My son's preschool had a service project this year: donating pajamas for kids at the community Safe House. I liked the idea of doing something for kids, with my kids, so we jumped at the opportunity. Read more about it here.
During my early teen years, my ward had an ongoing relationship with a women's shelter called Clare House. Eagle projects building and beautifying the physical space of the facility, and there were various drives for clothing and needed supplies. But what I remember most is the service that my sisters and I were able to do. We watched children while their mothers took classes. We spent time with the parents so that they'd be comfortable with us around their children. We didn't make coffee since none of us knew how, but we tried to do anything else that was needed.
Time is the key thing here. We didn't show up at Clare House once a year for a feel good night of leaf raking. We were there at least monthly, though I think it was weekly for a while. I was at the shelter often enough that I wasn't scared or uncomfortable, even in the face of people very different from myself.
I also felt useful. I hated, even as a kid, service projects that were make work sort of things. You know what I'm talking about, right? Projects creating a need instead of fulfilling one? I felt that by showing up, I was actually lifting a burden and making positive things possible for these women. As a 12, 13, 14 year old, feeling valuable is a remarkable thing.
One of my clearest memories of my time at Clare House took place the summer after my freshman year of high school. A volcano erupted less than 100 miles away from my home in Anchorage, Alaska. Leaving the shelter that night, the sky looked strange: it was dark. That would be normal elsewhere, but this was summer in Alaska and such things don't happen. As I looked up at the sky, I could see darkness coming towards me, like the nothing in The Neverending Story. It was awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I love that even with this major event happening which would shut down the city and all air travel because of the ash, we young women were still out volunteering.
As you and your family are thinking of ways to be less selfish and more giving this Christmas season, keep a few things in mind. Any service you do is great. But ongoing service sends a huge message to your children about priorities, about following the Savior's example long after the fun or rush of a good deed wears off. I am absolutely certain that my obsession with doing service as a family is directly related to the positive experiences I had as a youth, both in my ward and in my family.
If you've had success with a service project, we'd all love to hear about it, especially if you've found ways to get the whole family involved.
Eliana Osborn was raised on cold weather and wild animals in Anchorage, Alaska, setting the stage for her adult life in the Sunniest Place on Earth in Arizona. She grew up in the church and didn't know there were places where conformity was preached. She has a degrees. She writes. She teaches. She has some kids. She even has a husband. She's trying to do her best.