The holidays are a busy time, and many families have a long list of commitments and plans to get to each year. With so many things they need to get done, parents know time is tight. This season that can be both overwhelming and joyous. 

But amid all of the hustle and bustle, this time of year can serve as an opportunity to stop, reflect and give back in ways that reflect the spirit of the giving season. 

Involving your children in charitable acts of kindness and donation sends a powerful message that the holidays are not just about gifts, food and fun. It is also a time for compassion, to serve others and reflect on the needs of those who are less fortunate. 

Simple or grand gesture. Community service or your own private family tradition. All are meaningful and soul-enriching for both those who receive – and those who give. I asked around my local community in Shrewsbury for ideas on how families like to give back this time of year.

Toy Drives

Toy Drives are one of the most popular ways to teach your children about giving back and acts of kindness. Well-known charitable organizations such as Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army hold drives around the state all season. 

“With 32 Corps across Massachusetts and service extension units that serve every zip code in the state, our toy drives and holiday assistance programs vary in every community,” said Heather MacFarlane, the organization’s director of communications, marketing and public relations.

The Salvation Army also sponsors Angel Tree programs in locations around Massachusetts, too, which allow volunteers to select tags with requests from families who need assistance this time of year and purchase those items. 

“We've always made it a point to donate toys to Toys for Tots and through a collection with the Scout pack as well,” said Anne Gray, a mom of two. “Most of the time the things we donate are things they themselves would like to get. While getting it would make them feel good, making someone else feel good with that item is an even better feeling!”

Clean out and brighten someone’s day

The things we no longer need can be very helpful for others. Instead of a spring or fall clean out, the holidays can also be a time to look around and see what you have that could be put to good use elsewhere. Eirinn Campaniello and her daughters, Michaela and Maria, have a holiday tradition that includes bringing party dresses to families in need.

“Years ago, I read about a small temporary family shelter near Newton Square in Worcester. Since then, before the Christmas and Easter holidays, the gals and I gather up all their no-longer-fitting fancy dresses, shoes and sweaters and we bring them to the shelter. Usually there are a couple of girls there who fit into what we’ve brought. It makes us all feel good that these clothes, worn at so many festive family occasions, will go on to make someone else feel special on Christmas Eve or Easter morning.”

Visit a nursing home

Residents at nursing homes or assisted living facilities may not have family nearby to spend the holidays with them. Call ahead and find out if some of the local elderly housing organizations in your town offer opportunities to visit and bring cards or sing carols.

Deanna Swan, program director at Southgate, an assisted living facility in Shrewsbury, said the annual tradition of a visit from a local Cub Scout pack is always meaningful for the residents.

“Every year around holidays they come and carol in our dining room,” said Swan. “What I tell the kids is that what they are doing is important. When kids come visit, it’s an intergenerational experience and I think it gives our folks a sense of hope. It makes the biggest difference to our residents to see kids who are being brought up to have values.”

Swan said in addition to caroling, some children bring holiday cards or just visit with the residents, which is appreciated by many.

Adopt a family

Many local organizations, schools and religious groups organize efforts to sponsor a family over the holiday season. This gives kids a chance to buy or make gifts for another family in need and help them make the holidays bright. Gift requests can range from clothing and essential items, to fun gifts like toys.

“Our family always supports Toys for Tots, but this year we'll sponsor a family,” said Kelly Molter, a mom of two. “We want our children to be grateful, but I think sometimes it can be difficult to teach gratitude without any context. So I'm hoping when they see the simple things these families are asking for it might give them a greater sense of appreciation.”

Donate to a food pantry – or deliver food

Bringing kids on a special shopping trip to buy food items for a food pantry is another powerful message about the basic needs some families have over the holidays. Check with your local pantry about which nonperishable goods are in demand around the holidays and have your kids fill the cart and then bring the items in for donation. 

Many pantries or shelters may also offer volunteer opportunities to deliver holiday meals. Lisa Vuona and her daughter Lily have made meal delivery part of their family tradition.

“Lily and I have delivered turkey dinners on Thanksgiving day for the past few years,” she said “We pick up the meals from the food pantry and they give us addresses and then we deliver them. It’s a good lesson on being thankful for all that we have.”

Bake cookies or casseroles

Sure, cooking with kids can be a little messy at times. But many love spending time with you in the kitchen. And what better way to make use of what you create than by bringing your homemade desserts to those who need to be at work during the holidays? Bring treats to your local fire department or police station, or make a meal and take it to an elderly neighbor.

“Last year during Christmas we made some cookies and dropped them off at the police and fire station to thank them,” said Jenn Luke, a mom of two. “I have conversations with the kids all the time about how there are many children out there who are much less fortunate than them and they should do their best to be kind and help out either with some gifts or their time.”

Engage in small gestures with big meaning

Even a seemingly tiny gesture can have significant impact when it comes to teaching kids about the meaning of the holidays. Kristen Hawkins enjoys teaching her son, Calvin, about taking time to appreciate others this time of year. 

“When I was little, I always remember going grocery shopping with my grandmother and she would save a dollar for us to give to Salvation Army bell ringers each week during the season,” she said. “It sounds like a little, but at the time not having a lot ourselves, it felt like more. And more importantly, I remember her taking the time to talk to the person volunteering. I've tried to carry on the tradition. Calvin has become very savvy on how to fold a bill to get it to fit in with ease and always remembers to thank the bell ringer.”

Whether it is getting out there to volunteer for a visit, or an entire day, or just finding a way to take a few minutes to say thank you to other volunteers, there are so many ways to teach valuable lessons to children this year. The opportunities are all over your community.