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71 Unexpected Ways To Volunteer As A Family

71 Unexpected Ways To Volunteer As A Family

Introducing kids to volunteer and community service opportunities is incredibly important: it helps nonprofit organizations impact more people and it benefits the volunteers in countless ways. Finding ways to serve as a family isn't always easy, and volunteering seems to be one of the first things to get squeezed out of a busy schedule. We hope these 71 unexpected ways to volunteer with your kids will help you redefine what it means to serve others and make it part of your family's routine.

This has been a summer of service for my family, and I cannot emphasize the benefits enough. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I’ll be able to look back on this summer and know that we invested our time well.

There’s no better feeling as a mom than to know you did something right.

Not because of the outcome for my kids--I can’t see that yet. Not because of the accolades they earn--those will come and go. Not because of a guarantee they’ll do the right thing--sometimes they won’t. 

But because I made the best decision for my family in that moment. It may not be the right choice for anyone else, but it was the best one for us.

I haven’t always felt that much freedom and confidence as a mom. I’ve grown a lot in those areas in the last year, since Mary and I started SALT effect. We’ve researched and written about a lot of different topics, and I’ve brought all of it back to my family and my work. 

I believe in what we’re doing because I can see the difference in both of our families.

Don’t get me wrong--I still regularly mess up...I lose my temper, completely forget an appointment, don’t call a friend when I should, miss a deadline, give my kids too much screen time, work too many hours on the weekend, second guess a big change, hold a grudge when I shouldn’t…. We’re all a work in progress! But I always come back to what really matters. 

The Difference Volunteering Makes

SALT effect began with a focus on service (Serving And Learning Together) and that continues to be a core value. We know it’s hard to fit service into your schedule--we’ve been there. We know it’s time-consuming to find ways to volunteer with your kids--we’ve been there too. So we spent the last year finding ways to overcome those hurdles so we can pass it along to you (read our best suggestions here).

That said, I wish I could shout this from the rooftops:

Find a way to get your kids involved in service or volunteering. Redefine what it means to serve (more on this below) and then look for ways to serve with your tween or teen. You’ll never regret the time or money it took, or the inconvenience it required. You’ll see your kids differently and they’ll see the world with a new perspective. Helping others can be a life-changing experience for everyone involved.

There’s no guarantee that everything will be okay. There’s no assurance that our kids will end up being kind, hard-working, high-achieving adults. The only thing that’s certain is what’s in front of us right now--the decisions we make at this moment. 

Our world is a mess. Our nation is angry. Our communities are divided. Our families are disconnected. 

That’s not okay with me. And I don’t want it to be okay with my kids either. The SALT effect--the impact of families who serve and learn together--starts small, but it spreads and grows and multiplies. I can’t solve the big problems of the world. But I can start in my home, and inspire other moms to do the same. 

We’ve talked about it before, but a reminder is always helpful. We know that volunteering has a tremendous impact on the organizations, nonprofits and people being helped. But the scientific benefits for people who serve or volunteer are numerous--the list below comes from the Harvard Business Review, the Mayo Clinic, Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Corporation for National and Community Service and Forbes.

Volunteering and serving can:

  • Make you feel like you have more time 
  • Develop leadership skills (sometimes more effectively than academic programs about leadership)
  • Increase self confidence
  • Improve communication skills
  • Help you be a better team member
  • Teach you how to adapt and solve problems
  • Give you a sense of purpose
  • Help you live longer
  • Help you learn something new
  • Decrease rates of depression and anxiety
  • Increase happiness and make you smile more often
  • Lower your stress levels
  • Help you explore your interests
  • Introduce you to different cultures
  • Introduce you to people with different backgrounds and beliefs
  • Build job-related experience and make you more marketable
  • Build empathy
  • Reduce isolation and loneliness
  • Strengthen social bonds
  • Help you meet others and develop new relationships
  • Help you feel healthier and stronger

I don’t know about you, but knowing that serving others can offer what’s on that list to my kids moves it to the top of my priority list. It’s something that often gets squeezed out when we have so many other obligations and responsibilities, but it should rival the importance of homework and practices.

PB&J Camp and Service

After we got home from Mexico (my whole family wrote about our trip here), the boys had about a week to recover before they were off to the 5th annual PB&J Camp. This is one of the best weeks of the year for my 2 boys and my brother’s 3 kids.

My mom (Penny), aunt (Bonnie) and uncle (Jim) host this week-long camp at their house in Hershey. My mom is a retired teacher and my aunt is a retired corporate liaison and event planner. Both were amazing in their careers. So when you put them together to plan something for grandkids, you can only imagine how they take it and run. They have a logo and a magnetic sign for the car. Each year has a theme and a color for their matching t-shirts. They’ve recently added a camp theme song.

PB&J Camp - Spring Creek Church of the Brethren in Hershey PA

Registration packets are mailed to each individual kid a few months ahead of time, and must be promptly returned. Everything--and I mean absolutely everything--is top secret until the first day of camp. The kids are assigned to “cabins” and bathrooms in the house and they get an individual color for towels and water bottles (so much easier to keep track of everything). An adult does a cabin check in the morning and the kids have specific jobs that rotate every day. Absolutely no phones or electronics, no bad attitudes and no parents for the week.

Every activity they plan is somehow related to the theme (even if they have to stretch it a bit). The first 4 years’ themes: Totes for Travel, the Olympics, Cooking and Transportation. We keep telling them they need to find a way to make some money on this. I’m pretty sure all my friends would send their kids to PB&J Camp in a heartbeat.

Even I didn’t know this year’s theme until we dropped off the kids with my mom and aunt--it’s top secret!--and I was SO excited when I found out the theme was SERVICE.

I share all of this for 3 reasons: 

  1. To tell you about these amazing women who give an incredible gift to my boys and their cousins. 
  2. To remind you that there’s a lot of good in the world, and nothing is ever hopeless. This camp wouldn’t have been possible 6 years ago, before my parents’ divorce. It would have been unfathomable 30 years ago. My mom and her sister were estranged for 20 years. And I’m talking seriously estranged—wounds that ran deep and wide. But their faith and willingness to forgive brought freedom for all of us and our kids get to benefit.
  3. And finally, because I love how they organized the week. They created an acrostic for the word SERVE and covered one letter each day: Share, Encourage, Respond, Volunteer, Enrich. 

If volunteering conjures up images of soup kitchens, if community service is limited to organized activities or if serving others sounds too religious...I want to challenge the ideas you have about volunteering with your family and redefine the ways you can serve with your kids.

71 Ways To Serve With Your Family

In the list below, you’ll see some of the typical suggestions, but I know you’ll find new ideas and realize you and your kids are already doing things on the list. Call those things out as service. Let your kids know that’s what they’re doing and why it matters. Have conversations about it. Talk about how it makes other people’s lives better and how it benefits your kids. 

(Most of the ideas will work with kids of any age, but some are best for tweens or teens.)


Be willing to give others what you have, including your time, especially if you have excess. Instead of hosting a garage sale or using buy/sell/trade groups, consider donating extra or used items. 

1. Shop using Amazon Smile

2. Sign up for any reward programs that give back to nonprofits

3. Donate clothes

4. Donate toys that are clean and in good shape. Call ahead to make sure your donation will be accepted:
5. Donate books that are unmarked and intact.
    • Volunteers of America will pick up donations
    • Half-Price Books
    • Libraries: Contact your local library and ask to be connected to their Friends of the Library group
    • Reach Out and Read: They incorporate books into pediatric care, so these books would go to children’s hospitals and doctor’s offices.
    • A Little Free Library near you
    • Books for Africa: They believe education is the great equalizer, and books are the foundation of a strong educational system.
    6. Donate household goods (appliances, furniture, surplus building materials, etc.)

      7. Donate towels and blankets to a local animal shelter

      8. Donate eyeglasses to Eye Make a Difference, a program through Lions Club International and VSP Global

      9. Donate food to a local food pantry (decorate the lids of the food to share AND encourage)

      10. Donate bikes to Bikes for All People in Columbus, Ohio: They refurbish and sell the bikes at an affordable rate to people who rely on them for all transportation. They also give free bikes and helmets to kids.

      11. Donate your vehicle.

      PB&J Camp at Love, Inc's Shoe Closet in Hershey PA

      The kids donated new shoes to Love Inc's shoe drive, and then helped organize the shoe closet.


        Be generous with positive and encouraging words. Do random acts of kindness for others.

        12. Follow a local nonprofit organization on social media. Like, comment on and share their posts to raise awareness.

        13. Order a book on the Amazon Wish List of the Prison Book Program: They send free books to prisoners to provide educational and spiritual development.

        14. Pay for the next person in line at a coffee shop or fast food restaurant

        15. Send a sympathy card to someone who has lost a loved one or a pet; better yet, send another one a few months later when the flood of cards has stopped

        16. Compliment someone else who wouldn't expect it.

        17. Do a chore that a sibling hates or that would really help a parent

        18. Surprise someone with flowers or candy

        19. Order a few prints of pictures on your phone and send them to grandparents

        20. Leave a larger tip for your server, stylist, pizza delivery person, hotel workers

        21. Pull in your neighbor’s trash can

        22. Give hot chocolate, coffee, water or Gatorade to school crossing guards

        23. Leave snacks and a note for mail carriers and delivery people during the holidays

        24. Write a note and mail it to someone who needs a pick-me-up

        25. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk or driveway

        26. Keep index cards on your kitchen table and write compliments on them for your family members; be specific and notice the good things they do

        27. Write a review or testimonial online for a restaurant or business you love

        28. Follow, like, comment and share posts from a social enterprise or small business (take it from us, this is a big deal and a HUGE encouragement)

        29. Start a family gratitude journal or make a gratitude wall

        30. Check in on friends or family members (including their kids) going through a divorce, death, job loss or other difficulty; you might not know what to say and that’s okay--they just need to know you’re thinking about them

        31. Bake cookies and take them to a fire station; schedule a tour to learn more about how they serve the community

        32. Sit with the new kid or invite the new employee to lunch

        33. Tell a parent something you notice about their kids that has nothing to do with intelligence or ability and everything to do with character

        34. Let someone go ahead of you in line at the store 

        Flag at first station in Hershey / Palmyra PA

        The kids took snacks to local firefighters and then toured the station. This flag has the names of first responders and emergency workers whose lives were lost on 9/11.


          When you notice a need, find a way to meet it. And notice more often.

          35. Choose one of our Top 10 Ways to Help Children at the Border 

          36. Take a meal to a new mom or grieving family

          37. If a neighbor or friend is heading out of town, offer to water their plants, get their mail, take care of their pets or house sit

          38. Find a classroom in need and help them afford supplies through

          39. Donate to a reputable organization after a natural disaster: use to find a nonprofit you can trust. Donating money is the most helpful thing you can do after a disaster.

          40. Offer to babysit for a few hours so exhausted parents can get a break and reconnect

          41. Send a care package to a homesick college student

          42. Find the perfect book to help or encourage a friend and have it delivered

          43. Become an organ donor

          44. Collect pop tabs to help raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities

          45. Clean up litter in your neighborhood 

          46. Keep a stash of blessing bags in your car or backpack so you can respond to kindness or acknowledge someone with something tangible

          blessing bags of Hershey kisses from PB&J Camp

          This is a basket full of blessing bags--just a few Hershey kisses with a short note of encouragement and thanks.


            Participate in organized volunteer or community service events. Invite others to join you.

            47. Sign up with VolunteerMatch to find local opportunities that match up with your interests and family members’ ages

            48. Hold a book drive for Reader to Reader: They bring free books to the nation’s poorest communities and under-resourced libraries.

            49. Volunteer to read a public domain book for a collection of free audiobooks on LibriVox

            50. Ask a teacher or club advisor to write letters to lonely seniors through Love for the Elderly, a nonprofit started by a 13-year-old boy in Cleveland, Ohio

            51. Sign up to deliver food to seniors through Meals on Wheels

            52. Participate in a walk or run for a cause that matters to your family

            53. Participate in the Carry a Bead program through Beads of Courage to support a child with a serious or life-threatening illness

            54. Volunteer at a community garden (find one near you)

            55. Organize or distribute food at a local food bank

            56. The YMCA welcomes volunteers of diverse abilities, so there are lots of options here

            57. Attend an Honor Flight celebration and welcome veterans home at a local airport

            58. Pack a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child

            59. Choose an idea from our Top 10 Community Service Ideas for Tweens and Teens

            Packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child at Spring Creek Church of the Brethren in Hershey PA

            The kids bought supplies and packed shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child.


              Make a long-term or larger commitment to a person, cause or organization. Focus on relationships.

              60. Complete one of our service-learning projects with your family to learn about an important social issue do something about it. Use code VOLUNTEER25 for 25% off--our way of thanking you for reading this post!
              • Get the Honoring Veterans Service Project Plan download to find out more about WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans; learn how we can honor and support them; volunteer with your family
              • Get the Give Hope to Sick Kids Service Project Plan download to understand more about the challenges faced by kids with chronic illness and their families; learn how we can encourage them; volunteer with your family
              • Get one of our service-learning boxes which includes a guide for an interactive 90-minute activity (videos, quizzes, games & service project) created with a nonprofit sponsor, supplies for a unique service project, a gift from a company that gives back to the cause and a digital badge to track service hours or the topics you've explored. We donate 20% to our nonprofit sponsor!

              61. Start your own Little Free Library 

              62. If you sing or play an instrument, contact a nursing home or hospital to find out how you can use your talent on a regular basis to bring some joy to patients

              63. Plant a garden and share extra produce with a church or local food bank (contact them first)

              64. Foster an animal through a local humane society or rescue organization

              65. If you love photography, offer to take pictures for local nonprofit fundraising events

              66. Organize an Angel Tree Christmas at your church or organization for the children of prisoners in your area

              67. Interview a grandparent or other senior citizen; record the interview and write it down for family members

              68. Become a foster family (find your state’s organization here)

              69. Organize or join a team for a national or international mission trip (check with local churches for opportunities)

              70. Open up your home (it doesn’t have to be perfect to be used!)

              • Invite friends or new acquaintances for dinner
              • Host a game night, Bible study or book club
              • Offer an overnight stay as a quick and inexpensive getaway for friends or relatives
              • Be the place where friends (adults and kids) can go to relax and recharge
              • Host a shoe party to benefit Sole Hope: They combat diseases that enter through the feet to create positive physical and psychological difference for people in impoverished communities in Uganda
              • Host a rock painting party through The Kindness Rocks Project
              • Host a no-sew fleece blanket making party through My Very Own Blanket for kids in foster care (located in Westerville, Ohio but you can ship finished blankets)
                71. Train a therapy dog. Below is a brief interview with Micah, a teenager whose family is training a therapy dog named Blue. The PB&J Camp kids met Blue and interviewed Micah about how they are serving others.

                  Therapy dog with kids at Spring Creek Church of the Brethren

                  What are you training Blue to do?

                  We are training Blue to be a therapy dog, which means he gives comfort, affection and love to people in need. So instead of a service dog that helps mostly with physical disabilities, therapy dogs aid people emotionally. My family owns Blue, but we take him places like the Ronald McDonald house or retirement homes to help give comfort, affection and love to those people. 

                  What made you interested in doing this?

                  I have had some health problems with my knee so I’ve spent time in hospitals and physical therapy sessions. When my family and I got our first dog he showed me what unconditional love he had and could bring to anyone he was around. He brought happiness into my life and taught me how to love. I wanted to extend all the love he gave to me and taught me so that others could feel that joy too. 

                  How has it helped you to serve others?

                  This experience has taught me that there is no end to the help that I can give. That there is always more love to be given. And finally that you should take advantage of what God gives you in life. You never know what doors open into so many more opportunities until you trust God to open those doors. 

                  How could families learn more?

                  You can search for national dog therapy organizations in your area. You could support therapy dog services and ask if your school has a therapy dog and if not, consider talking to the administration about getting one for the students in need. (Note from Kristie: You can find more information from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and the American Kennel Club.)


                  Aug 22, 2020

                  Thank Young from Germany for this ideas.

                  May 11, 2020

                  I really enjoyed your comments and ideas! I am always open for ideas for myself and others to just SERVE!
                  I’ve worked with and have worked with several groups of children and programs. Children, tweens, teenagers, young adults and adults will rise to any opportunity to help others if given enough encouagement, sincere compliments, and supported opportunities to serve for even the smallest of effort.
                  Everybody has their strengths in different areas and can help in many different ways!
                  Helping, being positive; even if it just a smile, can not only influence and impact others but also ourselves!💗
                  Serve! Serve! Serve! Awesome ideas!!😎

                  Sonya Brown
                  Aug 15, 2019

                  Awesome post, Kristie! Thanks for the research which offered me some ideas I didn’t know existed. While PB&J laundry is not yet stored, my heart is full of memories from the week. PB&J Camp is clearly a highlight of my summer!

                  Bonnie Martin
                  Aug 15, 2019

                  Great ideas!! Thanks for sharing!

                  Sharon Radcliff
                  Aug 15, 2019

                  We had a fantastic week at PB&J Camp. We loved sharing our time with the kids, encouraging them as they served others, responding to their needs during times of stress and fatigue, volunteering to assist them and others in countless ways and hopefully enriching their lives as we shared the week’s experiences with these precious grandchildren.

                  Wonderful post full of ideas to suit most any family.

                  Penny Radcliff

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