One year when I was feeling particularly burdened by the stress of the holidays of my big family—it’s a massive undertaking of shopping, feeding and cleaning up after all those lazy helpful loved ones. I decided I’d try something different. Couldn’t we volunteer at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving instead of doing the giant family gathering thing? Certainly, no one would dare balk at that. Try complaining that you’ll miss Aunt so-and-so’s special pumpkin pie when there are people out there who are struggling to provide sustenance for their families. It offered me an easy way to opt-out of hosting all those people while at the same time looking like a saint. Checkmate, family!
Not so fast...
When I started calling around to shelters, to my disappointment and surprise, I quickly learned that we weren’t needed on Thanksgiving Day. In fact, that’s one of the biggest volunteer days of the year. Each person I contacted, while extremely gracious, kindly suggested we consider signing up to help out in the slower times (reading between the lines here—not when the news crews show up and the world feels good about helping the less fortunate).
Spoiler alert: I survived hosted another hectic great family Thanksgiving feast that year. No photo ops at the soup kitchen, but the notion about giving back when the rest of the world’s not thinking about it stayed with me.
Typically when we turn the page of the calendar to reveal November, we’re suddenly all in a tizzy about ways to give back. What about cultivating gratitude throughout the rest of the calendar year? Through my selfless opportunistic, failed effort to volunteer, I came up with some authentic ways to practice gratitude in our family every month. I hope my journey can be a help to you.
Tips for a 365-Day Attitude of Gratitude
Compile “blessing bags.” I can’t take credit for this idea. My kids’ school does it every year at… yep, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I told the hubs and kids we were taking it to the next level. Blessing bags are Ziploc pouches stuffed with toiletries and snacks that you hand out to those you encounter on street corners. We do it in the spring, summer, fall, and winter! And we make the bags appropriate to the season. For instance, in the winter bags, we include disposable hand warmers, hats, and gloves, along with gum, hand sanitizer, and individually wrapped snacks. Sometimes, I buy a handful of $5 gift cards to the grocery store and stuff them in as well. It depends on your budget and preferences. In the warmer months, we always include a small bottled water. Be prepared, not everyone will accept it. But that’s ok. The real kindness is taking the time to say hi and notice someone. Many homeless people express the hardships of countless people looking through them. This helps your kids lean into some of the social awkwardness that can come with doing acts of kindness. My little introverts are slowly learning to safely engage with people who are hurting or struggling. (TIP: Take this a step further by asking the name of person you give your bag to…they probably haven’t heard it in quite a while.)
Volunteer as a family at a sandwich line or soup kitchen during the less obvious days. I haven’t included my kids in any of these ventures yet, but they are aware that their dad and I are helping out.
Offer to mow a lawn, pick weeds, rake leaves, or shovel snow for an elderly person in your neighborhood. This is a great way to get the whole family taking part. Devote a couple hours to yard work and admire your handiwork every time you walk or drive by.
Before COVID, I’d say visit a nursing home in your area and prepare a couple songs to perform or bring a board game to play, but that’s not possible right now. Instead, ask to write letters to some of the residents. Spend time being a real pen pal. Not only do kids learn about writing-well composed handwritten letters, but they’re learning to show gratitude for a whole generation that paved the way for them. My kids write to a 96-year-old widower who’s become a friend. They can’t wait to write him out about their daily adventures. They have begun to pray for him nightly. I help by addressing the envelope, but they do all the rest! Easy-peasy!
Encourage your kids throughout the year to purge their toys and clothes. They can save the nice things, take photos, and post them on a neighborhood app under the free category. My kids bundled a bunch of “learn to read” books and there were moms who snatched them up. One admitted she couldn’t have afforded them otherwise. My children were suddenly basking in gratitude for all they have!
I guess I’m grateful for the humbling experience of getting shut down in my gracious self-serving act of kindness. In a roundabout way, it’s opened up a new world of possibilities for me and my family—a world that includes an opportunity to give thanks each and every month of the year!