11/24/2012 11:35 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2013

Family Service Creates Traditions That Make a Difference

Year after year it seemed to be the same old routine: after finishing the dishes from Thanksgiving dinner, my extended family members would each draw a name for the quickly approaching Christmas gift exchange. For weeks, each person puzzled over what would suit the recipient they had drawn, until finally Christmas arrived and countless soy candles, cookbooks and remote-controlled airplanes were swapped. The unfulfilling ritual seemed pointless, but continued habitually without a second thought until the year my cousin came up with a dire request to help her church's food pantry that had been running dangerously low that winter. With one simple suggestion, a new tradition was born.

Now, each Christmas, individual families are asked to bring bags of groceries to our Christmas dinner. After the tables are cleared from the feast we enjoy, they are covered with groceries which we then sort and divide among the churches that my family members attend in two different towns. Later in the day, the supplies are delivered and shelved by our able hands, and sit waiting to make a difference in the lives of those who are of need in our community.

The holidays arrive in a whirlwind of tradition and time-consuming events. Yet, no tradition is truly as extraordinary as one that benefits others. There are countless ways to gain family participation in any number of service activities. I have long admired the involvement of my best friend's family that cooks Thanksgiving dinner for any member of the community that is in want or need of a hot meal on Thanksgiving Day. Raised in this tradition, she has greatly benefitted from experiencing the interaction with guests, and serving those who would normally be overlooked with the festivities of the holiday underway. In any way a family can, it should involve every member in service. While the holidays are not the only time that a family joins together in service, each holiday brings with it wonderful junctures to form any number of traditions of service. Especially where the outreach of many food banks and clothes closets are concerned, the holidays bring with them an escalated need for supplies, often experiencing bare shelves after the tree has been taken down and ill-fitting gifts exchanged at the store.

The season of giving provides an excellent opportunity for kids of any age to make a difference and spread joy within their communities. One way to make an impact is to share your service work with others to inspire more people to get involved. For example, generationOn, the youth enterprise of Points of Light, in partnership with Hasbro, is presenting all young people with the opportunity to be a Joy Maker this holiday season. From November 19 - December 18, for each act of service shared by a young person during the holidays, Hasbro will donate one toy to Toys for Tots - up to 100,000 toys. To be a Joy Maker and share your service story visit

Regardless of how you choose to give back, this time of year provides a wealth of opportunity and when planning a service project, below are some simple tips to consider -- S.E.R.V.E:

Seek out activities in your area that have already been organized! There are so many great ways to get involved with local community outreach organizations -- especially around the holidays. Do you live near an orchard? Perhaps a gleaning day collecting food for your local food bank is already an annual event. Watch news sources for opportunities to lend a hand, and once you become involved, the great networking of the service community will open doors to opportunities all around you.

Early involvement in service leads to a lifetime of caring for others. Personally, my interest in service was lovingly fostered by the support of my family and church community. A love for service and helping others is one of the greatest values parents can instill in their children. Equipping children with the ability to empathize and the problem-solving perspective of addressing issues within the community provides priceless life skills that allow them to better understand their world and leads to opportunities for exploration and learning like no other activity.

Record the work that you do together! Some of my favorite memories were created while helping others. Document the service that you do as a family. Make a scrapbook together, keep a journal, preserve your memories and share them with others! With today's technology, blogging has become a great way to not only document experiences, but to share them with others and provide the world with inspiration.

Vacation time is helping time! Look for ways to combine fun and relaxation while lending a helping hand. Even though the kids have the day "off" school, why not make holidays such as MLK day a day "on" by helping at a local soup kitchen, or visiting the residents of your local nursing home? Joining together with other families is even a great way to get involved. Together with their peers, children can explore how to make their mark on the world within the safe confines of their families.

And finally, remember-Effective, not extensive. Something doesn't have to be large-scale in order to make a difference! Utilize any opportunity to be of service to others! Do you know of people who are unable to leave their homes in your community? Why not take them a plate from your Thanksgiving meal? Look for ways in which to center the focus on others.

Phillips Brooks worded the essential quality of family service well when he said, "Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there." The truth of this quote cannot be denied. While today, charity seems to have come to possess a connotation of some sort of financial outpouring, this could not be farther from the reality of the measure. Perhaps the best synonym for charity is love. In this respect, any action done to demonstrate the love that a family has for each other, projected outwards to others is without question an act of great importance. And, while the impact made in the lives of others may be immense, the reward of family service is immeasurably abundant in return. The unity that is wrought from selfless giving, coupled with memories that last far beyond the scent of any soy candle or battery life of remote controlled airplane combine to form a priceless bond. This year, talk with your family to discover what issues each member is passionate about. Address a need, and show your community the immensity of love that your family possesses. Take the steps toward a tradition that makes a difference.