During the holiday season, families gather to enjoy delicious meals, exchange gifts and celebrate the year gone by. But for a number of underprivileged New Yorkers, the holiday season can be a particularly difficult time. Volunteering is a wonderful way to help those in need, and an ideal opportunity to teach children the true spirit of the season.
We've rounded up some of our favorite kid-friendly volunteering opportunities. No matter where in the tristate area you live, the age of your children, or your family's interests, chances are there is a program to fulfill your holiday volunteering desires.
Season-long Volunteer Opportunities
This nonprofit that feeds hungry New Yorkers has plenty of volunteer opportunities throughout the year. Your family can organize a food drive at your office, school, or place of worship with tools provided by City Harvest. Kids can spread the word and get their friends to donate, too.
City Meals on Wheels
This long-standing charity's signature program pairs volunteers with local senior centers where hot, prepared meals can be picked up and hand-delivered to homebound seniors within walking distance of the centers. Children, accompanied by adults, can help to deliver meals. Another City Meals on Wheels program invites children (and adults!) to put on their creative hats to craft handmade cards to be distributed to seniors with holiday meals as well as on their birthdays.
Habitat for Humanity
This well-known organization doesn't slow it's home-building efforts over the winter. On the contrary, December, January, and February are the busiest months. Volunteers are needed on building sites in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island on Wednesdays-Fridays. Most Habitat sites have an age minimum of 16 years old, though there are ways to volunteer with the group's other programs for those as young as 14. If you're interested in bringing a group from your school or church, there are opportunities for volunteers ages 5-25.
Macy’s Believe Campaign for Make-A-Wish
Macy’s is again partnering with Make-A-Wish to help make the dreams of critically ill children come true. Support its work by having your child write a letter to Santa and deliver it to the mailbox in Santaland. For every letter Macy's receives through December 24, the company will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. Can't get to Macy's? You can also write and send your letter online.
Masbia Soup Kitchen
Masbia operates soup kitchens in Flatbush and Borough Park, Brooklyn, as well as Rego Park in Queens, and welcomes the help of volunteers 10 and older to serve hot meals to its clients. Volunteers are welcome for onsite work, such as playing host in the restaurant-style dining rooms, bussing tables, washing dishes, prepping meals, and working in the kitchen. Volunteers are also needed to distribute fliers to individuals who might need Masbia's services.
New York Cares
New York Cares operates a Winter Wishes program to fulfill the holiday dreams of more than 40,000 area children and families. Register online to grant a child's gift request or create a team of Wish Makers for your community. Other opportunities include delivery of holiday meals, wrapping of gifts, caroling, playing bingo with seniors, and more. First-time volunteers go through a brief orientation. Search for volunteer projects in your neighborhood, and click the family-friendly filter to find those that welcome children.
New York Foundling
The New York Foundling has been active on the charity scene in NYC since its founding in 1869. It provides social services to foster children throughout the five boroughs, Westchester, and Rockland Counties, and Puerto Rico. Families can get involved by organizing a drive to collect goods for The Foundling. Always needed are goods to create baby bundles (diapers, blankets, onesies, bottles, blankets) and healthy smile kits (tooth brushes, floss, toothpaste).
Volunteers come together to distribute holiday food baskets and gifts to more than 2,000 city families through the annual St. John's Bread and Life Sponsor a Family drive.
St. John's Bread and Life Sponsor a Family
This community institution partners with services throughout Brooklyn and Queens to solicit families in need of help during the holiday season. For a donation of $125, you can sponsor one of the families, providing them with a holiday food basket as well as toys for their children. Organizers estimate their sponsor-a-family program will serve 2,000 families in 2016. Aside from monetary donations, you can give your time to the organization, which also runs a food pantry and soup kitchen in Brooklyn, as well as a mobile soup kitchen truck in Queens.
Win Card Library
This nonprofit serves more than 12,000 homeless women and children each year providing both housing and support to help end the cycle of homelessness. Win's Card Library allows you to send a card, designed by one of the children in their shelter, to someone on your mailing list (either via snail mail or email) and make a donation to support Win's programs in the process. Each card costs a tax-deductible $25, and by sending, you'll share not only your love and a child's masterpiece, but also information on this charity and its programs.
Specific Volunteer Tasks
Catholic Charities – Astor Place
Saturday, December 10
The Archdiocese of New York's chief charitable unit is hosting a day of shopping where volunteers, as young as age 10 with parent supervision, converge on the Kmart at Astor Place to shop for clothes and household items that are given to the St. Nicholas Project, which provides low-income families gifts they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Volunteers are given a family profile and maximum budget and then set to shop. Goods are paid for with previously-donated funds, so it's a good way to give back even if you don't have big bucks of your own to donate.
Dorot Hanukkah Home Visits – Citywide
Sunday, December 25; Wednesday, December 28; Thursday, December 29
Dorot is a community-based organization that aims to alleviate social isolation among seniors. Its family programs have won a host of awards and it sponsors family-friendly volunteer opportunities throughout the year. Set aside one night of Hanukkah to light the menorah with a homebound elderly client, creating a memorable and meaningful holiday tradition for your family. Registration closes December 9 and families new to the program must attend an orientation.
Toy & Clothing Drives
This Brooklyn-founded nonprofit collects goods for local families in need year-round. During the 2016 holiday season it is hosting toy, clothing, and diaper drives at a variety of Brooklyn and Manhattan locations. Check its Facebook page for the full list of locations, which include Drybar in Tribeca, and a host of Park Slope area kid spots like Monkey Do Yoga and Gymboree Play and Music. The toy drive runs through December 18, while the diaper drive and baby necessities at Drybar is scheduled to go through January 7.
Donate new and unwrapped toys for kids as part of the NYC Mission Society Toy Drive.
NYC Mission Society Toy Drive
This Harlem nonprofit accepts donations of new, unwrapped toys at its flagship community center, the Minisink Townhouse, 646 Malcolm X Boulevard at 142nd Street, through December 10. Toys will help 1,000 underprivileged children know the joy of the holiday season. Contact Chasity Logan at firstname.lastname@example.org at Mission Society for more information or to make arrangements for a contribution. Another way to help: Sign up to wrap the mountains of donations at the annual "Wrap Up" party on December 10, also held at the Minisink Townhouse.
New York Cares
This well-known charity operates its annual coat drive throughout the holiday season. Help by donating gently used coats your family no longer needs or through monetary donations. Each $20 you give buys a new coat for New Yorker in need. You can even give by texting COAT to 41444. Find a drop-off location online or start your own. Bonus: Well-known kids' shop Torly Kid will serve as a donation site for this drive and by dropping of kid and tween coats in store, you'll snag a coupon for 15% off the purchase of a new one from Torly Kids' stock. The store will collect coats through December 20.
Operation Santa Claus
This long-running Postal Service program allows anyone to play St. Nick by fulfilling the wishes of needy children who write to Santa Claus. New York City’s program is one of the largest in the country, with tens of thousands of people adopting letters each year. The program launches annually on December 1, and the last day to adopt a letter in NYC is December 23. Letters must be picked up in person at the James A. Farley Post Office, 421 Eighth Avenue at 32nd Street. Once you've selected your "Dear Santa" letter, shop for your gift and return to the post office with your wrapped gifts where you'll foot the bill to mail your gifts to the letter's author. Be an Elf, a nonprofit Christmas children's charity, supports Operation Santa and works to spread the news and recruit volunteers.
Sheltering Arms NY
Purchase a gift for a child in need via this local family and children-focused organization's online Amazon gift registry, or send a new toy, gift cards, or donation directly to its office by December 9. You can also sign up to wrap all those presents with the staff!
Toys for Tots
This Marine Corps Reserve program collects new, unwrapped toys during December at locations throughout the city. The items are then distributed as Christmas gifts to needy children. Visit the website to find the drop-off location nearest you.
Places to Donate Goods
Got really young children? There are ways they can help others without even leaving the house. As new toys roll in around the holidays, why not clean out their current crop? Worried your kids won't be happy with this idea? Try explaining how this is an opportunity to help other children by donating toys and games your kids no longer use. It's also a great time to pass on clothes and gear that they’ve outgrown. We've put together a short list of places to donate in-kind items, but you can find even more options for those in Manhattan, as well as Brooklyn through our additional articles. You can also search the NYC.gov website for local nonprofits.
CAMBA Family Shelters
Donate clothing, household goods, non-perishable food items, and baby gear to one of the CAMBA-run family shelters in Brooklyn or Queens. Needs vary by the season, so be sure to call ahead before dropping by with your donation.
This charity, formerly known as Baby Buggy, works with a network of more than 100 agencies nationwide to distribute essentials to families in need. The organization accepts donations of gear, diapers, coats, and toys. Motivated to organize your own children’s coat drive or a holiday gift drive? The GOOD+ Foundation offers help to get your drive started. Items can be dropped off at its Midtown location or be picked up for a small fee. All items should be new or gently used and appropriate for children up to age 14.
Housing Works accepts donations at any of its thrift store locations throughout the city. Donations of surplus books or DVDs can be made to its Bookstore Cafe. Proceeds benefit those living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Room to Grow
This organization provides essentials for babies born to families in poverty. It continues to monitor their progress every three months until the child turns 3. Room to Grow accepts donations of baby gear, clothing, toys, and other essentials. Donations can be dropped off at the Chelsea location or picked up by messenger for a tax-deductible fee. Smaller items can be donated through the mail.
To find additional kid-friendly ways of giving back to the New York City community, subscribe to the FREE Doing Good Together/NY newsletter, a monthly roundup of volunteer opportunities appropriate for families.
Top image: Help wrap donated gifts for kids at the NYC Missions Society Toy Drive. All photos courtesy of the organizers.