When I served in AmeriCorps from 2009-2011, one of the requirements was that we make MLK Day a “day on, not a day off.” What this meant was that even if the establishment we were stationed at was closed, we were to commit ourselves to work that day in the form of volunteering.

Now that I have children of my own, it’s all the more important to me to establish this idea of service to others. I’ve previously spoken about volunteer ideas for those with kids, but as I write this we’re at the start of 2021 – and still in the midst of a worldwide health crisis. So as we head toward this Day of Service, I find myself wondering – what socially distant volunteer opportunities can I do with my two young children?

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Socially Distant Volunteer Ideas for MLK Day

My little ones are in Kindergarten and 1st grade, so for the most part I’m coming from the perspective of me having to do a majority of the work in this effort. While I very much look forward to the day when we can safely work together at a service site, I won’t let that impede what we can do today.

Help Around the Neighborhood

Even though hanging out face-to-face with your neighbors right now isn’t a safe idea, there are certainly things you can do to help better your neighborhood and the community at large.

Fill a Micropantry

When the pandemic first hit, residents around our city didn’t hesitate to take action. One of the things that came up often was the establishment of micro-pantries. Much like a “little library”, these pantries are a take what you need, give what you can sort of project. They’re especially great for those in need who may not have transportation to a bigger food bank.

Snow Shovel Coupons

We’ve had one snow fall thus far this year, but I’m hopeful for more – heh which isn’t something I’d normally say, but it’s already been 10 months of isolation and I don’t see us going anywhere any time soon. One thing you can do is create “snow shovel coupons” (or yard clean-up, if you live in a warmer climate!) Drop these off to those on your street who might need the assist, like those with new babies or the elderly. Be sure to include your name and phone number so they can reach out when they need you. You could also include your email address, but keep in mind there may be some without access to the internet or the know-how for email.

Bake Bread for Friends

Ahh the good ol’ trend of bread baking in 2020 – one I will admit I myself took part in. Personally I’ve become a Challah baking expert, fearful of the task that is sour dough, but there are even easier recipes out there that require little more than flour and yeast. Brighten someone’s day with a warm, fresh loaf of bread and go ahead – keep a loaf for yourself, too. I won’t tell.

Set Up a Book Exchange

If you don’t have a little library in your neighborhood nor the desire to take on the task of building one, you can still set up a porch pick-up book exchange. Personally I’ve read far more since the pandemic hit than I have in years, so I’ve gone through a LOT of books! (*psst* if you haven’t yet read The Secret Life of Addie LaRue, it’s a MUST!!)

This service project is one I’d only recommend opening up to select friends, as you don’t want to have to constantly disinfect the space, but it’s a great way to get some new reads for the family while decluttering your home of books you’re done with.

Offer Virtual Tutoring

If you have a slightly older child, you might consider utilizing Facebook or Nextdoor to offer some free virtual tutoring sessions. So many kids are struggling all the more these days, that just a few tutoring sessions can literally change their lives. This is one that might even inspire a “pay it forward” situation where it snowballs from your child offering help to dozens throughout the entire community doing so.

Random Acts of Kindness

While these next service ideas are certainly ones that can be done within your neighborhood, they’re also ones that can help the community at large. With these service projects, especially if doing them on MLK Day, you might also consider including a note. This way it’s not only a random act of kindness, but one that educates the recipient on why MLK is a day on, not a day off.

Redbox Rental Surprise

If you have a Redbox in your area, consider leaving a goody bag for the next renter. This can include a couple dollars to cover the cost of the rental plus an unpopped bag of popcorn or similar goodies. And if you don’t happen to have a Redbox in your area, you could still partake in the fun by sending a love one a Redbox Movie Night Care Package!

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Blessing Bags

If you’ve been around a bit, you know that creating blessing bags for homeless people  is something we try to do at least twice a year. For less than $7, you can create a kit for someone that could literally change their lives. When I was in AmeriCorps, I spent a lot of time working directly with those living on the street and learned a lot. One thing I found out was that one of the most sought after things when homeless are a quality pair of socks. So while things like toothpaste or soap might be items that immediately come to mind for these kits, socks, chapstick, and bus tokens are sure to go a lot further! Whatever you include in the kit, be sure to keep scented items packaged separately – no one wants to eat a granola bar that comes with a floral aftertaste!

Create Cards

This is another easy one that the little kids are sure to love, but the whole family can easily partake in. Now that the holiday season is coming to an end, many of those living alone or in nursing homes find themselves once again forgotten. Take an hour or two and create some cards to send to those who might be feeling lonely in the new year. What might seem like a simple act to you can truly make someone else’s entire week so much brighter.

Rainy Day Activity Kits

I actually prefer to refer to these as “crazy day kits” – an activity set for parents whose children need a special distraction. Similar to the blessing bags, I pick up a pack of gallon size baggies from The Dollar Tree. Then I buy in bulk such items as: craft kits, coloring books, sticker sets, chalk, dress-up clothes, and more! I love that they have affordable activity options that serve as a nice little surprise for the kids and a much needed break for parents. Just don’t forget to avoid items that require parent supervision if you truly want this to be an act of service.

Donate DVDs

My husband originally suggested this idea and my gut reaction was “Seriously who still watches DVDs??” But the I checked myself (and my privilege) because hello – not everyone can afford streaming services. We recently did a big DVD clean out, including a ton of TV series, and offered them up to anyone who might make use of them. While it was hard to part with my dearly beloved 7-Season Set of BTVS, it’s worth it knowing it can be loved by a fellow Joss Whedon fan.

Buy Stamps

Yet again – simple service, but effective! Not only is this great in that you’re supporting the USPS, but you’d be surprised at how helpful this can be for someone who might not otherwise be able to get out to the post office. For example, I have an 85 year young aunt in Minnesota who still loves to send physical mail and I know that a book of stamps can go a long way in helping her stay connected with loved ones. Plus who doesn’t love getting something (other than a bill!) in the mail.

Photo Memories

Do you have a friend who had a new baby in 2020? Or perhaps your parents haven’t seen their grandchildren in almost a year? Or heck – do you just know someone who was maybe a wee bit stressed out (har har!) Whatever the reasoning behind it, one thing you can do as a beautiful act of service is to create a photo project for a friend/family member. This is again something that your kids can help with, regardless of their age, as they can suggest photos, colors, and designs to include. Personally I love using Printerpix to create photo books! While I often use them for myself – it’s the only way I actually have physical photos from over the years – they also have so many personalized gift options. While many might say they don’t wish to remember 2020, it’s not one we’ll ever forget, so might as well focus on the fun!

Acts of Appreciation

While I’m optimistic that this year is sure to brighter than the craziness that was 2020, acts of appreciation are still very much needed. A simple “thank you” goes a long way in making someone’s day brighter, but today I encourage you to take it one step further.

Facetime Friends/Family

This one seems like a no-brainer and possibly even a head scratcher – how can making a video call be an act of service? Well I don’t know about you, but I know there are certainly friends and family that I’ve done a poor job keeping in touch with as this health crisis has worn on. If there’s someone you’ve been meaning to connect with lately, make today the day to do so! And even if there’s no one that comes to mind, put your kids to use and have them video call a friend. Like the “crazy day kits” this can be a great distraction for parents who need a moment to themselves.

Thank Our Delivery Friends

This is another one that I think becomes a big deal during the holiday season then tapers off as we head into the new year. Provided you have the time to gather up supplies, set out a basket with bottles of water, mini hand sanitizers, and snacks. And if a grocery store run isn’t an option, you could still create a sign or even leave a note letting those dropping off your mail and packages know that you appreciate them!

Create Hope Rocks

Painting rocks might seem like an outdated trend, but I most definitely disagree. Gather up some rocks from your backyard, bust out the acrylic paints, and get to work creating rocks with positive messages. Then go for a family hike or walk around the neighborhood and place these rocks in semi-hidden areas. It’ll be a fun and day-changing surprise!

a green painted rock with the word happy written in yellow paint

Chalk the Sidewalks

Like the idea above, this is one that is fun but effective! While winter may not seem the season to bust out the sidewalk chalk, there’s no reason not to, provided there’s no snow in the forecast. Already dealing with the wet white stuff? Chalk your windows instead! When we had to celebrate my daughter’s graduation virtually, we picked up a set of chalk markers from Amazon and went to work on the windows of our van and the front of our home. It’s a great activity for the whole family and one that can have a big impact on anyone who happens by.

Long Term Service Ideas

These are some ideas that I would recommend starting off on MLK Day, but carrying on throughout the entire year and longer.

Host a Virtual Fundraiser

This is one that people often think about when their birthdays roll around, as Facebook often suggests holding a fundraiser for your favorite not-for-profit. Why wait! As a family, vote for your favorite not-for-profit, set a monetary goal, then utilize your social media and connections to make it happen. While things like food drives are great in “normal” times, they’re not as safe an option right now. Plus did you know that raising money directly is actually a far better alternative to food drives?

Home Recycling

Hopefully this is one that’s already in place in your house, but if not – start today! And if your family is already great about recycling, today is a great day to remind your kids about why it’s so important.

Set Up a Moonjar

I was first introduced to the idea of a moonjar when my kids are itty-bitty, like way before a cat convinced me to quit my job to run this blog! A moonjar consists of three sections – spend, save, and donate. While it’s a great tool overall to teach your kids about money, it’s also a nice way to open the conversation about the importance of donating to those in need.

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Reflect on Social Issues

Speaking of helping those in need, MLK Day is the perfect day to reflect on social issues. While 2020 taught us many things, one thing that will certainly carry through is that the United States is in serious need of bettering (and has been for quite some time!) While I won’t go too far into my own political beliefs, there’s no denying that we owe it to future generations to do better. No matter your child’s age, it’s essential that you not only start conversations on social betterment, but that you keep that door open to them for the rest of your life.

Some books to consider:

No matter what service project you choose to do with your family, I hope it’s enjoyable for all. It really is so incredibly important that we instill within our children a sense of service to others. There’s so much pain and suffering in this world, but it only takes a few moments to help heal a small part of that. If we work together, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and every day beyond that, we can make it so that our children are the shift needed for a healthier, happier, safer future for all.

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