January 16, 2013

Kiddie Dope

Photo Credit: Kristen Morales

Kids from the North Bluff neighborhood help pick up litter along the street during last year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

My daughter had a horrible realization last month: Not all kids get presents during the holidays.

I'm not talking about Christmas vs. Hanukkah. She understands not everyone celebrates Christmas. But while shopping for some family gifts, I asked her about possible presents for another little girl on a separate list I had. The resulting conversation touched on kindergarten levels of economics, social inequality and the spirit of giving, but here's the bottom line: Just because the holidays are (finally) behind us doesn't mean we can take a break from teaching our kids about doing unto others.

True, the kindness of Santa Claus is an easy way to show kids the spirit of Christmas, but here's a better idea: On Monday, Jan. 21, join HandsOn Northeast Georgia for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. If you haven't heard of it, it's a day for lots of organizations to put together service projects, like pulling up weeds, cleaning up roads, painting or cleaning up nonprofit spaces. In all, there's more than two dozen places to volunteer on what's most likely a day off for much of the workforce, and if you have kids, it also means they'll be off of school. So, why not teach them a lesson in giving back?

A few words from the legal department: Use your common sense and check with the participating nonprofit before signing up. Parents must fill out a separate release form, available on the HandsOn Northeast Georgia website, where you can also see all the volunteer opportunities (

The listings are a veritable goldmine of places for kids to help out. One of my 5-year-old's favorite things to do is pick up litter around the neighborhood—because, you know, that trigger-picker-upper is pretty cool)—but younger kids can also help with gardens at several schools, clean up at Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery and the Interfaith Hospitality Network or help cheer on runners at the Dream to Be Able 5K run. Older kids can help clean up at BikeAthens (10 and up), dig holes for fences or paint bathrooms for a special project at Clarke Central High School. The key is to find something your child enjoys and to keep the act from being a chore. 

"Encouraging kids to volunteer is a great way to start laying the building blocks of compassion, understanding and empathy," says Amy Schumann Lasseter, a licensed therapist and owner of Holistic Therapies and Consulting in Athens. "Keep in mind, volunteering can be a pretty big concept for children to understand, so it's better to start when their ability to conceptualize the idea won't lead to complete meltdowns or hurt feelings. While all children develop at different paces, you can usually begin the process at age 4 or 5."

Also, think about your child's interests. Do they like animals? Call up a local animal rescue group and see where a volunteer who's your child's age could fit in. Have they outgrown some of their books? Talk to the pediatrics area at one of the local hospitals to see if they can use donated books, or check for the titles on the Books for Keeps website to see if they can fill the wishes of another Clarke County child (

KiddieDope-KeepAthensClarkeBeautiful.jpgWhile it's great to pitch in during a larger community effort like the MLK Day of Service, you can jump in and volunteer with your kids at any time. Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful, for example, hosts clean-ups throughout the year and also works with classes on garden projects and littler pick-ups ( In fact, for Global Youth Service Day in April, KACCB puts together lots of kid-specific events throughout the county.

As parents, we can claim a little bit of the benefits of volunteering with our kids, as well. We're providing a positive role model for them, and when our kids take part in something like a litter pick-up, they'll feel more responsible for the world around them as well. Well, that, and they'll also be able to spot a discarded cigarette butt from about 50 yards away. But that's OK—just give them one of those fun litter-grabber tools and they'll have it cleaned up in no time.