The Holiday Season: Going Beyond "Feel-Good" Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

The December holiday season is gearing up and with it come countless charitable projects filled with the spirit of giving. I don't question the motives of anyone organizing or volunteering for any of these toy drives, turkey banquets, or other feel-good and help-those-in-need activities. It's just that I wonder whether some of the annual holiday cheer couldn't be rechanneled and/or rescheduled.

I am concerned because these holiday activities often return us to the old style view of volunteering. One side does all the giving in a quick, feel-good fashion and the other side humbly accepts. The giving of toys to children is a good example. This is not meant as a "bah, humbug" dismissal of the joy that a bright, new, huggable something brings to a young child. I just wonder how often we actually ask the youngsters who get these gifts how they feel about them. Is the thrill of the package counterbalanced by shame at being "on the list" of those in need? How does a child respond when the gift is pretty but totally opposite to his or her true interests--proving the disconnect between the giver and recipient?

Isn't the holiday season supposed to be a time of mutual giving and a time that we remind ourselves of the importance of caring all year round? I'm certainly not the first to question the tension between the spirituality of Christmas (as well as other religious holidays of all cultures) and the immediate self-gratification. But we in the volunteer community feed the frenzy with many of our holiday plans. And--forgive me for saying so--aren't we all getting bored with the same old stuff? Let's keep the best of the traditions but find some new ways to bring meaning to this time of year.

What can a leader of volunteers do? Here are some ideas:

1. Involve the recipients of holiday cheer in the planning-- and the giving. Even young children can help to decorate the hall or set the table. Older children can be asked to select gifts for their younger siblings and given the chance to make things for their parents and other adults. Contributing singing or dancing talent to the party may bring the gift of building self-esteem. If you are in charge of a holiday event, avoid noblesse oblige and keep the recipients of "charity" equal to the givers.

2. Adult volunteers can assist young people in thinking of non-cash presents that really mean something. For example, why not gather information about small projects that need to be done and have young volunteers wrap "certificates" promising to do the work? These can range from individual "gifts" such as yard clean up or one night's free baby-sitting to group/community projects such as monitoring the local playground after school or collecting books for the congregation's homework center. This will give children of all ages the gifts of fun and community spirit, not just consumerism. The recent movement to mark Martin Luther King's birthday with a day of service as a tribute to his memory, rather than just a day of leisure, is an excellent example of what can be done to transform a holiday. (And by the way, those of you working with older adults can apply the same principles, too. With some extra attention, even frail seniors can be involved in preparations and giving, not just catered to.)

3. If you are inundated with groups wanting to do something during the Christmas period, try to redirect them. Why not a Valentine's Day show of generosity or an Arbor Day neighborhood tree planting ceremony? Also, give people the chance to help more than once a year. Why not ask the group that comes to carol every December if they would also learn some summer songs and return at the 4th of July? Would your volunteer Santa be willing to don an Easter Bunny costume or be a leprechaun for St. Patrick's Day? I realize these ideas are still holiday related, but you will extend the opportunities for service throughout the year.

4. With all the hoopla about Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa, the new year is sometimes overlooked. Use January 1 as the kickoff for new community service "resolutions." Initiate a support group for those looking for jobs, for people who want to exercise more, or for anyone divorced in the previous year who wants to start fresh. Herald the first meeting of these mutual- aid efforts with champagne and streamers, but keep them going with progress reports, say, on the first of every month all year.

5. If you are working in a group facility of any type, "take stock" the week between Christmas and New Year's and ask everyone and anyone to discuss a "wish list" for things that need to be done. Let these things range from tiny (clean out the supply cabinet) to large (write a strategic plan). Write each on an index card and place in a big bowl that you keep visible all year. Starting on January 2 (when you all return from the holiday), pick out a card with great fanfare. First see if anyone (employees and current volunteers) wants to tackle that job. If not, offer to recruit volunteers to get it started.

Any ways that you have found to bring meaning to the holidays and make the most of volunteer participation at this time of year? Please share.

Oh, yes, and have a perfectly wonderful religious or non- sectarian, winter solstice celebration of your choice! See you here next year.

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