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Emily Henderson

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by Emily Henderson
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We are seven days out from Christmas. I was beating myself up and feeling so guilty for not doing more to help this month. Remember that service advent calendar I was going to create with daily doable ways to serve or be kind? Fail. I did have a big conversation with the kids to get their ideas on what they think they could do to help others, and their main suggestion was to “make cookies for the firefighters.” And guys, we almost did. So that’s where I’m at. We missed the wrapping event from Planet Hope that I had planned. We didn’t do a Feel Good Makeover this year (but we do have one in the works for January, which I’m so excited about). BUT. instead of sitting in my guilt, I’m officially reminding myself that it’s not too late. It never is (because helping is really a year-round thing). So with your help from this post, we’ve created a list of different ways we can all still give back, serve or just generally be kind. Some are so easy and take no time. Some are virtually free. Some are perfect for kids. All will make the world (and you) feel good.

Real quick: We all know how we should help others and lord knows the socioeconomic disparity is worse than ever so yes, people who can help should be giving back more, full stop. It cultivates empathy. It gets us out of our bubbles. It opens our eyes to the actual world.

But there is more to it; there are reasons in addition to being a decent human and helping others, some side effects or benefits that I often remind myself of. Here goes…

Doing it now, with my kids, helps them understand early on why it’s important to give back and even starts forming a long-term habit. My parents raised us doing a lot of service. It was part of our lives consistently thus creating a habit or urge in me, almost like a sense of duty. It’s like teaching them a sport or a foreign language, if you learn when you are young, you will always have that muscle memory. It just comes easier. It’s truly the best form of conditioning you can do. Knowing this first-hand is a massive motivation, I don’t want my inability to prioritize time for this to ultimately rob my kids of this good habit (our future world needs them to).

Helping people makes you feel really really good. It’s like a burst of serotonin, not only in the moment but every time you look at a photo or memento from that day. Feeling sad? You won’t after seeing how you lit up someone else’s day—it’s almost impossible. It’s a real antidote. Sometimes, late at night when I’m feeling sorry for myself for whatever stupid reason, I watch Sylvia’s makeover or last year’s Feel Good flash makeover and I feel better about myself. It makes ME happy. I have GOT to do more. Listen, making yourself feel good isn’t the reason you should do it, but it is a bi-product of helping others.

There is a trickle-down effect: hopefully, someone who receives the help will pay it forward and help someone else however they can, knowing what it is like to be on that side of things. So it’s not just a one-time helping, it can affect more people than you know.

It’s been scientifically proven to create and improve healthy self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. It’s literally in every parenting book I read on how to cultivate a healthy self-esteem in your kids. An added bonus of helping others is that it actually helps YOU feel like you have a purpose, that you are needed, that you make a difference in this world regardless of your status in other ways. Helping others fills you up and makes you feel proud of yourself, and you bring that to the rest of your day to day life, including your relationships and your career. And everyone on this planet should feel that they can make a difference in this world to someone, even if it’s just one person.

I struggle with my privilege, which is likely the most privileged thing you can say. There is this sense of “why do I get to have this life?” that pops into my head frequently. So instead of going around apologizing for my success, I’ve tried to put a lot of my time and resources (and influence) into feel-good projects like redoing the family shelter, the rummage sale or our Feel Good flash makeover. The more successful my business is, the more I have the ability to dedicate resources (like furniture, or my team’s time) to things like these. It helps me feel proud of my success rather than embarrassed by it.

So yes, I want to help others, and deeply believe it’s the only way to create a better world. Hopefully, framing it like that can help motivate someone out there who can relate in some way. That’s more of a larger personal thing for me, something that I’m working on, but these ideas don’t require you quit your job and work for a non-profit just yet, they are SO EASY.

5 Fun, Simple Things Anyone Can Do to Make Someone Else’s Day:

Overtip a server. This would have made my DAY when I was a server or bartender and it’s something I seriously love to do when I connect to the right person. If you can afford to leave a 50% tip, I promise it’s all they’ll talk or think about that day/week. Just make sure to write “Merry Christmas” or something like that so they realize this isn’t a mistake and it’s an intentional act of kindness (not for your sake, but literally so they know they can actually submit the sum).

Bring a treat to flight attendants on a plane. Erik from my team taught us to do this and GOODNESS is it the easiest thing to do to make someone smile (and yes, he gets a free drink now and then. But that might have more to do with the fact that he is the NICEST person in the world than anything else).

Make cookies for firefighters or police officers. Mostly kids just want to go to the firehouse but once they see those smiles, they’ll feel the impact of their kindness.

Bake (or buy) and leave cookies/snacks for UPS person and mail carrier. We are going to leave out a basket of treats with a big MERRY CHRISTMAS and THANK YOU sign on it and we’ll see how the kids do with that temptation.

Donate books to the public library (or public school). We do this year-round to purge, but it’s so easy to do during holidays and kids can pick out the books thus involving them.

A Few Things That Take a Bit Of Time/Effort or Resources:

Drop off Christmas cookies (and even sing carols, they LOVE that) at a local nursing home. I worked as a waitress in high school for the dinner service at a nursing home and I just have such a soft spot to those who have lived through so much more and are nearing the end of their lives. When carolers came, they were just DELIGHTED. 

Buy and donate non-perishables to food banks. Our preschool and our public elementary school are both doing this, and with one trip to the grocery store, we can help. This is simple but takes a Google search to find one near you. I’ve even heard of being able to place online grocery store orders to food banks, so if you’re slammed this holiday season, you don’t even have to take a trip out of your way.

Sponsor a family and encourage kids to pick out what they think the children would like. We are doing one through a friend of mine who organizes this every year with her children’s school that has a lot of families that need help. I’m excited to have the kids help pick out toys for the 3-year-old and help wrap the rest of the gifts for the siblings and parents.

Sponsor gifts/essentials for a family/child. Unless you know a family personally, this typically has to be more locally done and likely organized by a non-profit or church. We are working with Baby2Baby to buy gifts and essentials for a 12-year-old boy. My friend brought this to me so we split it as the ask was $500 and it was a heavy lift for her. I tried to find a way to do this on their site, but couldn’t. Baby2Baby provides drop off locations and lists of what they need so you can involve your kids and not just donate money (which is obviously appreciated, as well). You can shop their wishlist here.

Shop and donate kids toys for toy drive. Again, has to be kinda organized. Our local church organized this and on Saturday morning, we are taking the kids to drop off at the police station, which they are VERY excited about. Shopping with the kids is not easy as obviously they just want everything for themselves, but I think it’s an important part of the process. You can also just open a toy catalog, have them circle some ideas and order online, then they can help wrap.

So yeah, that’s just a sliver of the things that can be done. I’d love to hear anything you’ve done this year or in years past that you think made an impact on you or others.

  1. Thanks so much for this! GREAT ideas. Also great thoughts at the beginning. Thank you Emily for letting us into your brain. It’d be easy to write one quick sentence about why helping others is good and then jump into the ideas. But you went so much more in depth and this is what makes it worth reading. I always find your writing interesting and honest and helpful. Thanks for brightening up my morning every day!

    1. 100% AGREE 🙂

      1. thanks, guys 🙂

  2. These are great ideas, thanks for compiling them for us! As for a service advent calendar (another GREAT idea!) There’s one that’s already been put together! Simple acts of daily service to help us all spread a little more kindness and love. http://www.comeuntochrist.org/light-the-world

    1. I’m not that inspired by my church that talks about giving, but has such a poor giving percentage. It takes in about 6 billion in tithes annually, and only gives approximately 40 million each year. Then adding yesterday’s Washington Post whistleblower story to it regarding the 100 billion dollar fund that isn’t being spent on anything charitable. I’m so sad and will be giving to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation next year.

      1. I agree, Nat. Sorry to say I don’t trust churches.

        1. Find out the real story before making judgments about any church. You can’t just read one side of the issue. http://www.comeuntochrist.org/light-the-world is still a great calendar to use!

          1. I agree. @teri, you can’t just read a story that doesn’t do both sides of research, take time to do more, then analyze before publishing. I know that the level of help they give to people who need it (of the church or not), is HUGE. Truly. I’ve seen it myself. But perhaps the tithe they take is far beyond that and by not opening your books you open yourself to scrutiny. I’m an optimistic-sceptic when it comes to religious organizations. I don’t know, but I definitely want to look at multiple articles, because the ONE thing that I loved this church for, is its service to others. And it’s a lot. The press does love to hate churches, so I don’t trust their assessment. Journalism isn’t what it used to be. At the same time a bunch of old white men are in charge of this church so ….. I will say this – where i’ve been going – a VERY LIBERAL local presbyterian church, they put their finances out there, I guess thats part of their program. every january they put up graphs on how they make money, where it goes, who it pays, how much they need to survive and i’ve never written a check faster. YES TO TRANSPARENCY.

  3. One thing I like to do in time for the holidays, is to give away toys and kids clothes (because we have a lot and i hate clutter and what kid needs a ton of toys just sitting there unplayed with) via Craigslist (or you can do FB Marketplace if you don’t feel comfortable with Craigslist) and specifically say in the posting that you’re looking to give those things to a parent/family that “legitimately needs toys/clothes and doesn’t just want free stuff because it’s free”.
    The reason i do this is that i know there are a lot of parents that can’t afford kids clothes/toys and a lot of kids don’t get ANY toys or presents because of this. One of my husband’s customers said a few years ago they just didn’t celebrate Christmas because they couldn’t afford anything (which made me so sad). So, I figure that maybe I can make it a little easier for someone out there that needs help with this.
    And I put that statement in my posting because it lets people know what the purpose is because some people seriously just love anything free and will just take things to take things.
    I remember one Christmas giving away our baby car seats on Craigslist and one lady told me she had been praying for a way to get her daughter a car seat for Christmas so it was super helpful. You never know what people are struggling to get.
    It’s also a win for you, because you get to help someone while also getting rid of stuff you don’t need. And you know it’s going directly to the person to use right away. And, you don’t have to go anywhere to drop it off, you can just do it as a porch pickup.

    Just another idea of a way to help someone out. Holidays or other times of the year.

  4. Emily (and everyone), read any of Greg Boyle’s books over the holidays (Tattoos on the Heart or Barking to the Choir) or watch his TED talk. Father Boyle is the Jesuit priest who started Homeboy Industries, the largest gang jobs program in the world, and his thoughts on service are really life-changing. His main message is that of kinship — that we are all one with another — and that is the message that I think us “privileged” folks need to hear more. When I read you that you struggle in your bubble, it makes me think of his work. He often talks about standing in awe of the burdens people carry rather than in judgment of how they carry them. So often, service is conceptualized as this thing we are doing for others, coming from this “better” place to swoop down and “give back” but it is really about recognizing the dignity in every individual’s story. Anyway, I am not doing his beautiful humor-filled writing justice but it is really important and awesome. You won’t regret time you spend thinking about his work. Especially if how to live a service-filled life is something with which you grapple. (And, I think his message resonates across lots of politics, faiths and communities).

    1. Thanks for bringing up this gentleman and his very true stance on it! Going to check out the TED talk, maybe with my daughter tonight, if appropriate. We’re going to be caroling at a nursing home with our Girl Scouts service unit tomorrow night, and I’d like her to understand what it will mean. Though I’m anticipating the folks there are going to be obviously thrilled and make an impression on her lol.

    2. I can’t wait to read and watch that ted talk . thank you 🙂

  5. Great post. I love your honesty (as someone who also struggles to close the gap between my intentions and reality). This was really encouraging and helpful!

  6. And a really, easy quick way to donate to food banks is to give money instead of food. I volunteer at our local food bank, and they can make a money donation go really far. They also use it to buy fresh produce.

  7. Baking cookies for people is a very nice, personal thing to do for people though if you are privileged enough to have spare cash at this time of year, giving cash is really the best thing you can do for families who may be struggling. I think that people feel like they need to do some kind of work to help people (which of course is also great), but giving money or gift cards for groceries is truly invaluable, really. Sitting down with your kids and deciding where money should be sent is more valuable and life-teaching than you might realize.

    1. Love the cash idea. A lot of organizations such as food pantries have so much more buying power, so your cash goes much farther. Also, the option for parents to choose their own kids’ gifts with cash or gift cards really means a lot.

    2. I think this is a great point. While I will always want my kids to physically be doing something for others (I truly think its a muscle memory thing). Its not just cookies – i mean, they are JUST COOKIES, but at this age it’s hard to do much more. we are having a wrapping party for the clothes that we bought for a family tomorrow night and maybe thats the perfect time to talk about money. I agree that in addition or instead of that having smart conversations about money is very important if not more important, and something we don’t do. so thank you 🙂

  8. If you missed the deadline for Toys for Tots, they accept monetary donations all year through their website.

  9. My kids looove dropping cookies off for the fireman. Two years ago I had a 2, 3, and 5 year old and was pregnant. I just couldn’t get my act together to make the cookies. I then had a stroke of genius I thought I’d share. We picked up a dozen bagels and cream cheese and dropped those off instead! The kids were thrilled, I was happy to give back and the firemen seemed very appreciative. So that’s what we do now! Bagels!

    1. I love the bagel idea! I actually was going to comment to say that as someone who works in healthcare, in my experience most of my coworkers (myself included) are appreciative but won’t eat homemade food that patients or patients’ families bring in. Chocolates, fruit with their own “wrapping” (oranges, bananas, etc), store-bought/pre-made stuff like the bagels you mentioned are great!

  10. There’s an organization in NJ called “Roots and Wings” which provides support for teens aging out of foster care. All resources go directly to the kids. They have to be in school and/or have work with a future in mind. They are provided with housing, counselling, and mentoring. It’s a wonderful organization to support.

    1. That is a great cause! Thank you for suggesting it.

  11. I love the idea of bringing something for a flight attendant. Can anyone help me think of some specifics for an upcoming trip?

    1. A moisturizing hand cream! They have to wash their hands a lot and wear gloves that leave a residue behind

    2. Granola or energy bars, apples, gummy bears/worms…things that wouldn’t be too messy. Maybe a current or former flight attendant will chime in. 🙂

    3. Ooh yes I’d love to hear specifics from Erik on what has gone down well in the past or like someone else said from someone in the field. I am a little paranoid about taking something that they couldn’t accept for some reason/rules regulations etc.

  12. For our extended family Christmas, my mom always requests that instead of giving each other gifts, we bring a donation for her church’s homeless ministry. This has been great for everyone. None of us really want or need more gifts and the kids can be involved. Yes, the kids still get presents.

    One year it was canned goods, this year she’s asking for blankets, gloves and hats. Toiletries, kids underwear, feminine hygiene products, and diapers are also big needs at shelters. Call your local shelter and ask what their big needs are right now.

  13. Great ideas for busy folks! It’s too bad most people don’t have this mentality year round, though. It would be so lovely if everyone did small acts of kindness all the time.

    (Side note: I would caution against bringing flight attendants any food items. It’s my understanding that they can accept food items, but typically can’t actually eat them.)

  14. My father is a retired UPS man and I can tell you the snacks are very much appreciated! This time of year is their busiest and they often work a ton of overtime. For colder climates their hands get super dry and cracked, so a good hand moisturizer that’s small enough to keep in the truck is nice too!

  15. Thanks for encouraging us who feel a little behind.
    In an attempt to make the service feel personal for my teenaged kids, this year we are donating items to a women and children shelter that they have a connection to. We picked hair products specifically for curly hair and a D&D starter kit. And plenty of deodorant.

  16. These are all awesome ideas, and I love that you took the time to share these today!

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  17. Thanks for this post, great ideas! For my 7 and 4 year old girls we try to pick out a ‘gift’ from the World Vision catalog. It has photos and obviously for my 7 year old it can prompt a lot of tough questions-but where better than to start thinking about others? This year my 7 year old picked clothing for kids in cold places and my 4 year old picked a share of a pig. 🙂

    1. Folks who don’t want to go through an Evangelical Christian organization like World Vision can do this through Heifer International, as well — just another idea!

      1. Heifer has an online catalog, too, with easy to understand explanations of what each gift can do for a recipient. I like to give flocks of chicks in order to put food on the table asap. I also contribute to educational programs when Heifer has them.

  18. Great post. Note for editing purposes, it’s now “firefighters” and “police officers,” not “firemen” and “policemen.” My female cousin is a firefighter so I’m particularly sensitive to this. 🙂

  19. My daughter suggested we bring gifts to children that are in the hospital for Christmas, so that’s what we’re doing! We bought little toys, drawing tools, and candy. Never done this before, so hopefully the nurses are able to pass out the treat bags. Young children aren’t usually allowed in the rooms.

  20. Thank you so much for this post, greatness really is determined by service! I donate to food banks and animal rescues.

    https://cuddly.com/grant-a-poundwish/urgent-needs

  21. Emily, I love you, but can you please keep law enforcement gender-neutral? Firefighter, police officer. Puffy hearts to you and all you do! xo

  22. Great post! Blood donations drop off during the holidays, but are so important. Plus, it is an opportunity to “be still” during the holiday season.
    Also, you can find reverse Advent calendars for food banks. Each day you put something in the box that is on their wishlist. It is a great way of being intentional every day and seeing these small acts (a jar of peanut butter, a box of rice etc) add up over the month. The food can be delivered after the holidays.

  23. In Maine, the food banks prefer $$ instead of cans of food because they can get a lot more food for the money than we can in a supermarket. I am not sure how it works but is something like 4 times the amount of food. I adopt two local kindergartens in the fall and buy items from the school supply list. I have also sent the teachers Amazon gift cards throughout the year so they can buy books for their classrooms. For public schools who do the scholastic book sales every month, there are $1 books available each month. Those kindergarten classes got sponsors for each student. The cost was $10 for each student. One school got enough sponsors via social media so that each kindergarten student in the entire school gets a new book each month to take home.

    1. Love this.

  24. One year we were staying in Hawaii over Christmas, and the hotel gave us a tin of cookies. Next day, I bought a huge box of malasadas (goodies) and took them in for the staff. Boy, did they love that! So, yes, niceties for those who take care of us are deeply appreciated- so I will take a tin of goodies onto the plane for the staff when we head home from Hawaii again, on Saturday. Thanks for the suggestion.

  25. These are awesome suggestions. The nursing home one is close to my heart because I love the elderly and I use to work in a nursing home. Residents there get so lonely, especially this time of year. Visiting them or going to sing carols there, as you mentioned, means so much. Also, and forgive me if I missed this, but writing letters/cards to servicemen and women in the armed forces is another good idea and can involve kids. Thing is, you have to go through some organization to do it — at least, I’d think you would — and I don’t know if its too close to the holiday to do it now. Online, maybe? Or maybe for New Year’s. Or, as you said, all year ’round!

  26. Totally get it if your schedule won’t allow it right now, but just curious: no blog snacks this week?

  27. I have to say that the comments of your followers just made me cry with happiness. Nice to know you all and peace to all.

    1. I agree! It’s so nice to see kind and positive comments on a kind and positive blog article, a refreshing change from the norm these days…

      Thanks for the post Emily, this has just reminded me of my intention to purchase toys for a few children in need over here in the UK. Merry Christmas!

  28. This is SO good Emily! Thank you for gathering all of this and sharing it in a blog post. It’s 12:20am right now…I look forward to looking through this again in the morning. XO

  29. Our local Christmas Cheer board relies on walk in volunteers to donate hampers to those who can’t pick up their own. Great way to help and no planning required. Just show up!

    1. Oops *to deliver hampers to those who can’t pick up their own

  30. I would LOVE it if you would do another ethical and sustainable gift guide. You did this either last year or the year before and it gave great ideas for companies and products doing good work/giving back and I think it’s such a smart way to be thoughtful at this time of year. Giving cash and donating time to orgs is so important, but we also still want to give gifts to the people we love, and if those can be thoughtful choices as well, it would go very far! Thanks for these ideas!

  31. I appreciate the suggestions but am taken aback by someone who asks for $500 worth of gifts! my kids have all always worked, as have I and we NEVER spend this much as a family…

  32. Hello and happy holidays To you and I appreciate you and your family one day I hope to be in a place to help others I’m sending this comment to see if there’s someone out there that can help me I don’t know we’re this comment is going to go it’s that’s I have 4 children and there is nothing I can do for them Christmas morning I have a 14 year old, 7, 6,and 2 I’m so sorry to be last minute for them they deserved better there such good kids, thanks for your support and love for less fortunate people like you give hope🙏

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