A few days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, my son and I walked the streets of Far Rockaway, Queens, carrying large bottles of bleach. When we met a man outside of his home, we asked if he would like one.
He had a tear in his eye as he quietly thanked us, and walked into his home…at least what was left of his home. We all know about the horrible devastation wrought by the hurricane.
We met firefighters. Caregivers. Moms and grandmothers, fathers and sons. All of them had horrible stories to tell and appeared as though they had just awakened from a terrible nightmare. My son, age 14, will never forget their sadness, and neither will I.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, thousands of kids across the country have begun to learn about what it means to give to others. My kids’ school has adopted two schools in Brooklyn that need school supplies, and last weekend students sorted and packed food donations in conjunction with Caring in Action Day.
Students at P.S. 14, an elementary school in the Bronx, raised $3,700 to help the victims—and are trying to reach $20,000. Two 12-year-old girls, Emily Parra and Amanda Cavaliero, collected paper, crayons, and other supplies to help re-open 65 schools in New York City.
In a time when families are struggling to make giving part of their budget, with donations still 11% below pre-recession rates, kids’ generosity is more heartening than ever before.
Here are some ways for kids to give back—with or without money—at every age:
Choose a charity that is meaningful to your child.
You’ve all heard of the three jars method: For every dollar your daughter gets, have her put 10% into the saving jar, 10% into the sharing jar, and the rest into the spending jar.
From the sharing jar, your kid can contribute a portion to a charity he or she would like to support. For example, the New York City Department of Education posted a list of schools that are still feeling the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy.
You can also donate money to hurricane relief efforts or other worthy causes on sites like DonorsChoose.org, which raises money for anything public school teachers might need to help their students, like books and food.
Another example of an organization that does an amazing job at keeping the giving feeling concrete: Heifer International, an organization that lets you buy livestock—say, a sheep—for a struggling family in a poor country.
Even young children can understand and get excited about that! Who wouldn’t feel good about paying $10 to help buy a dairy goat?
Use his talents to help.
Technophiles can put their skills—and patience—to use by teaching elderly friends, neighbors, or family members how to email or Skype.
As our elderly population expands, a study from the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies shows that using the Internet can reduce their depression by about 20%, so kids would be doing a tremendous service.
Music lovers can sing, dance, or play an instrument to cheer up patients at a local hospital or assisted living facility.
One example: At Bright Side Manor, an assisted living facility in Teaneck, NJ, 16-year-olds can show off their magic tricks or practice hitting their high C’s in front of an encouraging audience of seniors.
Environmentalists can lend a hand by helping plant and harvest vegetables to be donated to hunger relief organizations.
To help kids and teens search for opportunities that match their interests, check out VolunteerMatch.org or Serve.gov.
Helping others helps him, too.
Seventy percent of admissions officers at the top universities said they prefer students who devote themselves to one cause over time rather than a variety of issues or a short-term stint abroad, according to a survey by DoSomething.org, an organization that inspires teen activism, and FastWeb, a comprehensive and up-to-date online scholarship database.
The lesson learned: It’s not just about charity—it’s about commitment. That makes sense to me, since the combination of both say a lot about your character and the level of dedication you’ll have as a member of their university.
My advice: Get kids to try different activities in middle school so they have time to figure out what they are passionate about. (Remember, this should be their choice, not yours.)
Once they have a sense of the cause they feel is their calling, they can volunteer at a variety of organizations related to that cause.
My one pet peeve: Find a cause that impacts your community locally whenever possible. There are a number of organizations that charge thousands of dollars to fly children around the world so that they can witness a hardship firsthand.
Although these are worthwhile experiences, I think that acting locally will allow your child to see the improvements made thanks to his hard work, and encourage him to continue donating time to helping his neighbors.
And of course, join in your child’s efforts whenever possible! Our family has had some wonderful experiences at our local homeless shelter. It’s a bonding moment that money really can’t buy.
What have you and your family done to help the community this holiday season?
© 2012 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved
Beth Kobliner is a personal finance commentator and journalist, the author of the New York Times bestseller “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.