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How and Where Your Family Can Give Back This Year

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The best gifts don’t always come in boxes wrapped with brightly colored paper with a big red ribbon on top. They often come from the heart.

And while our thoughts naturally turn to gifts during the holiday season, there’s something special about giving all year-round, especially by making a pledge to a family member or friend to contribute time to a worthy cause.

It takes some time for those realities to sink in, but it’s never too early for kids to learn.

“Our son Gavin started when he was 7 or 8 years old,” says JulieAnne Cross, a marketing and public relations specialist who lives in Stanton. Gavin is now a freshman at A.I. du Pont High School and he’s already a volunteer veteran at the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, the Big Wheel Bike Race for Breast Cancer and the Delaware Burger Battle, an event his mother promotes.

“We don’t have a lot of treasures to donate,” Cross says, “but one of our family values is to give our time.”

While many organizations have rules stating that volunteers must be at least 16 years old, a significant number welcome younger helpers, sometimes including those whose ages haven’t reached double digits.

“We have volunteer readers as young as 9, accompanied by parents or older siblings,” says Mary Hirschbiel, executive director of ReadAloud Delaware, whose volunteers read stories to children in childcare centers.

One of the best ways to seek out a volunteer opportunity is to find an activity that coincides with one of the passions of the child, or of the family, says Sheila Bravo, executive director of the Delaware Association for Nonprofit Advancement. Environmental groups, animal welfare organizations and food banks can be good choices, she says.

“Volunteers are their lifeline, so it’s encouraging to see young people become active volunteers,” Bravo says. Check the organization’s website or make a phone call to learn about opportunities, she advises.

For some, joining a group like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is a good way to instill a spirit of community service. While selling popcorn or cookies outside supermarkets might elevate these groups’ profiles, the projects undertaken by small groups sometimes have a greater impact.

Angela Kaiser worked last winter and spring with four Girl Scouts, including her daughter Amelia, to plant a new garden at the entrance to the Odyssey Charter School, which the girls attended last year, in Barley Mill Plaza.

The fifth-graders solicited donations, raising about $350, and researched plant varieties before getting into shoveling, raking and planting. “The ground was hard. They spent many hours in the rain and in the heat. They found out that gardening is not easy,” Kaiser said. 

More importantly, in reports they wrote about working on the two 15- by 15-foot plots, “they said they realized that they had made their school a better place … that the garden made students, teachers and parents feel happier,” Kaiser said.

Others create giving opportunities on their own.

Blessed with ability and good fortune, Braeden Mannering of Newark was only 10 years old when his recipe was chosen as Delaware’s winner in the national Healthy Lunchtime Challenge competition in 2013. His reward was an invitation to a luncheon at the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged the guests at his table to find a way to “pay it forward.”

At the time, Braeden wasn’t quite sure what “paying it forward” meant, his mother, Christy Mannering, recalled, so she took a few minutes to explain the importance of helping others.

On the way back from Washington, Braeden saw a homeless man outside Union Station and wanted to help him. A couple of days later, Braeden saw another homeless man, this time standing on the corner a mile or two from his home. When he got home, he packed a bag of food and asked his mother to drive him back to where the man was staying.

That incident led to the launch of Brae’s Brown Bags, a nonprofit that provides healthy snacks to the homeless and low-income individuals.

At first, Braeden did the work on his own. But now he has spread out, through the creation of nine “ripples,” groups of kids at schools or daycare centers who are making their own bags of snacks. As of the end of August, the organization had distributed more than 8,200 brown bags.

ReadAloud Delaware, Hirschbiel notes, has secured a good supply of new and gently used books for its programs through the efforts of youngsters who organize their own book drives, gather books from their own shelves or arrange collections on their block or from their classmates. Before organizing a drive, Hirschbiel suggests that youngsters, or their parents, contact ReadAloud for suggestions about what types of books the program needs most.

While the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware requires volunteers who help with operations of the house to be 16 or older and to commit to six months to a year of service, it also offers opportunities for younger children to help out, says volunteer manager Sara Funaiock. 

Children 6 and up can come to the house, opposite the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, with their families and help assemble toiletry kits, activity kits and meal kits that will be used by families that are staying at the house. Family, scout and church groups can also go to the house to pick up bags and labels and then fill the bags at home with items they purchase or collect, Funaiock says.

Faithful Friends Animal Society welcomes volunteers as young as kindergarten age, but they must be accompanied by a parent if they’re under 16, says Brittany Anthony, development and public relations manager. They can work in the cat area, helping with cleaning cages, changing bedding and providing water and food. Kids 16 and older can walk dogs and help care for them.

Some young volunteers help Faithful Friends by working from home—running drives to collect items the shelter needs, including pet food, bedding and office supplies. 

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