Meaningful holidays

Ten tips

Yes, the December holidays are busy. Packed with family celebrations, parties with friends and co-workers and an overabundance of shopping, families can quickly be overwhelmed and exhausted. But if you can carve out a few minutes of your time, your family can easily make a difference in the life of another person who may not have the same advantages.

Here are 10 ways to get your family started:

1 Help another family. At the Habitat for Humanity of Lake County, your family can help make the holidays more abundant for families who may not have the resources to buy gifts. You can request a wish list for a local family, do the shopping and sometimes both families can meet at the office. Involve your children by letting them pick out the children’s gifts.

“Kids get excited when they get to get involved and when they realize they are making a difference in the life of another child,” says Cassie Bertke, Habitat’s office and volunteer coordinator.

2 Reach out to those with disabilities. Clearbrook, a human services agency in Arlington Heights serving those with developmental disabilities, hosts parties during December where families can volunteer. Contact Nanci Chesek at (847) 385-5016.

Or share your Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Clearbrook’s Rolling Meadows residents."[Families can] bring holiday cheer and caroling to 92 adults with developmental disabilities,” she says. Contact Kathy Scheuing at (847) 255-0120 ext. 112.

3 Host a toy drive. The New Lenox MOMS Club does a service project at least once a year and last Christmas club members decided to couple their holiday party with their service project.

“We asked each mom to bring one or two new toys to the party,” says Nicole Yaniz, mom of two and treasurer of her MOMS Club."We explained to the kids that while they were there to have fun, we were also helping kids who were less fortunate.”

The toys were donated to the Toys for Tots donation center at Frankfort’s Jewel-Osco.

4 Underwear for kids in Africa. We joke about giving our kids underwear for Christmas. But there are children who would be delighted to receive some.

Mothers Fighting for Others, a 501 3(c) non-profit organization, in partnership with the Global Volunteer Network, is collecting underwear to deliver to African orphanages."People are scrambling to survive and they need basic items,” says Julie Ferenzi, a Plainfield resident and co-founder of MFFO.

To donate for the mission in January, you can send new packs of underwear to Julie Ferenzi, 7005 Twin Falls Drive, Plainfield, IL 60586.

5 Connect with sick children. Recognizing children all over the country that need an extra reason to smile, Marsha Jordan of Harshaw, Wis., started Hugs and Hope. Parents of sick kids send her their stories and contact information, which Jordan posts on her Web site Children can create cards and notes to send to those children.

During the holidays, Hugs and Hope runs an Elf program where families are matched with sick children to send them letters and gifts.

“The kids sometimes become pen pals and write back and forth, so they get to be friends.”

6 Smiles for seniors. Catholic Charities in Chicago loves to have kids and families make holiday cards and ornaments for its senior centers.

“A lot of them have no family and makes them feel like they’ve been remembered by somebody. It can bring back positive memories. They love to hear from kids,” says Dorey Kuhn, volunteer director.

Cards and ornaments need to be submitted by Dec. 14. Call Kuhn at (312) 655-7322 for information.

7 Enlist Santa’s help. On Christmas Eve in 2005, Ben Justie, then 7, told his parents to wait on sending him to bed. He ran upstairs and grabbed some of his gently loved toys. After bringing them downstairs he sat down at the table and composed a note to Santa.

“I read the note and almost cried,” says Jeannie Justie of Arlington Heights."He was asking Santa to bring the toys to poor children.”

Take Ben’s idea and ask your kids if they have toys in great condition that Santa could deliver to other children during the holidays.

8 Help the animals. While people usually focus on other people during the holidays, don’t forget our animal friends. Local humane societies always need supplies. But the family’s involvement doesn’t need to end at buying cat litter or dog food.

“Volunteers can come in and volunteer with their families over the holidays,” says Angie Wood, at the Naperville Area Humane Society.

9 Donating instead of gifting. Are there so many children in your family that everyone goes broke buying gifts and the children are left with more toys than they need? Instead of adding one more present to the bunch, donate money to your child’s favorite charity.

If your child is too young to choose a specific charity, go with their interests. Does your daughter love horses? Then donate to Ready, Set, Ride in Plainfield, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing therapy with horseback riding. Does your son love firefighters? Then make a donation to your local fire station in his name.

10 Ask around. Still not sure what type of volunteer activity would best fit your family? Ask everyone you know and someone is bound to know of an organization or family that could use your help. Check at your house of worship or ask at your children’s school. Offer to help out a neighbor in need or let your children take the lead by suggesting something meaningful to them.

No matter what your decision, any action, no matter how small, could make the holidays brighter for someone else.

Michelle Sussman is a mom of two, wife and writer in Bolingbrook.

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