The benefits of family volunteer projects are far-reaching in very personal ways.
Beyond the positive effect of supporting their communities, children who volunteer develop a sense of pride and responsibility. They learn firsthand they can make a difference.
With its diverse neighborhoods and rich network of non-profit organizations, Pittsburgh offers plenty of opportunities for family volunteers to give back during the holidays — and year-round.
Here are eight ideas to get your kids started on a lifetime of good deeds:
Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
Through its Mitzvah Day program — the name comes from a Jewish commandment to perform charitable acts — the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh organizes volunteer activities for families, groups and individuals at agencies throughout Pittsburgh. Now in its 16th year, Mitzvah Day has grown to a two-day event on Dec. 23 and 25. More than 1,000 volunteers will participate at more than 100 sites — including soup kitchens, senior citizens’ centers and faith communities — across Allegheny and bordering counties.
Through Dec. 18, families can sign up for a variety of activities, from meal packaging and delivery to litter cleanup – and most are open to children of all ages with a parent or guardian.
The massive scale of Mitzvah Day is a key to its success. For instance, according to volunteer center manager Amy Cohen, volunteers for Light of Life Rescue Mission made and delivered 2,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hungry children last year.
Through the Pet Search junior volunteering program, children between the ages of 8 and 17, accompanied by their parents, help at adoption events by walking dogs, brushing kittens and distributing literature about the animal rescue organization.
On Dec. 3 and 10, Pet Search will host adoption events at the Washington PetSmart with a Holiday Wish Tree on display. Through the wish tree program, families can provide food and other supplies for pets awaiting placement. Other businesses hosting wish trees include 84 Lumber, Hayes Chiropractic and Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
Many volunteer families take their service a step further, providing foster homes for pets and participating in Pet Search’s fundraising and pet therapy programs.
“Family volunteers are the spokespeople for the organization,” says co-founder and CEO Sherry Knight. “If they are positive about what we do and spread the word, it helps get our foster animals adopted so we can rescue more animals and save more lives.”
Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank
Until recently, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank required children to be 12 years of age or older to volunteer in its facilities, packing food or collecting produce from local farms. But in September, the organization introduced Family Volunteer Days as a way to expand opportunities for families with children ages 6 and up. At that event, volunteers prepared 1,250 bags for children on the North Side and South Side.
The next Family Volunteer Day will take place on Dec. 17, at the food bank’s warehouse in Duquesne. In addition to spending quality time together, families get to interact with like-minded volunteers at the food packaging events.
“Through these opportunities, children and families not only make a measurable impact on hunger in our communities, but they also begin to build the next generation of individuals who are passionate about the issue,” says public relations coordinator Beth Snyder.
Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank
Many families struggle to afford disposable diapers, which can cost up to $80 a month per child, and most childcare centers require parents to supply them. But unlike baby formula and food, there are no government programs that provide diapers or subsidize the cost.
Since 2012, the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank (WPDB) has helped families, organizations, schools and other groups coordinate collection drives for diapers, which are then distributed to families in need by over 30 local social service agencies.
According to public relations volunteer Diane Wuycheck, volunteers are crucial to the diaper bank’s success.
“Volunteers can not only help with activities and tasks but also can be ambassadors in the community to spread the word about diaper need,” Wuycheck says.
And that need is particularly urgent this year: If WPDB collects 250,000 diapers by Dec. 31, Huggies will donate an additional 250,000 diapers.
“We are a little more than halfway to that goal and are counting on the generosity of Pittsburghers to help reach or exceed it,” says Cathy Battle, co-founder and executive director.
Best of the Batch Foundation
Over the past 10 years, the foundation has collected over 50,000 toys through Batch A Toys. In addition to purchasing and donating new, unwrapped toys and household items, families can get involved by participating in the organization’s annual gift-wrapping party.
This year, the party is scheduled for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 10. Volunteers can register online or by calling the foundation. Charlie and Latasha Batch will personally deliver the gifts to the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and families in need on Christmas Eve.
Beyond the holiday season, BatchPacks volunteers stuff backpacks with grade-specific supplies to distribute in local schools in which 90 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Last year, 250 individuals volunteered for the foundation.
Beverly’s Birthdays hosts up to 15 birthday parties each month for homeless children and families living in poverty in our region. Since 2011, the organization has helped these families celebrate over 10,000 birthdays. Through five programs, volunteers of all ages can assemble treat bags, bake birthday cupcakes and collect gifts. Teens ages 15 and up, accompanied by an adult, can help facilitate parties.
Most family volunteer projects can be done from home, but families and groups can also work at the organization’s North Huntingdon office.
Through the Birthday in a Bag program, volunteers of all ages fill bags with the ingredients for a great party — cake mix, icing, plates, napkins and decorations. The bags are then delivered to food banks and other partner agencies.
Other programs include Champions of Cheer, which allows kids to implement their own fundraising projects in the community. And for Party with a Purpose, families use their children’s birthday parties as a vehicle to collect gifts for the organization.
“We love being able to see kids help kids and see the impact it makes,” says Martina Caruso, program manager and volunteer coordinator.
Play It Forward Pittsburgh
This year, Play It Forward Pittsburgh will celebrate its sixth year collecting and distributing gifts to 3,000 children in the Pittsburgh area. The organization collects gently used toys, books, games and sporting equipment and gives away the items on Dec. 17 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Family volunteers of all ages sort, clean and organize donations year-round. Or they can sign up to help between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily from Dec. 12-16.
Since kids often donate their own beloved toys, they learn the importance of giving in a tangible way. Volunteer Robin Cecala appreciates the many ways she and her daughter, Alexandra, can help the organization – from giving toys to helping set up.
“I think it’s important for kids to grow up and learn compassion,” says Cecala. Play It Forward helps her daughter “understand that while she may not have everything she wants, she has a lot to be thankful for.”
Foster Love Project
When children are placed in foster care, they are often shuffled between homes with little more than a garbage bag to transport their belongings. To offer comfort and consistency to these children, the Foster Love Project runs a placement bag drive each November and December.
Volunteers pack backpacks and duffel bags with pajamas, blankets, stuffed animals, books, socks and toiletries, which are distributed to more than 20 foster agencies across the state. The agency also collects gift cards to help children in foster care transition back to school each fall.
Parent Kim Y. sees family volunteering as a chance to start an important conversation with her children. “The Foster Love Project gave us the opportunity to discuss foster care with our children and help them gain empathy for kids who come from all different circumstances in life,” she says.
“It is our hope that in Pennsylvania we will be able to eliminate any foster child being dropped off without any belongings to call their own,” says founder Kelly Hughes, who has two children adopted from foster care. “We want to instill dignity and worth in them and let them know that they are not forgotten.”
For more volunteer opportunities: To explore a comprehensive listing of family volunteer opportunities, search Pittsburgh Cares. Have a favorite organization or cause that’s not on our list? Let us know in the comments.