Welcome to the climax of the time of year that so many of us want to help pay it forward, but are lost for where to begin.
I hope this story comes as a little gift to you – starting with the news that you don’t have to start a nonprofit to be the change you want to see in the world. There are already thousands of existing projects, organizations and groups, large and small, that are looking for like-minded, motivated and warm-hearted volunteers like you (yes: YOU!).
They already did the leg-work of connecting dots between problem and solution, but right now especially, they need people to help them power their already-potent efforts.
If you’re short on time, scroll to the end for what YOU can do to get started today. If you’re hungry for s’more inspiration from a real-world case from our community (and family), read the full story 😉
This is the tale of Santa’s Helpers for Kids in Distress.
In the early 90’s, our family, along with a few friends, started a tiny holiday give-back project we called “Santa’s Helpers.” We were a bunch of Jewish neighbors and friends in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas, looking for a meaningful, interactive experience on Christmas to help teach our kids (and ourselves and each other) about leveraging privilege to find perspective, practice gratitude and be of service.
We were not looking to reinvent the wheel, so we tapped into our network, in search of an existing organization already doing good things for children in need. (In layman’s terms, we spread the word that we were looking to get a group together to volunteer for a good cause on Christmas, and fundraise if we could.)
Via a friend of a family friend (or some organic connection we can hardly recall now), we got ourselves connected to Kids in Distress,* which, at the time, was a network of group homes in the area, funded by the state as “a shelter for the youngest victims of child abuse.”
Kids in Distress already had big donors sustaining their most critical work; but, of course, could use more support to do “the little things,” like offer opportunities for more joy and fundraise to provide them unrestricted funds, to make the things happen that big grants didn’t allow for.
We figured we could probably do some of what they needed. And that’s how our holiday tradition began, in my own backyard.
Santa’s Helpers, from year 1, threw epic Christmas parties at our house, for every child who lived or was in affiliation with Kids in Distress and did not have a place to be celebrated over the holiday. We were honored to give them one, and to find unique ways to make each child feel seen and special, pairing them with a volunteer who we believed matched their interests, comfort level, age or life experience.
Our backyard Christmas parties were filled with live music, games, DIY cookie and ice cream sundae making, bounce houses and arts and crafts activities, and entertainment by local clowns and magicians, with lots of hilarious relays and bonding games in between. When the event got too big for my house, the Miami Children’s Museum opened up its doors to us, and invited us to host our holiday gatherings there.
Those Christmas parties were not only a blast, they had a profound effect on everyone who participated in this project, including the well-known, OG best-selling personal development author Dr. Wayne Dyer, who showed up with his family to help one year, and ended up filling in for Santa, who got stuck in traffic.
Our partnership with Kids in Distress was more thoughtful than strategic, but over time, we began to have a formula for matching kids with volunteers, and procuring the gifts on each child’s wishlist. The whole operation was pretty incredible.
Each year, we needed more volunteers, and in time, my mom and I (the recruiters, at first) max-ed out our contacts, leading us to learn a lesson that we apply to Campowerment today: intergenerational collaboration is where it’s at!
Almost right away it became clear that any good people could provide the muscle behind a project, but those most motivated to grow the work were the local teenagers!
So every Fall, we’d partner with local high schools. Their students needed community service hours in order to graduate, and we needed volunteers, for the Christmas party and the grassroots fundraising efforts, that covered its costs.
The grown-ups in our ranks taught these jr. Santa’s Helpers (the students) how to tap into their resources, human and material. And before long, paying it forward became a team sport.
My mom would write the annual “campaign” letter, sharing stories of our lofty mission, making sure to include every volunteer’s name in the header (see photo below), because each and every volunteer should feel and know they mattered to the campaign, the project and the way we came at supporting the mission of an org that made an impact in our community.
We held meetings in our living room (spilling into all the other rooms, too) where the volunteers would BYO stamped envelopes and pens, to personalize their notes and send them.
And every year, right after Thanksgiving, hundreds of beautiful notes, accompanied by checks large and small, came pouring into our mailbox, funding every gift for every child who attended, and every project Kids in Distress put on our to-do.
One year we purchased a 16-passenger van for the center. Another, we built a playground on recycled tires and installed water foundations. Over the years, we purchased desktop computers, a music studio, Disney bedding and lots of award-winning children’s books to fill their library’s shelves.
Over almost 20 years, we raised nearly $400K.
This passion project lived on through the efforts of many. It was never one person leading the charge but a group effort.
By identifying a cause that aligned with our goals, the ever-expanding Santa’s Helpers were able to bring in more people to help us unlock the full impact of this project: to make the holidays merry, fund important community projects and give everyone a place to feel like they belong, and be genuinely celebrated.
Here’s where I bring this home so you can, too:
If you want to make an impact in YOUR community this holiday season (or any time in the year, really):
- Think: What am I looking to contribute right now? Is it my TIME, RESOURCES, BRAIN POWER or other?
- Focus: What cause do I wholeheartedly believe in?
- Research: Get Googling, asking and sharing about what you’re seeking. Remember: You’re asking now, but ultimately offering. Be bold and follow through.
- Gather: Once you land your cause (and it can be a one-time experiment, btw): invite another person, or group you’re affiliated with (family counts), to do what you’re doing. Extend the invite with the commitment to follow up, so you can bring the maximum amount of help in the way the organization is seeking it.
- Go! Start now. Don’t wait ‘til next holiday, next year, or the next time you’re feeling like you’re wanting to make an impact. Get contributing today.
And if any of these steps feels challenging for you – finding your superpower (that gift you can contribute to make an impact); finding your people (to rally and help power purposeful projects); or finding your next step – join us at any Campowerment anything we have on our calendar – HERE.
We’re here to help you get charged up to contribute your greatest gifts now. The world needs it.
From the campfire & beyond,
*As of 2019, Kids in Distress has joined forces with Family Central Inc. creating the largest continuum of care for South Florida children and families.