Giving and Growing :: How Our Teens Serve the Community During the Holidays

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teens serving during the holidaysIt is the season of giving. But, when you have little kids it is easy to get so caught up in their Christmas lists and the “it” toy. Often, I would lose sight for a moment of the “reason for the season.” How do you teach thanksgiving and generosity and service to your kids? How do you explain those who are hurting and in need? I was never good at explaining that there are families needing help to provide food for the holiday meal, let alone bikes, dolls, socks, and coats.

We all try to lead by example. There are plenty of opportunities for families to serve. It can be with your church, workplace, or local nonprofit. We can make service a regular and important part of the holiday festivities. It’s wonderful for little ones to fill a shoebox to send overseas. My kids would eagerly grab change to drop in the ubiquitous red kettle. How do these lessons translate to our tweens and teens? Opportunities for serving change as they grow up, and the lessons learned do, too. 

More Needs Than Ever

The Salvation Army has anticipated they will need to serve 155% more people in 2020 than in past years. Unemployment is up, and uncertainty is too. At the same time, many non-profits, churches, and charities report they are seeing donations decline. The holidays can be a hard season for so many even in “normal” times. 

I am very fortunate to have two unique and special charities in our community that my kids get to be a part of. They are guided by adults, parents, and teachers but are fundamentally led by our teens. Through these programs, young people have learned that it truly feels good to give. Even more so when you have a connection to those you are giving to, either by giving directly or knowing the money you’ve raised is being used to help families in your own school system. 

Christmas Visions

This year the Gardendale High School student council is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Christmas Visions program. The program serves Jefferson County Schools students, and this fundraiser is based in Gardendale. It is the only program of its kind that serves to meet the needs and wants of students enrolled in a Jefferson County school. Over the years, the student council-run program has set higher and higher fundraising goals. They consistently meet those goals and thereby provide roughly 200 students in need with their full Christmas wish lists. Once the financial goal is set, some sponsorship and business donations are made, but the vast majority of the monies are raised by the students. Shirts are sold to the student body and community, loose change is collected, and classes compete to raise the most money.

The classes have gotten creative this year, having to work within Covid guidelines. A car wash recently raised over the $500 goal in donations. A community yard sale is planned as well as a cow patty drop! Mandi Adams, the faculty advisor, said that every school she contacted made requests this year. This is an increase over last year, and she reports the economic effects of the pandemic are a likely reason for the uptick. Individual school counselors submit the lists of needs and wants from the students. The lists are then anonymized and passed to the student shoppers. The students get to spend those generous donations making Christmas wishes come true. They shop for one day, gathering first the needs and then the wants of each child. 

Mrs. Adams says that it makes an impression on the teenagers when the wants and needs iare often the same things — a warm coat or a certain special snack . . . Items that many students would take for granted. Students give and serve selflessly year after year. These typical teenagers are so affected by the needs of their neighbors that they often continue to work to raise money after graduation. Some even return to the school on their Christmas breaks from college to help where they can. Young people, giving to strangers in need. Helping in their community generously, selflessly, and without question. 

RAK Bham

A “Random Act of Kindness” can inspire, encourage, and bless others. But what can youth do to show kindness in tangible ways that can bring a sense of purpose and love for your neighbor in our kids? When Shea Miller’s oldest daughter was in middle school, the concept of “Random Acts of Kindness” was becoming something of a movement. After some thought, they designed a t-shirt to sell with the tag line ”Be nice BHAM” and used the profits to randomly bless others. They would give a waitress a generous tip, pay for groceries, or buy a meal.

Over the years, the movement grew in the Gardendale area, and middle and high schoolers started to get together, selling shirts designed by Miller and then using the profit to buy gift cards. On a designated day in the holiday season the groups will pass out the gift cards to shoppers at the local Wal-Mart, Target, or grocery stores. Many charities focus on those with a specific need, but since we can never know what people are going through, RAK Bham is more about showing kindness to strangers in the moment and paying it forward. 

Making Service Part of Life

Having teenagers is hard. Raising caring, thoughtful, appreciative, generous, and selfless young people is a tall order. As parents we lead by example, of course, but those who surround our kids have influence too. One key to encouraging service is making giving a part of the community and part of their high school experience. Also, letting them know that they can take pride in fundraising and organizing. They will have ownership in a common good that builds kindness, generosity, and caring. Young people are investing in a better future and setting an example as well.

As our kids grow, it’s clear that charity work can be a benefit to a college application or resume, but these service opportunities are so much more. Both Mandi and Shea shared with me that the kids involved in these programs truly see miracles. The miracles that loving kindness and thanksgiving can bring, in our communities and beyond. 

If you are interested is starting a RAK group in your area, visit their Facebook page

If you feel led to give to Christmas visions, there is a gofundme set up for donations. Learn more about the program here.

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Christine lives with her husband of 20 years, Ernie and their three children , Eli (16), Sawyer (14), and Olivia (11) and their sweet Lab, Rocket, in Gardendale, AL. She is proud to call herself a wife, mom, daughter, friend, Physical Therapist, and colon cancer survivor. Health and wellness have always been the forefront of her professional and personal  life, and although her cancer journey brought her from healthcare provider to patient, she continues an active lifestyle including working as a PRN physical therapist, jogging, watching her kids play sports, and incorporating healthy meals into their busy life. While priorities often shift after a cancer diagnosis, being a community volunteer, helping wherever possible for her village of amazing friends, and traveling with her family are things she treasures. Always an avid writer in her personal journals, she began putting more feelings and stories of her faith, life, and experiences into Facebook posts, which made her think that pursuing blogging could be a great outlet. A lover of fashion, home decor, and also a great bargain, she can be found at her local consignment shop, thrift store, or TJ Maxx when not cheering for her kids at baseball, football, or cheer.