While it’s important to be generous year-round, the holidays provide parents with an opportune time to teach kids about giving back, either by donating their time or goods to those in need. Here are some local ways to help out this season, from food-delivery to gift-wrapping. By Shea Gibbs and Wistar Murray
Mature teens who have graduated from high school and want to give back to their community may be drawn to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Certain “Littles” (ages 6 through 18) might benefit from being mentored by an energetic young-adult “Big” who overcame his or her own childhood struggles relatively recently. The proximity in age could uniquely qualify the Big to understand what the Little is experiencing.
The Blue Ridge Bigs match support team is always meticulous in placing Littles with Bigs, assessing a number of personal factors when they make their matches. After all, the Big/Little relationship is a bond that might last for many years. And the reciprocal benefits endure forever. When teen volunteer Bri Chrispin joined the program, she was motivated in part because she’d “always wanted a little sister.” Mentoring has taught her the importance of patience as well as influence: “Once a Big, you really have to be careful of the words you speak and your actions,” she says. “A child’s mind absorbs so much, and if we, as their mentor, aren’t acting right, how are we to teach them?” Teens are also welcome to volunteer to offer childcare during parent orientation. blueridgebigs.org
Kathy O’Connell first began volunteering at Meals on Wheels of Charlottesville/Albemarle because she was looking for something she could do with her preschool-aged daughter. She is now the assistant director of the nonprofit, and knows firsthand that MOW is a powerful way for families to bond while they serve their community.
Each day, more than 30 volunteers pack and deliver approximately 275 hot meals to locals who are homebound due to aging, illness or recovery. Close relationships between drivers and those they serve inevitably develop along regular routes. Sometimes these Meals on Wheels volunteers are the only people a client sees that day. Deliveries are a special opportunity for kids to get to know folks of different ages and backgrounds. And for a small child, ringing doorbells and donating meals can feel like an adventure.
Volunteers have been known to bring children, grandchildren and even newborn babies along on their routes and they often find that clients welcome the sight of younger generations. Kids who aren’t free for lunchtime deliveries can still volunteer to pack “Blizzard Bags” of nonperishable items for clients to have on hand when the roads are impassable. The MOW organization encourages parents to work together with their children to help their community. “Families have so little time together as it is,” says O’Connell. cvillemeals.org
Raise the woof Make dog treats at home and hand-deliver them to the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA. Or, if your little one is too young for baking, gather blankets and donate them to the shelter.
Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy is a unique volunteer experience for kids who want to help others with special needs—well, because horses.
“Mainly what it is is seeing the progress of the kids,” says Sarah Daly, CART’s director and an instructor. “And it’s especially great if they like being outdoors and loving horses. That’s it, you know—loving animals and people.”
CART offers therapeutic horseback riding to children and adults with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, spinal cord/brain injuries, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida and hearing/visual impairments. The riding, which provides patients with much of the same physical benefits as walking or running, has been shown to improve those with special needs’ physical and emotional well-being.
Teens 14 and up are invaluable helpers for the program, according to Daly, as they walk alongside or in front of the mounted horses during classes. Certified instructors like Daly lead the courses and offer training to each volunteer. Classes are one hour, once a week, and each session is eight to 10 weeks.
“People that are interested will just call up,” Daly says. “The one thing is they can’t be afraid of horses.” cartcrozet.org
Bake more Make a few extra pies during Thanksgiving dinner prep and bring them to the local firestation for those working over the holidays.
At the table
Food inspires strong feedback in just about every kid on the planet. Children all have their favorite dishes and those that they categorically refuse to eat. So volunteering at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank might be appealing on a visceral level, especially when kids learn that food insecurity affects one in six of their young peers.
Volunteers need to be 12 or older to work in the warehouse, but kids of any age can serve as “Hunger Heroes” by organizing food drives in their schools or neighborhoods, like UVA grad Nicole Muller of Albemarle County, who, when she was only 16, launched the now-national Neighbors-4-Neighbors food drive. Since its inception, the campaign has provided meals for more than 300,000 food-insecure people in the region. Charlottesville teenager Ryleigh Katstra has since upheld Muller’s legacy with food drives of her own, and this year mobilized Neighbors-4-Neighbors campaigns at 30 schools. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank’s website provides kits that contain all the materials that Hunger Heroes need to get started. brafb.org
Warm wishes Organize a pajama drive for kids at local homeless shelters. Gather up gently worn clothing and ask friends and neighbors to do the same.
Making house calls
Most folks know Habitat for Humanity builds affordable housing for those in need. What they might not know is all the other fun and philanthropic things the organization does.
And while Habitat’s construction projects are, for the most part, limited to those 18 and up, kids of all ages can get involved in other ways, be it in the Habitat Store or organizing events like the annual Rake-a-Thon.
“The Rake-a-Thon event planning is supported by our Youth United Team—a group of 10 high school students from six different schools in Albemarle County,” volunteer engagement associate Amy Allamong says. “It gives them a chance to see what it takes to plan a successful event, and they recruit fellow students to join with them the day of.”
The Rake-a-Thon is held every year in November, but young volunteers have opportunities to help the homeless or those in danger of becoming homeless year-round. In addition to helping out around Habitat’s local secondhand store, young folks can organize or participate in the Lego Build—“a youth activity we use to teach what a ‘safe, decent, affordable’ home means,” according to Allamong—or the lunch bunch, where groups of volunteers bring a midday meal to Habitat construction sites.
“We really like to hit home on what it means to have a place to live…What does having a stable home mean?” Allamong says. “A lot of children might grow up in a family that moves every six months. We want young people to know what it might mean if they didn’t have to do that.” cvillehabitat.org
Gifts that keep giving
Christmas is 15-year-old Mariah Payne’s favorite holiday. And through the support of her parents and church, she’s come to appreciate giving back. So what better way to get involved than through Be a Santa to a Senior, Home Instead Senior Care’s annual gift drive?
“I love it,” Payne says. “You don’t have to do a lot, and you can make someone’s day. It’s a nice feeling that you can make people happy just by wrapping gifts.”
Home Instead has been sponsoring Be a Santa to Senior, where elderly in need submit a few gift requests and donors give money to buy them or the time it takes to wrap them, since 2003. In the last 13 years, 60,000 volunteers have given 1.2 million gifts to 700,000 senior citizens.
Brittany Gilliam, Home Instead’s administrative assistant and holiday program coordinator, says the local chapter wants to take the program a step further this year and have volunteers adopt lonely seniors and spend time with them, bring them gifts or make them meals.
Payne says she’ll definitely be up for the changes.
“It would be nice to meet some of the people to see the smiles on their faces,” she says. beasantatoasenior.com
Mail call Leave a small gift (a gift card to a local coffee shop, for instance) for your family’s regular postal worker.
Best for bookworms
Volunteering at Jefferson-Madison Regional Library teaches kids all the skills they’re likely to need when they enter the workforce—but hopefully they won’t notice with all the fun.
Sure, kids 13 and older who sign up to help at JMRL can expect to learn how to use a copy machine, laminate, operate a die-cutter and generally organize materials for library programs. But it’s the programs, like the recent Star Wars Reads Day, that will keep them interested and coming back for more.
“Teen volunteers help staff with a variety of things,” says Tim Carrier, JMRL’s young adult services manager who coordinates the teen volunteer program. “They may help us get together booklists or brochures. We also get them out to the branches and into the public. They do provide a lot of helpful service for us.”
Young people can also get involved with the library’s teen advisory board, which meets with a staff member once a month to offer input on the library’s programs. The advisory board is the teens’ chance to push projects “that benefit the library and to help actually implement a big program,” Carrier says.
According to Carrier, volunteer need at JMRL is branch-specific, so teens and parents looking to sign up at specific locations may or may not find a spot. Being open to work wherever there’s a need will improve your chances. jmrl.org
Though teens may initially be turned off by volunteering anywhere with the word “school” in its name, you can assure them that they won’t be taking any pop quizzes at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Instead, they’ll get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles by helping to plan community programs like open mic nights, story slams and cookoffs at the legendary Starr Hill school. With help from young volunteers, last summer’s Day Soiree brought alumni together for festivities as the historic institution celebrated 150 years of history with art, food, games and live music.
Renowned activists, academics and historians are often scheduled to speak at the Heritage Center on a range of topics relating to diversity in our community. And a gallery boasts the permanent collection, Pride Overcomes Prejudice, as well as rotating exhibits of contemporary artists. Teen volunteers at the center also get the opportunity to research Charlottesville’s African-American history, which was especially rich in the neighboring Vinegar Hill neighborhood. They may even lead a school tour because who knows better what will appeal to young student visitors? If event planning and local history don’t immediately entice service-minded teens, caffeine might. The Heritage Center’s coffee bar is also run by volunteers. jeffschoolheritagecenter.org
Helping hands Volunteer to help an elderly neighbor by raking leaves or shoveling snow.
If your teen is bogged down by adult responsibilities, volunteering at the Virginia Discovery Museum might be just what he or she needs to reconnect with the child within. Volunteers at the downtown institution are encouraged to interact with young museumgoers as much as possible. This means that playing with toys is a big part of the job description. During their shifts, volunteers are also tasked with maintaining the museum’s safe environment and tidying the exhibits, because as Director of Operations Lindsay Jones says about the museum’s famous collection of cars, trains, costumes, crafts, building blocks and books: “Everything travels.”
Due to the small size of the museum’s permanent staff, enthusiastic volunteers (ranging in age from 15 to 85) are crucial to keeping the galleries open to young visitors. Teens who volunteer their time can expect to gain valuable job experience, hone their intergenerational social skills and teach kids a little something about how the world works. Teens who can’t commit to a regular volunteering gig during the school year can help out at annual special events like the Discovery Dash, the Boo Bash and the Santa Pancake Breakfast, or they can intern at the museum during the summer months for school credit. vadm.org