The holidays are an ideal time to assist neighbors in need. Central Ohio offers numerous avenues for families to start a tradition of giving.

For many families, the holidays are the perfect time to think about how to give back and make an impact in their communities. However, a scarcity of family-friendly options and fear of the unknown often turn into formidable roadblocks.

“It so hard to find things for kids to do,” said Nikki Miracle of Gahanna, mother of 8-year-old Alex and 5-year-old Sophie. “There are a ton of opportunities for adults, but not a lot for kids.”

A friend directed Miracle to Besa, a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect volunteers with charities. “Platforms like Besa make it easy for families to plug into worthwhile causes,” said Matthew Goldstein, Besa's founder and CEO. “Having those opportunities to see more of the world helps children understand and support their communities. For a lot of kids, when they start volunteering through Besa, volunteering just becomes a bigger part of their life and they want more of it.”

Besa's website allows parents to find and register for age-appropriate volunteer opportunities in a variety of areas. “For toddler-age, Ronald McDonald House is great because we have families that are there all the time baking cookies. It allows parents to work in a very engaging way with their children, and allows parents and kids to meet families that are staying there,” Goldstein said.

That activity is a favorite one for the Miracle family. “My kids also like to do arts and crafts with the children staying at the Ronald McDonald House so they can put them on the door of their rooms.”

Seeds of Caring is another Central Ohio entity that helps families find volunteer opportunities. Executive Director Brandy Jemczura (a finalist for the Dispatch Media Group 2018 Everyday Heroes award) said she founded the organization not only to fill a need, but also because she wanted children to feel empowered to make a difference. “Kids are so malleable and they have such open hearts, and I think that it's our job as a society to make sure they believe in themselves and their ability to contribute to the community. So as they grow older, they feel like they can do something to make positive change,” Jemczura said.

Parents can view opportunities, such as litter cleanup, food drives, working with seniors or adults with disabilities and more, online. Some, like packing Buddy Boxes for students in the free or reduced lunch program, begin with educational activities, such as reading and discussing a story about childhood hunger.

For Miracle, a lifelong volunteer, giving back as a family is an important reminder to her children that they are part of something bigger. “My son, Alex, says it's the best part of his day,” she said. “It's become such a part of our family. One of his classmates recently got diagnosed with cancer and he immediately asked, ‘Mom, what can we do to help them?' It's really just changed the whole dynamic of our family.”

Miracle encourages families who want to volunteer, but worry about balancing the time commitment, to seek out opportunities they can do on their own time, such as writing holiday cards or adopting a family in need, which she has done with her own children.

Local charities also try to help families overcome the intimidation factor. “We try and make it as convenient and easy as possible,” said Jerry Galbreath, director of The Voices of Friends, a faith-based nonprofit in Franklinton that serves the homeless and others in need of stabilization. “If we get a call from someone who wants to serve, we say, ‘Come on down and observe for 15 minutes—or for the whole evening.' ”

Voices of Friends volunteers can participate in drives for items such as socks, backpacks and other personal necessities, or serve dinner to those in need. Families are welcome—even if it involves having an older child work with one parent while a younger child and the other parent observe.

“Too many of our kids have great affluence, and they have never been exposed to people with virtually nothing,” Galbreath said. “That exposure is very important. It's learning to give that takes us out of our self-centeredness and puts us in a position where we have to give without conditions.

“Usually the adults are more intimidated than the kids,” Galbreath said. “They are walking into an entirely different culture than what they are used to. That's why our goal is to make the volunteers comfortable. If they can get through it, then they get hooked and want to come back again.”