As we head into the holiday season, it seems this year, more than any in recent memory, is one to reach out and support others in our communities. Of course, it’s more difficult to gather and volunteer in person in 2020, but you and your kids can still make a difference from home. Read on for ideas on how to volunteer with kids in NYC and support local causes, even if you can’t physically be there. (Need some inspiration? Check out these rock stars!)

photo: Letters of Love for the Elderly

Send Letters To the Elderly & Lonely

Our elders are at the highest risk from the pandemic, and in many places around the US visits to older people in group and personal homes have stopped to protect their lives. This means they can stay safe and away from where they might contact the novel coronavirus, but it also means many hours of being pent up inside and feeling lonely.

Enlist the help of your kids to bring some sunshine and a touch of personal care to some locals by writing them a letter! While the most well-known program that distributes letters to elderly people in nursing homes, called Love for the Elderly, is held on a national scale, there are ways to help if you want to focus nearby instead.

Volunteer New York has an opportunity to create letters for the elderly in Westchester County. Want to get even closer to home? A number of city meal distributors are encouraging residents to write letters for recipients of their free meals. 

City Meals' "Handmade Cards Project" will deliver handmade greetings cards with positive messages as they deliver their food. 

Food Bank's letter-writing toolkit has a ton more information about how to write letters, and even includes some coloring pages for kids to use and send on to bring a smile to someone's face. Letters can be mailed in and will be distributed by hand to visitors to the city's pantries and soup kitchens throughout the boroughs. 

It might be a good idea to let your kids know that, in nearly all cases, the messages are anonymous and kids won't receive a response to their letter.

Make a Little Free Pantry—Or Share Goods With Your Neighbors

If you have goods to give, there are still plenty of places around NYC that are accepting food donations. You can donate what you can to a local soup kitchen program or one of the many food pantries in NYC. You can find out how else to support the city's food system on the NYC Food Policy website.

But you can also bring the sharing closer to home by creating a neighborhood or even apartment pantry. 

If you live on a private property, you and your family can put up your own little pantry and fill it with non-perishable foods. Encourage neighbors and passersby to take what they need and give what they can. We recommend checking out the Free Little Pantry website for ideas and tips for making sure that your pantry is helping, not bothering, those around you.

Live in an apartment building? You might be able to help, too. Call and ask management or your building super if you can put a small box in a high-traffic area in your building for neighbors to use. Of course, the response will vary by place - respect your building's rules and regulations.

When it does work, though, it can be a beautiful way to bond with neighbors. This writer's building's super is fine with items being left downstairs in a particular spot for no more than 24 hours. Although there was never any written communication between our family and our neighbors, things have started popping up downstairs from cans of food to books and clothes. We've left hand sanitizer, tissue packs and gently used toys downstairs. Best of all, once a donation is taken, another donation from a different neighbor often takes its place. It's an activity that kids can easily take part in and can extend to a general feeling of community, not just a sharing of much-needed items and food. 

Just remember not to leave anything in your building's lobby unless you have the okay of the building managers!

photo: World Rocks Project

Chalk Your Walk or Make Some Kindness Stones

Kids can leave a message of hope and positivity right outside your home by decorating the walk for anyone passing by. 

Grab some chalks and draw a bright message on your sidewalk, inside a park or any other public place where you think it might be appreciated. You can encourage your kids to draw and write positive things to thank frontline workers or just brighten the day of anyone walking by.

The Kindness Rocks project takes the craftiness up a notch, asking kids to draw their messages and pictures on rocks. You can then decorate your yard with the picture rocks or leave them in a local park for others to find.

One more way to spread joy is to hang it on your window! Kids are encouraged to draw rainbows and write messages of hope on sheets of paper, then tape them to their windows, facing outward. Even if you're high up in an apartment building, someone looking across from their own high-rise may get a colorful reminder that "this, too, shall pass."

Foster an Animal

Though this way of helping is obviously not for everyone, if you have the space in your home for an animal now is a great time to foster a pet. The animal you help will get to live in comfort instead of being locked up in a cage in a time when volunteers are scarce, while your family will get a companion to help weather the worst of this situation. And you never know, your foster might end up becoming a member of the family!

The ASPCA has all the details you need to know on their website, as well as an application. You can find a longer list of places that need help fostering an animal on the Mayor's Alliance for NYC Animals website.

Make & Donate Blankets

Donating items like clothing is always in need and appreciated but Project Linus encourages people to make their blankets by hand for a personal touch. Blankets can be dropped off at any of the New York chapters, and you are encouraged to call ahead and find out what kinds of blankets are in demand. 

The project has many different patterns that can easily get the kids involved, including some no-sew options for the younger ones.

photo: iStock

Make a Jared Box

A Jared Box is a way to share the joy of play with kids in hospitals all over the country. Get a shoebox-sized plastic container and fill it with new and age-appropriate toys. These toys go to young patients in hospitals and help distract and amuse them as they deal with the stress of their situation. 

The website has a guide to making a Jared Box and lists of what kinds of toys, stickers, art supplies, etc. you should fill it with. Get the kids involved by choosing an age range similar to theirs so they can choose toys they would personally enjoy receiving. It's a great way to teach the joy of giving.

Three NYS (and one NYC) hospitals are listed in the directory if you want to give locally, though you'll likely have to deliver it yourself. Too far away to make a donation by hand? Call any nearby hospital and ask if they're accepting toy box donations. Though they're not on the directory, many hospitals will be happy to get your donation!

Donate Money if You Can

Lastly, if you have the means to make a monetary donation there are many places that can really use the help right now. Though it's a more abstract concept for younger kids to grasp, donating money to charities, nonprofits or others who need it is always appreciated. You can ask your kids to choose the recipient of your donation, and find out more about the kinds of organizations that exist to help people and animals in need. 

The website Donors Choose, for instance, allows people to support teachers who are facing the struggles of making their classroom welcoming to students amid social distancing and health safety measures. Teachers often dip into their personal bank accounts to provide classrooms with needed supplies so every little bit helps. Plus, children will have a good understanding of where the money is going since schools and teachers are familiar topics in their lives.

Another option for a charity donation is exploring the nonprofit organizations that do a lot of the invisible work in our neighborhoods and communities. The NYC Service website has a searchable list of nonprofits in the city with information on what each does, many of which accept donations. Choose a cause that your family is passionate about and help out.

—Yuliya Geikhman

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