Kids learn charity by wrapping the season with gifts of love, time

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 11:10 p.m. MST

Sabah Hassan, center, a senior at West High, decorates boxes that will be filled with presents, produce and clothing for homebound senior citizens.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There's a debate raging about how to spell Mrs. Lloyd's name as the Girl Scouts dab glue and glitter on construction paper and decorate a seemingly endless supply of sock shapes.

It matters, because the sign they're making is going up near the teacher's classroom door. Without it, the kids at Wasatch Elementary School won't know to bring cozy new socks for kids who don't have any.

Within two weeks, a gigantic box will overflow with dozens and dozens of socks that will later be distributed to nearby homeless and low-income families. The kids can't help everyone — nationally, there are about 1.5 million children in the very poorest of families, the homeless. But it's a start. The secret to warm toes, it seems, is warm hearts.

This is the season when school-age kids tackle holiday giving with enthusiasm, especially when the targets of their benevolence are poor or sad or often do without. Across town from the girls of Troop 601, students from Oakdale Elementary School have been working shifts at a local bookstore wrapping presents to earn enough money to pay for and serve a lasagna dinner at the Road Home homeless shelter.

Across the country, kids in South Dakota are gathering pennies for refugee families. In Missouri, other students are bringing in items for personal hygiene kits for low-income women who've just had babies at the Grace Hill Health Centers. "Without such gifts of time and service, many people would suffer without having basic needs met," Yvonne Buhlinger, vice president of community health services there, said. "We see extremely needy people and we can offer them healthcare according to our funding, but anything extra that can help them meet their need is very valuable."

One of the best ways to solve a need is to engage children. There are thousands of projects occurring in schools across America. And they are often limited only by imagination.

A different lesson

"Giving and receiving is one of the most basic kinds of human exchange," Marcus Berley, a family therapist in Seattle, said. "It's really important to have kids participate in that process. ... It's a way of showing people we care about them." It also provides children with a tangible kind of power — to make other people happy or safer or healthier, for example.

Doing, giving, connecting to others is also a world builder, he said. "It's my opinion that in general whatever people experience themselves they kind of think the world is like that. We tend to generalize our own personal experience. If a stranger has been generous to you, you develop the idea people are generous and it makes it easier to want to be that yourself."

"No matter who you are, you need to learn to help others," said Marsha Parker of Clayton Middle School in Salt Lake City, who leads service-oriented activities with her classes. Her students recently delivered handmade blankets to students at a grade school and threw a party for them. They divided into teams and planned everything from cookie decorating to making Christmas cards.

"We educate our minds. I feel like we have to educate our hearts," she said. "It's so fulfilling to see people serve each other, and it's a win-win situation for my students. They come away from these experiences feeling better about themselves and they see the world and community a little differently."

"My opinion is that anything a person learns early in life stays with them and impacts their attitudes and future behavior," Buhlinger said. "I think when a child is engaged in activities that put them in touch with others who are less fortunate and they do something to alleviate the situation, it elevates their awareness and feelings of compassion. It also requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice. ... I think it's part of being a good citizen and a good American."

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