I just returned home from a wonderful vacation in Jamaica with my family and good friends, and while I was away I had some time to spend reflecting on how fortunate we are to be able to vacation in such a beautiful place year after year. When visiting a place where the average family lives far more modestly than what our children see here in our daily lives, we have tried to incorporate a life lesson for our kids about gratitude and generosity. It has become a yearly tradition for us to take some time away from our vacation to visit a school or orphanage and we always bring a couple of suitcases of donations with us.
Where do the donations come from? Well, basically they come from our kids. Each year for our children’s birthday parties we encourage friends that attend to bring donations for our trip to Jamaica instead of gifts for the birthday girl/boy. Some years we ask for school supplies, other years we collect new and used sports equipment, and sometimes the need is just for basic toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste – but the idea is that instead of gifts for our children, the party guests bring along donations for us to take on our trip that winter. We always have a great response to the request, and it is a great lesson even for the kids attending the birthday party.
Does that mean our kids go without gifts entirely? Umm, no! We have a big family that still bring gifts for the kids, and of course mommy and daddy buy gifts as well- but I feel that this way the crazy excess of a birthday is cut down, and we have the benefit of explaining how great it feels to give something to others less fortunate.
How do my kids feel about this whole arrangement? We have been doing this for over 5 years, and in some years we have received more challenging questions than other years. But a quick reminder of the conditions that we have seen at an orphanage on a previous trip and a “so you’re saying that you need a new lego set more than the kids at the orphanage need pencils and paper for school??” generally puts a quick close to the conversation.
Where do we visit? We have visited a couple of different orphanages in past years, as well as some local schools. If we have a contact person we try to get a “needs list” ahead of our visit so that we can make sure that we’re bringing what is most needed. One year we purchased a sewing machine for an orphanage trying to teach girls useful life skills to help them find jobs; another year we donated money to purchase chickens for the orphanage to raise; this past year we brought an internet router to a public school for their computer room, as well as a used digital camera… the list varies each year, but certainly whatever we bring is always welcome and appreciated.
What do we do when we visit? Often our trips involve a tour of the facility, and sometimes a presentation or greeting from the children if the timing permits. Sometimes the kids are a bit shy on both sides to start with, but often a game will begin and everyone loosens up and has a good time. This year we visited a local public school in the morning on a regular school day, and so our kids were invited to spend some time in a fourth grade classroom. The kids each sat in a group with the local children sharing information back and forth about our countries – a wonderful experience on both sides. It was great for our kids to see the differences in classrooms in another country, and to appreciate how much space they have in their classrooms at home!
Even if your family does not have the opportunity to take donations overseas as we have been able to do with our kids, there are still many opportunities in your daily lives to teach your kids the value of generosity and giving back. Here are a few ideas for giving back in your community…
1. Volunteer at the local food bank.
2. Sponsor a child in another country – we sponsor a 9 year old boy in Africa through World Vision.
3. Organize or participate in events involving environmental responsibility in your neighbourhood – last year I helped to organize an Earth Day cleanup at our public school in the green space surrounding the school.
4. Volunteer/donate to the local humane society – my sister-in-law has even organized a birthday party at her local SPCA and party guests were encouraged to bring donations instead of birthday gifts.
And just a quick note to our family and friends that oblige us each year by donating to our suitcases. Your generosity does not go unnoticed, is so appreciated!
All photos by Anita Woo.
Please note that due to privacy issues, I was very limited in the photos that I could put up from our visits to the orphanages and schools. If you would like information on the places that we have visited, please leave a comment and I will get back to you!