For many of us, celebrating holidays with our extended family is already tricky emotional territory. But this year, the election has unleashed a level of personal division we’ve never experienced before.
Family members’ voting choices have caused rifts to open up between relatives, and wildly different reactions to the election results ― even between people who voted the same way ― have left people feeling isolated and misunderstood.
Some of us are at such a loss we’re wondering if we should just cancel holiday plans altogether.
The fact is that for families who are struggling post-election, there’s no simple answer. Coming to terms with the election may require the kind of communication few of us can manage peacefully during a brief holiday break.
Given that, perhaps the best way to find our way back to each other is to approach it from a different angle: generosity. Teaming up to perform a service project together shifts the focus from our differences to what we can do for others.
Service projects don’t have to take much time; they don’t even have to involve leaving the house. All you need are some willing hands and open hearts. You’d be amazed by how working together to help others can lighten the mood and let gratitude sneak into the conversation. Who knows? There might even be some laughter.
We’ve gathered 30 ideas for service projects you can do with your extended family during the holidays. Give one a try. At the very least, you’ll go home knowing your family did something together that made the world a little better. At a time when kindness is more important than ever, that’s no small thing.
1. Go On a Treasure Hunt For Donation Items
Why not make a game out of giving? Charitable giving expert Cheryl Debruler of World Vision recommends creating an “at-home treasure hunt with children to collect what is not being used, what hasn’t been used in a long time, and the extras around the home.” These items can then be donated to your local community programs.
2. Open Your Home To Someone Who Is Alone
If you know someone who is alone during the holidays, invite them to join you and your family for your meal. As Rachel Tabbouche of UCFit tells us, “Having a home-cooked meal and being included can turn a lonely holiday into a heartfelt event.”
3. Make Pictures and Letters For Distant Relatives
There’s no reason a service project can’t include members of your own extended family, particularly older relatives with whom you may not be in regular contact. Have family members write letters (on the back of children’s artwork!) and send them ― with photographs ― to family or loved ones who are in your hearts, if not your home.
4. Fill Out Your Family Tree
Another way to be of service to extended family members is to recognize their precious value as family historians, says Stu Mark. Ask older relatives to fill knowledge gaps in the family tree. Consider interviewing them and recording their stories about their childhoods, backgrounds and experiences. Write down what you learn and share it with the rest of the family.
5. Rake And Bag Leaves For A Neighbor
The wise founders of 510 Families remind us that there is a very good chance that someone in your own neighborhood can use extra help having her or his leaves raked, garden weeded or grass mowed. For those in your house who aren’t involved in cooking or cleaning up after a holiday meal, consider tackling a yard project for someone else before or after you eat.
6. Bake And Deliver Treats
“Bake cookies, candies, or pies to deliver to your neighbors, service providers, your waste management crew or teachers at your children’s school to show appreciation,” said Rachel Tabbouche of UCFit.
7. Host A Hat-And-Glove Drive
Ask your guests to bring gently-worn or new hats, gloves (and coats if they have them) to your home and let them know to what local shelter or charity you’ll be donating the items after the holiday.
8. Lend A New Parent A Hand
If you know a new mother or father, take an afternoon or evening to help them out and ― quite possibly ― blow their minds by doing their dishes, folding a load of laundry and simply holding their baby while they take a nap. (Note: If you have very young children of your own, they and their germs are probably better off at home with another caregiver.)
9. Draw Cards For Children’s Hospitals
Make cards and pictures for patients in a children’s hospital. The cards can be delivered to your local hospital or sent to a charity like the Little Saint Nick Foundation. “Something magical happens when a kid makes a special effort to give a gift to another child who is going through a difficult time in their life,” explains the teenager who founded the Little Saint Nick with the mission to make hospitals a kid-friendly place.
10. Put Together Bags of Toiletries For Local Shelters
Prior to the holiday, purchase toiletry and baby supplies in bulk or collect donations from friends and neighbors. Your group can then sort and bag these items and they can be dropped off at a later time to local shelters, suggests Alisa Mallinger. Church food pantries are another drop-off option, says Anne Pardington, as food stamps don’t cover personal care items.
11. Adopt-A-Family For The Holidays
Even the very youngest in your group can be a part of this one. Reach out to an organization that runs an Adopt-A-Family gift drive (your local United Way may be able to help you find one) and incorporate others into your gift giving this year ― and hopefully for many more years to come.
12. Help Out Your Child’s Teacher
If you have a kiddo in elementary school, there’s an excellent chance that his or her teacher can use a hand. Prior to the winter break, Vickie Kesala suggests asking if there is a project that you and your group can help prep over vacation.
13. Make No-Sew Fleece Blankets To Donate
Fleece blankets are warm, cozy, and so easy to make even little kids can participate. All you need are scissors and fleece fabric (often sold inexpensively in the remnant section of the fabric store). Kris-Ann Race suggests donating finished blankets to pet shelters, homeless shelters, hospitals, or Project Linus.
14. Assemble Care Packages For The Homeless
Assemble a collection of food, personal care, and health items into kits you can deliver to shelters, or stow in your car trunk to hand to a person in need. Amy Allen Clark provides directions and a printable list on her blog MomAdvice.
15. Clean Up Neighborhood Trash
Is there a neglected corner of your neighborhood that could use some cleanup? Grab your rubber gloves and gar
bage bags and spend some time picking up and disposing of trash. Ilina Ewen does this with her family, and appreciates that this project requires no planning.
16. Decorate And Send Homemade Cards To Deployed Troops
Operation Gratitude collects cards and letters year-round to send to active duty servicemen and -women, their families and veterans. “[Start] by reading The ‘Impossible Patriotism Project’ and ask the kids to write or decorate cards and letters expressing thanks to our troops,” says Natalie Silverstein on MommyPoppins.com.
17. Feed And Care For Animals At A Local No-Kill Shelter
“It’s hard to find volunteers who’ll come work on holidays so they often will be happy to have you come pet kittens or even become a foster family for a rescue. It brings joy to everyone,” says author and blogger Jennifer Lawson, AKA The Bloggess.
18. Incorporate A Collection Drive Into Your Holiday Party
Kelly Manchego Crase shares a simple way to share the joy of giving. “We’re having a holiday open house and asking people to bring donations for our local Ronald McDonald House. They have a holiday wish list on their website so I’ll include that in the invites.”
19. Put Your Rainbow Loom To Work
Amy, a past blogger for Bright Horizons, and her 7-year-old daughter made bright, colorful bracelets using a rainbow loom. They gave 50 bracelets to patients at their local children’s hospital as well as their families and hospital staff. “We loomed and loomed whenever we had free moments together,” said Amy.
20. Volunteer At Your Local Food Bank
Food pantries and meal programs throughout the country are in need of volunteers as well as donations (food or financial). Contact the food bank nearest you to find out what hands-on needs they have that you could do with your children such as repackaging and sorting food.
21. Hold A Knitting Or Crochet Circle
If you have members of your family or group of friends who like to knit, crochet or sew, go with it! It’s a wonderful intergenerational activity that can be done together and there are a number of great organizations ― 1,000 of them are listed here alone ― where you can send your finished projects.
22. Weed, Mulch, Prune and Plant
Many cities and towns have opportunities for groups to help out in community gardens like this “Get Out and Garden” project in Portland, Oregon. It’s a chance to spend time outside and do good, which feels like a win-win to us.
23. Deliver Meals To Someone Who’s Housebound
There are organizations all over the country, like Meals On Wheels, that need drivers to help bring meals to those who cannot easily leave their homes over the holidays or at other times of the year.
24. Paint A Mural, Indoors Or Outside
Do you have artists in your group? Consider reaching out to a local community center, school, shelter or retirement home to see if they have a wall or a hallway that could use a makeover. (You will most likely be expected to bring your own supplies and take care of the cleanup.)
25. Make Toys For Dogs And Cats
There is no shortage of fairly simple dog-and-craft toys you can make with your family and friends, like this no-sew, doggie tug toy. Make a batch and then drop them off at a local animal shelter.
26. Play Music In A Retirement Home
There’s a reason that most retirement homes have pianos. If you and any members of your group play an instrument, this is your chance to give a concert. You don’t have to be a professional to play music for older adults in a retirement home near you. We guarantee you that your company and your efforts will be greatly appreciated.
27. Or Just Stop By To Chat
Truth be told, you will be warmly welcomed in any retirement home even if you don’t play a single musical note. If you love posting updates about your kids on Facebook, this might be the perfect volunteer opportunity for you; because the residents don’t get to spend time with young children, you will probably get to hear from a lot of adoring older adults just how delightful your children are.
28. Put Gently Used Sports Equipment To Good Use
If your family no longer needs the sports equipment that’s still in good condition but is now cluttering your garage, there are a host of after-school programs in your area that can put it to good use. Let’s Play It Forward, which was started by teenagers in Westchester, NY, is just one of the many worthy organizations out there with a sporting-themed mission.
29. Beautify A Neighborhood Park, Trail or Playground
If your local green space happens to be Central Park, you can signup to volunteer with a group as part of its “Pitch In, Pick Up” program. But you can also help clean up any neighborhood park, trail or playground on your own.
30. Write Thank-You Notes
It’s never too late to thank someone (and research shows that acknowledging gratitude has actual health benefits). Hand out cards or stationery and consider writing to people to whom you want to express your gratitude, whether it’s a former favorite teacher or a friend who supported you when you needed it a long time ago. If children are too young to write, they can always draw pictures.
Asha Dornfest is a writer, mother, and insistent optimist. She’s the author of PARENT HACKS and MINIMALIST PARENTING, and she’s the co-host of the Edit Your Life podcast. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter at @ashadornfest.
Melissa Sher is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Huffington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and bathroom stalls all over the country. She also blogs at Mammalingo.