This Thanksgiving may look a little different for most families, but the most important elements of the holiday—gratitude, kindness, generosity, and spending time together—can still be expressed and celebrated. For many families like mine, giving back and helping others is a big part of our Thanksgiving traditions and volunteering helps to keep us grounded and grateful for our many blessings.

This year, many of these opportunities—serving Thanksgiving dinner to guests in a homeless shelter, or delivering food packages to homebound neighbors—may be canceled or significantly altered because of the pandemic. Nonprofits simply can’t welcome in-person volunteers or children into their facilities due to social distancing limitations. But that doesn’t mean that your family can’t create new family service traditions, spreading kindness and love from home, and helping struggling neighbors celebrate the holiday with dignity. You simply need a little creativity, imagination, and the willingness to prioritize service and kindness in your preparations.

I hope the following ideas will inspire you to find new, “virtual” ways to make giving a big part of your Thanksgiving holiday.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving you can:

  • Reach out to your local food pantry and ask how you might support their efforts this year. If they are accepting food donations, work with your kids to create a canned food drive at school, in your apartment building, through a scout troop, or at a local community gathering spot.
  • Start a fundraiser for your local food pantry, food rescue organization, meals-on-wheels program, or a national nonprofit working in the hunger space like No Kid Hungry or Feeding America. Get creative with your fundraising and invite family and friends with whom you would like to connect virtually since you won’t be together in person for the holiday. Host an apple pie bake-off via Zoom, a Tik Tok Challenge, a puzzle completion contest, or a virtual “turkey trot” road race.
  • Reach out to homebound, ill, or elderly neighbors to ask if they need help getting groceries to make their own Thanksgiving meal and offer to shop for them. Include a sweet treat in the groceries you deliver, or a bunch of fresh flowers to brighten the table.
  • Help your children create colorful paper placemats, brown paper delivery bags, or Thanksgiving cards, and donate them to your local food pantry or meal delivery non-profit. These organizations typically include these items in holiday deliveries to make them more festive.

During the last week of November you can:

  • Bake pies, cookies, or other treats and deliver them to neighbors and friends with a note wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving. Kids can create hand-print turkeys and other colorful artwork to decorate these notes.
  • Donate some of these home-baked treats to your local firehouse, EMT, police station, or hospital emergency room on the morning of Thanksgiving, to thank the first responders and health care workers who will be giving up their family time to keep your community safe.

During your Thanksgiving gathering you can:

  • Distribute colorful slips of paper and ask every guest to write down the one thing for which they are most grateful. Be sure every slip of paper is dated, fold them up, and add them to a gratitude jar. You can add notes to this jar every year on Thanksgiving or other holidays, birthdays, or major milestones.
  • Ask children to create personalized placemats for each guest which lists all of the things your child loves, admires, and appreciates about that person.
  • Of course, many families will be planning “zoom” gatherings for Thanksgiving so that you can see the faces of loved ones who could not join you in person. Consider adding a note of gratitude to this gathering by asking each participant to say something they are thankful for or a silver lining that they have discovered over the course of this difficult year.
  • Instead of turning on the television while the meal is being prepared, engage kids in some kitchen-table kindness activities.
    • Purchase or gather some flat rocks and paints. Ask children to paint positive, hopeful messages on the rocks. After dinner, walk through your neighborhood and leave them in spots where they will be seen by people walking by who may need some encouragement. This effort is championed by an organization called The Kindness Rocks Project. Take some photos and post them on social media, tagging @thekindnessrocksproject.
    • Paint Stars of Hope and send them to a community that is dealing with a natural disaster, forest fire, or tragedy.
    • Write encouraging letters to isolated elders or hospitalized children and donate them locally or send to Love For Our Elders or Cards for Hospitalized Kids.

Finally, as you gather to enjoy a meal for Thanksgiving, use this time together to brainstorm how you will add kindness and generosity to the upcoming December “giving” holidays of Christmas, Hanukkah, the Feast of St. Nicholas, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day.  This year more than ever, as many are struggling with illness and job loss, families will need additional help to make the holidays festive and bright. Ask your kids for ideas on how you can be a light for others and come up with an actionable plan to give back through the month of December and into the New Year.