If it’s appropriate, take pictures of your volunteer day and make a scrap book of the experience. It will be a fun and rewarding day. Pictures will allow the family to remember it and relive the positive feeling that it provided.

Be sure to be at your very best attitude with your children. They will be in a new environment and your positive attitude will rub off on them. Children will want encouragement and assurance that everything is going well and they are doing a great job. Explain patiently and thoroughly any instructions they may need in order to accomplish their tasks. Remember to enjoy yourself, have fun and enthusiastically jump into the day and lead your family by example.

Afterwards. Ask a lot of questions about how your family may have felt about the different experiences they had during the day. Find out what was difficult, scary, interesting and exciting for them. Tell them about how you felt during the day and what you encountered.

Sometimes it’s hard for young children to answer questions like these so use other means to get their ideas flowing. Maybe drawing pictures or  listening to a parent retell the day as a story, will enliven a child’s imagination and promote a deeper discussion on their feelings.

If your children are older, broaden the discussion to include ideas about society, human nature, or tolerance, really, anything else that taps into the larger issues of life and living.

You can celebrate the day by going out to lunch or dinner together. This  had probably been a great family day so far, so use the connection that has been created to enjoy yourselves or talk about other family issues.

It would be fun to create a scrapbook of any pictures that you took  so that the kids could remember their first volunteer excursion. You can write  or make a card for any of the people you helped or thank any of the people  you worked with.

Community service provides our families the opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves, others and the world around us. So before, during, and after the experience think like a teacher so that you can direct your family towards fully absorbing the experience and getting the most out of it.

Holiday Giving Ideas

• Adopt a family for the holidays where you can present them with simple gifts they may be unable to afford themselves. Try to find a family through an organization where the children are the same age as your own.

• Make holiday cards with your kids. There are many children or elderly people stuck in institutions during the holidays whether it be hospitals or nursing homes.