Great Projects for Kids Wherever They Live

Here’s a Bunch to Get You Started!

No matter who you are or where you live, there are many great ways that you can help. Some community service projects are big; some are small. Some take a lot of time; others just a few hours out of your day; some are easy; some are tough. But remember, the ideas listed here are just that, they’re ideas to get you started – jumping off points. Feel free to enlarge, shrink, bend, change, adapt, tweak, ignore and redo based on your passions, schedules and abilities. They’re in no special order, and you can take the leap whether it’s January or July. Of course, this is just a partial list. Keep checking back for new ways that you can help!

Click one of the ideas below to learn more!

Make a Meal at a Homeless Shelter

Why should you do it?
Because even though people at shelters are fed, it’s nice to make something special for them that the shelter might not otherwise provide.

Who can help?
Depends on the clientele. Some women’s shelters do not allow men. Some shelters with mentally ill clients do not allow children (wisely). If it’s a family shelter, it can be a terrific family project.

What can you expect?
It depends on the shelter. There’s a big difference between a temporary shelter and a residence that houses homeless people for weeks or months (or even years). There is also a different vibe at a shelter if it serves only men, only women, or families. It is also very different if the residents are mentally ill or addicted to drugs. Some shelters feel like any other home you’ve been in, or even a dorm. Others feel like jail. You can do a little homework beforehand to get a better idea of what to expect. If you’re planning to cook, ask what the kitchen is like, too.

What should you watch out for?
Overly high expectations. Many homeless people are very nice, but just down on their luck. Others may have problems beyond anything we can imagine. You might not be able to connect with the residents. They simply might not be as good at chitchat as the people in your world, especially at first. Some homeless residences can be tucked away in surprisingly nice areas. But, if you’re in a big city, chances are that the shelter ain’t gonna be in the nicest part of town. If you’re nervous, go in daylight, and don’t go alone.

Other notes
In the end, people are people. Think of this as a big dinner party for friends. Make what you like to make. If you want to bring decorations, entertainment, music, games – that would be great. As with any party, if the hosts are having fun, the guests will have fun, too.

Have a Book Collection for Kids

Why should you do it?
Because many schools and after-school programs need more books. Even if their libraries are full, their classrooms aren’t. Classroom books are good because unlike library books, sometimes kids can take them home for keeps.

Who can help?
Anyone can help with the collecting and sorting. Strong teens or adults are needed for lifting.

What can you expect?
Lots and lots and lots of books. Many people have books their kids have outgrown, or they suddenly realize they have four copies of Goodnight Moon, so they’re glad to give some away to the less fortunate.

What should you watch out for?
Damaged books that have been colored in or are missing pages. Books that aren’t really books but some weird hybrid thing made to market a movie, television show or toy. Large boxes that seem like a good thing to put books in to transport, but when filled are so heavy that they cannot be lifted. Not having enough people to carry boxes of books (which, even if small, are heavy). Books for adults — even well-known bestsellers — that are hard to get rid of.

Other notes
Let a lot of people know about your collection. Let them know when you’re collecting and where the books are going. If you only want books for a certain age (e.g., preschool, young adults), say so. If there are specific books you’re looking for, say that too. If you want to make sure you have certain books, take up a collection for them; if it’s for a school or charity you can often arrange for a discount with a bookseller or publisher.

Sing to/or with Folks at a Nursing Home

Why should you do it?
Because time goes v-e-r-y slowly in a nursing home — whether fancy or not — and it’s nice to break up the day for seniors, show them a good time and let them know that they’re not forgotten.

Who can help?
Anyone. It’s great for families with kids, especially young kids, except if the seniors have Alzheimer’s (this can be upsetting for kids), or if the kids are out of control (it’s too much for the seniors). This is a great project for a choir or glee club.

What can you expect?
It depends on the physical and mental health of the seniors; if they’re in good health, they may sing or even dance along with you. A surprising person (either a senior or a volunteer) who insists on singing a solo — there is not necessarily a direct correlation to talent here, but it is always entertaining for the assembled crowd. Very warm rooms.

What should you watch out for?
That smell when you first walk through the door. (Just keeping it real.)

Other notes
If you can, sing songs everyone knows. Show tunes are always a big crowd pleaser. Old folks tend to know a lot of them, and many kids know them, too. Holiday songs, too. It helps to bring song sheets with the words on them. If people bring tambourines, maracas or bongos, the kids and the seniors like to use them, and sometimes they can do it together. Stick around for a few minutes afterward to chat with the residents — you’ll be glad you did.

Clean a Beach or a River

Why should you do it?
Dirty beaches and rivers can be health hazards for people, animals and fish. Plus, they’re gross.

Who can help?
Great for large school, youth or church groups. Families, too, except those with very young children who don’t know how to swim, but who may want to go in the water anyhow.

What can you expect?
At its best, a nice couple of hours in the sun, making a pretty place beautiful and safe.

What should you watch out for?
As in street cleanups, you may find anything. However, certain of the grosser things (human waste, etc.) tend to get absorbed into the ground and decompose quicker here. If it is an area where many homeless people, or for that matter teenagers, congregate, watch out for broken glass, needles, used condoms, etc. Bring work gloves. On the other hand, the other thing to watch out for is a clean beach or river, so do some research (see below). Whether it’s because you live near a clean area, or because another group was out cleaning the beach or river the day before, no one wants to clean an area that is spotless. Some larger beaches are cleaned by machine; they do not need people to come and clean it, too. No one wants sunburn either; bring sun block.

Other notes
Local environmental groups oversee many beaches and rivers. They can often host your cleanup and are happy to do so. Even better, they will keep track of what needs to be cleaned and when. They will also have an idea of how many people are needed. Some beaches and rivers require permits before a group can come and clean. If a nonprofit group oversees the area, they will secure the permit (though you may need to pay for it). Check your local listings. If your volunteers have water bottles or snacks at your beach or river cleanup, make sure they, um, clean up after themselves. (You’d be surprised . . .)

Collect People’s Loose Change for Charity

Why should you do it?
Because everyone has loose change that is weighing down their pockets or purse, and it’s an easy way to raise money quickly.

Who can help?
This is good for all ages. It’s a good project for a community to take on.

What can you expect?
People will ask you where the money is going. If you’re lucky, the occasional person who may want to put in some paper money.

What should you watch out for?
Coins can get heavy fast; better to put them in a bunch of smaller jars than one big jar, especially if kids are doing the collecting. Sticky fingers; make sure this project is done by and with people you trust.

Other notes
Coins have to be counted before they can be donated. Your volunteers can count and roll them up by hand. Time-consuming and dirty, but it can be a fun group activity. Some banks will put them through the coin machine for you, but they may charge you a small percentage as a fee. Many supermarkets also have coin counting machines now, too; they usually charge about seven percent.

Make Permanent Flower Arrangements for Shut-ins

Why should you do it?
It’s a lovely gift to give to someone to brighten their room, and by using silk or paper flowers you will ensure that it lasts a long time.

Who can help?
Another great project for people of all ages, especially for kids, but make sure the person leading the project knows how to arrange flowers.

What can you expect?
A wide range of talents: from those who are familiar with flowers, crafts projects and/or are artistic to those who have no idea what they’re doing. Some people will take a very long time to do one arrangement and others will whip through many arrangements. Grateful recipients when you are done.

What should you watch out for?
Difficulty in transporting pretty flower arrangements so they don’t get crushed or ruined along the way. People who want to make the flower arrangements, but don’t want to get near the shut-ins. People who want to make the flower arrangements and keep them for themselves rather then give them away. Ugly flowers: if you get silk flowers donated, you might be getting the dregs. Check them out — you may want to spring for a few pretty flowers to use as ringers.

Other notes
Yes, it’s the thought that counts, but make sure that each arrangement looks as pretty as it can. Especially check the arrangements made by the very fast, or the very young arrangers. If you’re bringing them to, say, a nursing home, call beforehand. Find out how many people there are; that they would, in fact, like flower arrangements; and that someone will be there to receive them. Bring a couple extra in case any get wrecked in transport. You might want to enclose a card saying hello on each arrangement, too.

Host a Sports Day for a Low-Income or Disabled Group

Why should you do it?
Everyone needs exercise. It is healthy, fun and empowering for anyone to succeed at a physical activity. You can share something you love with someone who might not usually get to enjoy it. You may even get to introduce something you love to someone who’s never gotten to experience it before.

Who can help?
Best for older teens and anyone in good shape. Also good for a sports team, fraternity or sorority.

What can you expect?
It truly depends on your audience. Chances are you’ll see some naturals, and some who need a lot more work. You may also see some who love the sport (whatever it may be) and those who will never play again. If you’re working with a low-income community, equipment will probably be spotty.

What should you watch out for?
Missing the forest for the trees. If you remember that it’s only about everyone getting out there and having a good time, everyone will have a good time. If it becomes about winning, or being the best, it can create problems.

Other notes
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Some groups, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, have regular sports days; they are always looking for volunteers to help facilitate them. For many, a sports day is a great way to get their feet wet. If the event is successful, you may want to take on a more regular gig, such as starting a sports program (name your sport), becoming a coach for a Little League team or AYSO, or volunteering for the Special Olympics.

Gather Oral Histories

Why should you do it?
Everyone, from every walk of life, likes to tell his or her story (or at least some part of it). Recording, videotaping, filming or writing oral histories for people whose stories are rarely told, validates a person and can make them feel special and important.

Who can help?
Best for high school students and older.

What can you expect?
Anything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some people will tell you very little, while others will tell you an awful lot.

What should you watch out for?
Your tape running out at the wrong time. Underestimating how long it can take — or how much it can cost — to transcribe the tapes. Figuring out what to do with the stories once you’ve collected them.

Other notes
This is a good project for writers. It is also essential to have people who are good listeners and who can draw people out. It’s helpful to have some parameters: How long should each interview be? Is there an overriding theme? What are you planning to do with the interviews when they are done? If you want to take pictures, it’s easiest if you do it on the same day.

Collect New Socks and/or Underwear for Needy People

Why should you do it?
Because no matter how many pairs of socks or underwear are donated, shelters, group homes, even some schools and food banks need more. Plus, this is stuff that no one wants — and no one should get — used. That’s just gross.

Who can help?
A great project for schools, faith groups, youth groups.

What can you expect?
Many people like to do this. It’s easily understood and easily accomplished. The whole underwear thing has a kind of quirky vibe to it, too. (So sue me. People laugh ― they like it.) Many people may ask where you can buy the stuff cheapest. Some may prefer to give you a check and have you do the shopping.

What should you watch out for?
Used stuff. (Ugh.) Not enough variety of underwear sizes. No bras.

Other notes
If you are collecting bras as well, you need to specify it. Bras are more expensive, so people are less likely to buy them. Many shelters and group homes have many big women, so they often need very large bras. People get the big bra thing and think it’s funny. (I’ve bought a lot of things in my day as a volunteer coordinator, but I’m afraid I had to draw the line at buying a bunch of really big bras. I can’t explain it, but I just couldn’t do it.) Specify if you need more adult or kid stuff and how much you’d like to collect — having a goal is helpful. Socks and underwear can often be bought in bulk. White tube socks are often the cheapest and the most in demand.

Write Letters to Soldiers Stationed Overseas

Why should you do it?
Men and women in the military are far from home and serving their country. Many of them have been away from their families for a long time and are putting themselves in harm’s way. Many soldiers are very young, not much more than kids themselves. Soldiers appreciate hearing from anyone back home, including strangers; they like to know that they are remembered and appreciated.

Who can help?
Anyone, but older teens might be better because soldiers especially appreciate actual letters rather than just drawings by small children.

What can you expect?
If you know a soldier, ask his or her family for the mailing address. If you don’t know any soldiers, nonprofits and online sites, such as www.operationmilitarysupport.com or www.anysoldier.com can give you specific names and addresses.

What should you watch out for?
If you are looking to start a correspondence, keep up your end of the bargain. Letter writing is a bit of a lost art and can be one of those tasks that you don’t quite get around to or that slips through the cracks. If your soldier writes back, make sure you reply!

Other notes
Keep everything in your letter positive. Not surprisingly, the military has numerous security precautions. Certain things, like the soldier’s exact location, are usually kept secret. Don’t pry. Some nonprofits, such as Operation Gratitude, are also set up to send care packages to soldiers. These are great, and much appreciated, by the troops. There are definite restrictions on what can be sent so be sure to check with the nonprofit before you purchase anything. Some nonprofits have care packages that you can purchase and/or pack yourself.

Adapted from “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins; How Absolutely Anyone Can Pitch In, Help Out, Give Back and Make the World a Better Place,” by Big Sunday Founder and Executive Director, David T. Levinson.

“To All at Big Sunday, Now, more than ever, we need the goodwill that you share and the good works that you do”

- — L.B., Los Angeles