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Do Good, Feel Good: 20 Ways Families Can Give Back to Their Communities

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November isn't just for giving thanks — it's also the beginning of the giving season, when nonprofits mail their end-of-year fundraising letters and adults write checks to support their work.

Most kids don't have checkbooks, though. So how can the younger generation support those in need? And how can parents help their children see the value of giving to others without expecting to receive something in return?

To answer those questions, we compiled this list of ways families can give back to their communities. We started by emailing dozens of Vermont-based nonprofits to ask for specific suggestions of ways kids can support them around the holidays besides just giving money. Then we asked Kids VT readers to share ways they volunteer with their families via social media. We condensed all the great ideas we received into this nifty list. We hope it inspires your family to lend a helping hand in the coming months.

1. Grant someone's wish.

Many organizations ask for holiday gifts on behalf of kids and families who can't afford them. Lund, an organization that serves women, children and families, posts a wish list on its website and, in December, designates four days for people to bring in their unwrapped gifts, says communications director Charlotte Blend.

The Humane Society of Chittenden County posts a wish list that includes pet food and cleaning supplies, says volunteer and community outreach manager Erin Alamed.

Through Facebook, Kids VT reader Vicky Sullivan Sinagra gave us this tip: "The St. Albans Free Library puts the age, gender and wish lists of children on the fireplace for people to take and return with the gifts." Check with your local library to see if it has a similar program.

2. Love your neighbor.

Through Facebook, mom Tiffany Ovitt McCormick suggests doing good deeds around the neighborhood. "Help shovel a yard, rake leaves, stack firewood," she said.

3. Hold a denim drive.

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Collect old pairs of jeans to help keep people warm this winter by organizing a denim drive. The Blue Jeans Go Green program explains how on its website, bluejeansgogreen.org. Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity's volunteer coordinator, Allison DeVoe, says the denim is "upcycled, turned into insulation and sent to our affiliates for use in our homes. Habitat for Humanity receives this recycled insulation at no cost."

4. Prep some food.

Sian Leach, community outreach and volunteer specialist at the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) has this suggestion: "We have a limited budget for food and only a small kitchen at our daytime drop-in shelter for adults. We rely heavily on volunteers to help us provide a healthy and nutritious lunch each and every day. Your family can prepare a meal and drop it off for our staff to serve."

Theresa Snow from Salvation Farms, a nonprofit focused on agricultural surplus management, suggests visiting the Vermont Gleaning Collective's website to learn about volunteer opportunities to clean, bag, process and deliver donated crops throughout the late fall and winter months.

5. Drop in to volunteer.

Not all organizations welcome young volunteers, but Bike Recycle Vermont does. The nonprofit, which makes bikes accessible to everyone in the community, holds a drop-in volunteer night every Tuesday from 5-8 p.m., says outreach director Christine Hill. "No experience with working on bikes is necessary because there are plenty of different hands-on projects to keep the kids and adults alike excited and engaged," she explains.

In the market for a kids' bike or bike trailer? Shop at Old Spokes Home, and your purchase will support the work that Bike Recycle Vermont does.

6. Read to a fuzzy friend.

Hannah Manley, development director of Homeward Bound, Addison County's Humane Society, suggests stopping in and reading a favorite holiday story to a bunny, ferret, guinea pig or cat. While you're at it, take a walk with a shelter dog and play in the leaves or snow together.

7. Sing it loud.

Reader Daniela Michaels shared this simple idea via Facebook: "We took our Girl Scout troop caroling at the local nursing homes and library last year."

8. Give up the gifts.

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"We've had kids donate their birthdays to the Vermont Foodbank," says Judy Stermer, the organization's director of communications. How does that work? "Instead of bringing gifts for the birthday boy or girl, hold a food drive and ask partygoers to bring a can of food for donation," she says. "Or even better, ask partygoers to donate what they would have spent on a canned donation. The Vermont Foodbank turns every $1 donation into three meals for families in need."

Christina Hayward, volunteer coordinator at Central Vermont Humane Society, says kids she knows have sent out birthday invitations that include items on the Humane Society's wish list, asking for them in lieu of presents.

Sian Leach of COTS says families could host a "potluck for COTS" where they ask guests to make a donation to the cabin-fever fund. "Giving a cash donation to COTS pays for an unexpected need that's not covered in our budget, such as a cake for a child's birthday or a pair of shoes for a baby just learning to walk," Leach says.

9. Donate a gift card.

Sometimes it's better to donate a gift card rather than an actual gift. Charlotte Blend of Lund says the organization's Kids A Part program, which helps children with incarcerated moms, could use more of them. "We can only accept gift cards for those families due to the security considerations at the correctional facility," she explains. "Having more gift cards donated would be really helpful."

10. Spread the word.

Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper or to legislators about the need for affordable housing in your community and the growing homelessness among families, says Sian Leach of COTS. "Letting public officials know you are concerned about this issue often compels them to take action."

Hannah Manley from Homeward Bound recommends sharing the shelter's adoptable animals on social media to help them find a home for the holidays.

And Kim Jackson, of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, suggests setting up a visit from the organization at your child's school. "We do lots of fun inclusive sports demonstrations that really break down barriers and let kids be kids together, regardless of ability level," she says.

11. Ring the bells.

Reader Rebecca Stazi shared via Facebook that for the past six years her family has rung bells for the Salvation Army on Christmas Eve day at the University Mall in South Burlington. "We have gotten progressively more 'savvy' as the years have gone on, adding fun hats, bells and even a small external Bluetooth speaker to my iPhone for some light background music last year," she says. Money raised from the kettle campaign goes toward the organization's soup kitchen and helps pay for rent, food, clothing and toys for kids.

12. Say thanks to the year-round helpers.

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Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity's volunteer coordinator, Allison DeVoe, says families can make thank-you cards for their construction and ReStore volunteers for the holiday season. "It's a great way to thank our volunteers in a community-oriented way."

The work done by the 130 Lund employees "mostly goes on behind the scenes, often after hours, in the far-reaching rural corners of the state, as well as in the heart of downtown Burlington. They do this work with open hearts and dedication that is largely unnoticed," says communications director Charlotte Blend. "It would be very meaningful if a family baked cookies or some other holiday treat and brought them to our staff to fuel them in their work during the holiday season. This applies to our hardworking colleagues at the Department for Children and Families as well."

13. Give a box of diapers.

Since 2007, Jason Fitzgerald of Dee Physical Therapy has been collecting diapers to donate to families served by COTS. Throw a box of diapers into your grocery cart, then have your kids add them to the "Great Wall of Diapers" at Dee PT's South Burlington, Shelburne or Hinesburg locations.

14. Tour the food bank.

While kids under 14 are not able to volunteer in the Vermont Foodbank's warehouses in Barre, Rutland and Brattleboro, the organization invites visitors of all ages to come for a tour and learn about their work, says director of communications Judy Stermer. "We can help kids and families brainstorm ways to make a difference on the issue of hunger," she adds.

15. Wage a penny war.

Maddie Monty of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont suggests kids encourage their school to have a penny-collecting competition to benefit the NOFA-VT Farm Share Program, which provides subsidized CSA shares to limited-income Vermonters. "The basic idea is that each grade level or classroom commits to collecting as many pennies as possible, with an incentive (i.e., pizza party, ice cream social) for whichever grade/classroom brings in the most," Monty explains. "At the end, all of the proceeds from the penny war go to a charitable organization or cause."

16. Bake something sweet.

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Denee Fioravanti of South Royalton shared via Facebook that her family bakes cookies, cupcakes and pies, then delivers them to the local food pantry, shelters and senior center. "This has been very rewarding, and a great lesson for the kids around the holidays," she writes.

Alternatively, whip up some treats and have a bake sale to benefit an organization like Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a Killington-based organization that provides recreational opportunities to individuals with disabilities.

Or, instead of cookies, make a batch of healthy dog or cat treats for your local animal shelter.

17. Clean out your bookshelves.

Collect gently used books your kids have outgrown (or read one too many times), and give them away. Several organizations would be glad to take them. VSA Vermont, an arts and education nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, can use books for their Start With the Arts program, an arts-based literacy program that reaches hundreds of Vermont preschoolers, says volunteer coordinator Heidi Swevens.

And Everybody Wins! Vermont, a literacy-based mentoring organization, would appreciate like-new books for their school book carts, or new books to be used as gifts for kids in their program, says executive director Beth Wallace. Families could even attach a review of the book to their donation, Wallace suggests.

18. Make pet toys.

Dogs and cats need toys, too. Lucy's House, an Essex-based nonprofit dedicated to keeping pets in their homes, will hold two gatherings where participants will make dog and cat toys and holiday gift bags to give to food shelves. Participants are encouraged to bring a can of pet food or a treat for the gift bags, and clean socks to make catnip sock toys, says executive director, Jan Ellis-Clements. The pet toy parties are on November 12 and December 10, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (contact Ellis-Clements at ellisclem3@aol.com for location).

19. Bowl for a cause.

Families with some spare time can volunteer at Special Olympics Vermont's Individual Bowling Tournament, which takes place on Sunday, December 4, at Twin City Family Fun Center in Berlin, says community development manager Caitlin Jenkins.

20. Raid the coat closet.

For close to 30 years, Gadue's Dry Cleaning has been collecting gently used coats in all sizes, cleaning them and giving them to local organizations to distribute to those in need as part of their Coats for Kids program. Drop off your kids' outgrown outerwear at any of Gadue's six Chittenden County locations from now through the winter.


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