By Cumorah McOmber of simplycumorah.blogspot.com
My first year at summer camp, I was flummoxed by the white rose ceremony held at the last night’s fireside. I discovered after it was too late that the leaders awarded one girl from each cabin a white rose in recognition of their service towards others throughout the week. I didn’t know I could have been competing for such an honor!
The next year, I went in with a plan. I swept the cabin every night without being asked. I volunteered for extra chores. I finished my dish duty in the mess hall in lightning speed so I could help the girls who were on mopping…and I made sure to do all of these things within eyesight of a leader. I skipped to the rose ceremony, picking up litter on the way.
There, my leader held the most beautiful, snow white rose, and began describing her cabin’s winner:
This girl went above and beyond. Check.
This girl looked for ways to help without being asked. Check.
This girl made room by the campfire for a girl who had felt left out.
This girl comforted a crying, younger camper who was missing her mom.
This girl stayed up late talking with another girl who was struggling with her faith.
This girl lifted up those around her, unaware that she was being watched.
I was not this girl. I wasn’t even remotely close to being this girl. I couldn’t believe my rose had been snatched up by someone just because she was NICE, when I had voluntarily cleaned latrines! Luckily, I held back from demanding the recount I thought I deserved. I spent the next year thinking about how my plan had failed me. I didn’t just need to volunteer and do extra work, I also had to act like I cared about people.
Fortunately for that pre-teen, selfish soul of mine who craved recognition, I grew up. I learned from mishaps and life experience, but mostly, I met my husband. He would have taken home a camp rose. He is far from perfect—let’s just get that out of the way right this second—but he has a genuinely compassionate heart. He has taught me how to give freely, to be attentive to others, and to look for ways to love and lift someone every day.
The great news is, compassion can be taught. I do believe some people just have a gift to love and give and feel the need to relieve others’ suffering. To be honest, it wasn’t natural for me—but with a lot of practice, it has become a large of part of who I am, and who I want my children to be.
I have four kids who are involved in a million things. My husband and I both work full time. Like everyone else in the world, we are crazy busy, but also like everyone, we make time for the things that are most important to us. We make conscious choices daily to help our children learn how to be compassionate.
The most successful thing we do in this arena is free and easy: we talk. When the kids were younger and we weren’t pulled in four different directions each night, we would sit around the kitchen table at dinner and take turns telling about how we each were able to help someone that day. We heard stories of inviting the new girl in class to play four square at recess, or sharing a snack with someone who forgot theirs, or staying inside to color with sister instead of playing with friends since she couldn’t get out of bed with her broken femur.
Nowadays, we have these conversations, and still ask the same question, “How were you able to help someone today?” as we drive to volleyball practice, or during halftime as we sit at brother’s basketball game. The stories have changed a little as the kids have gotten older, but the moral is the same: Look. Be aware. Find a way to lift people around you.
The holiday season is a perfect time to focus on compassion with your children. While it’s easy for kids to get excited about all the things they may be getting for Christmas, with a little effort and planning, you can help shift their focus to what they can give this season. Children of every age can enjoy the gift of giving.
Young children love the magic of surprise service. Let your children randomly choose the name of a family member out of a hat (or paper bag, or vase, or whatever you have handy). From now until Christmas morning, they get to be that family member’s Service Elf. Their mission as a Service Elf is to look for ways to serve their person each day. They might unload the dishes when it’s their person’s night. They might leave a treat with a love note in their person’s lunch box. They might sneak to make their person’s bed in the morning. As they perform their daily act of service, they should leave a little “from your Service Elf” note. On Christmas morning, each family member can reveal who they were an elf for. We grow to love the people we serve. This tradition is one that will bring more unity, thoughtfulness and gratitude into your home during this hectic season.
Pre-teens often need a little encouragement to look outside themselves, and creating a Service Tree is a perfect nudge in that direction. A service tree is decorated, not with ornaments and tinsel, but with suggestions for service. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be a small, fake tree with printed slips of paper attached with clothespins, or it could be a hand drawn tree you tape to your wall, covered with sticky notes of service ideas. What it looks like is not nearly as important as the feeling that is put into the giving. Have your children choose one service item from the tree at a time. They can replace the item with an ornament once the service has been rendered. The goal is to have all the service slips replaced with ornaments by Christmas day, and to share then how serving brought light to both the giver and the receiver.
Some fun ideas to include on the tree:
leave a snack and note for the Amazon delivery person on the doorstep
sit down and read a book to a sibling
visit with a resident at an assisted living home
reach out to someone at school that might be lonely
match all the socks in the laundry bin (please , can someone please come to my house and do this for me!?)
brighten someone’s day with an act of kindness
write a note of gratitude to a teacher
create a handmade gift for Grandma
take a name off the giving tree in the school’s lobby and purchase the item to donate with your money earned from chores
do a secret service for a neighbor
help a sibling with their homework…the possibilities are endless!
Teenagers are capable of big giving. There are many organizations that provide help and service during the holidays that can utilize teen volunteers. Check these sites to find opportunities to serve in your area:
Alternatively, working with your teens to create their own service project might fit better into their busy school/extra-curricular/work schedules while still providing the mindset shift from getting to giving.
Last year, we decided to launch a local clothing drive & give away. Our teenage daughters were instrumental in the process. Together, we made and distributed fliers, talked to schools, and decorated donation bins. We marketed via social media. We emptied the bins of all the donated bags of clothes every day for two weeks. We got the neighbor kids involved with sorting all the clothes. We found an organization that let us have a free booth at their farmer’s market to give away the donated items. A few amazing friends came to serve shoulder to shoulder with us all day. We set up tables and racks and hung and folded clothes for hours. My daughters helped families sort through clothes to find sizes and styles that would work for them, and we cried with people who were overwhelmed with the generosity of our community.
One man came to the give-away looking for a pair of work shoes so he could get back to his construction job. His shoes had worn through, and he wasn’t welcome on the job site without proper footwear. There was, in our row of donated shoes, a nearly new pair of work shoes, in his exact size. He held the shoes tight to his chest, and whispering, asked, “For me? Free?” He took only the shoes and a pair of socks, and left before the tears in his eyes spilled onto his cheeks. To someone, those shoes were closet clutter. To him, they meant the ability to feed his family.
We got to be a part of several stories like his that day. It was eye opening for my children to see such need, right here in their own town, and it was a gift to be the hands that helped our community help each other. It took effort. It took planning. It took our attention away from the greed that can slip in to the season, and it filled our family with gratitude for the ability we have to work together and to lift others. My girls didn’t need a white rose. They earned so much more.
If planning a service project or starting a service tree or being a secret elf seems overwhelming this year, start by just beginning the conversation. Bring giving and mindfulness to your children by simply asking, “How were you able to help someone today?” and then listen. Chances are, their answers will inspire you.