5 Ways to Find Volunteering and Community Work That's Best for Your Family

Are you and your family hands-on volunteer types? Regular sharers of upbeat words and encouragement? This guide can help you figure out your secret sweetness superpower.

In a perfect world, being kind to others would be automatic, a reflex that kicks in daily and spreads good vibes to all. But given the hustle of real life, kindness efforts sometimes need a little kick in the pants to push them from intention to intentional. One good way to do that: Create a signature act your entire family can get in on, whether it's making an amazing banana bread for each new neighbor or regularly sorting baby clothes at a local family-assistance agency. Doing so helps streamline your service and makes it authentic to you. It's also a bonding exercise. "Being focused on kindness by practicing it often helps build strong relationships among family," says Ferial Pearson, Ed.D., author of Secret Kindness Agents: An Educator's Guide: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World. "It creates a tradition that will yield great memories."

Because the idea is to establish a consistent and collaborative habit, it's best to start by discussing as a family what kinds of activities you might all be jazzed about. "Think of those things that you will enjoy but that won't feel good just for the moment," says Ayo Sanderson Wilson, founder and CEO of Empower the Village, a nonprofit organization focused on restoring "prosperity, peace, and power to the Black community." Next, make sure that every family member gets involved, even if it's just making little ones a part of the conversation. "We can tell our kids to do kind acts, but if they don't see us doing them, they won't internalize it," Dr. Pearson says. "Modeling is so important," she explains. It helps to have a plan and a schedule, whether your act is done every Friday or every month, so it becomes habit. "Committing to this act helps service become a part of what makes you a family," Dr. Pearson says. And once you figure out your go-to, you can return to it again and again.

two kids smiling carrying groceries
Priscilla Gragg

Do What You Love, Or What You Do Best

Think about your family's talents and abilities, then figure out how you can use them to do acts of kindness you're good at and all enjoy. Dr. Pearson's husband is an introvert who likes driving, she says, so he gives rides to friends and family who need them. (He even provides a bottle of water and has their favorite music queued up.) One of her sons loves to cook, like she does, and her other child is a fan of giving affirmations. Dr. Pearson also prides herself on being a connector. So as a family, they can cook a meal, add a sweet accompanying note, and shuttle it to its recipient. Or perhaps invite an elderly neighbor who lives alone to join them once a week for supper. If you're a family of gardeners, leave your produce in a little stand for people in the neighborhood to take. Are you musically inclined? Start a family band, and take it on the road for a concert at a local nursing home. Picking something you all can get excited about will help make the activity become second nature.

Meet The Needs Around You

It helps, too, to consider what your community truly needs and what you as a family can offer. To wit, the environment is always in need of a little love. Your family can dedicate one Saturday a month to cleaning up a neighborhood park, or take a garbage bag with you on your nightly walk and pick up trash as you go. Alternatively, you can form a mini assembly line and put together care packages to be distributed at local shelters for the unhoused or for victims of domestic violence. And keep in mind that philanthropy doesn't have to equal charity. "You want to empower people in a way that means the impact lingers once you're out of the picture," says Sanderson Wilson. Her organization started a Make Every Friday Black Friday movement to urge locals to routinely support Black owned businesses. Whether you're picking up takeout from a restaurant, buying a piece of furniture, or grabbing a gift for a birthday party, each week one member of the family can decide which local businesses to support. (EmpowerTheVillage.org features a Village Black Pages full of Black-owned businesses.)

When In Doubt, Spread Joy

Being kind isn't just about filling an immediate need, like a lack of food or clothing. It's also about spreading a little happiness. Everyone needs light in their life, no matter their situation. Dr. Pearson has a neighbor with a sign outside that says, "Do a silly walk from here to there," to give people a laugh as they pass by. You could buy flowers and hand them out to neighbors or people in the park. If you're a family of foodies, on a dine-out night, pick another table and pay for their drinks. You can do it anonymously and find satisfaction in their smiles. Here's a fun one: If your family has a favorite store, buy a gift card, give it to the cashier, and have them use it to check out customers behind you until it runs out. As Sanderson Wilson suggests, you can even have a friendly acts-of-kindness competition with another family. "Imagine your kids bragging about how much community service they did compared with their neighbor," she says. "If they're going to brag about something, let them brag about giving back."

Easy Does It

Kindness doesn't have to be complicated. If you're short on time or seeking simplicity, pick a task that doesn't force you to stray far from your routine. After a snowstorm, shovel a neighbor's driveway in addition to yours. (Your child can add a cheery snowman.) Try pooling the household's spare change in a "giving" jar, and when it reaches a certain amount, decide where to donate the funds. If Sunday is lasagna night, make an extra one and take it to a shelter or a family in need. "If I'm going to cook for my family anyway, why not make a little bit extra for someone who needs a meal?" Dr. Pearson says. "It's not extra time. I am just cooking more." If you're a group of extroverts, spend an hour a month visiting a local nursing home or making phone calls to the elderly who live alone. Says Dr. Pearson, "Just slowing down and being present with people in solidarity is a powerful act of kindness."

Take The First Step

Here are a few organizations that can help you get started on your family's quest to be a force for good.

  • At LasagnaLove.org, you can sign up to make and deliver lasagna for a family in need.
  • The kids can write letters to the elderly (a simple "Hello, hope you're having a great day!" goes a long way) via ReadyToCare.com.
  • Is sewing your family's specialty? Through ProjectLinus.org, you can make security blankets for kids in shelters, hospitals, or anywhere a child needs one. The organization offers patterns on the site.
  • With the holidays ahead, try one of the gift-donation initiatives online that give presents to kids in need—ToysForTots.org is one of the most well-known—or call local stores and ask if they're running a similar program this year.
  • At ChildsPlayCharity.org, you'll find Amazon wish lists made by kids in children's hospitals; the gifts they request will help keep their spirits up and fill the long hours alone.
  • Ivory brand's Act of Kindness initiative encourages people to deliver care packages (anything from socks to snacks to bodywash—up to your family) to those in need. You can replicate the idea for a senior center or an assisted-living facility near you. (In celebration of our Kindness Issue, Ivory and Parents are partnering to donate $2,500 worth of Ivory products to Lenox Hill House, which provides services to adults and children in New York City.)

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2021 issue as "Find Your Signature Do-Good Move." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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