For three consecutive Saturdays in November and December, Heritage Christian Services hosts a “Christmas with Santa” pancake breakfast, where wide-eyed children quickly wolf down tasty pancakes before meeting Santa Claus to discuss the items on their holiday wish-lists.
For many children, the thought of Santa Claus decked out in his trademark red suit with his rosy red cheeks, long, scraggly beard and white hair sends them dreaming of unwrapping the season’s hottest toys on Christmas morning. But for Maddie Kennedy, this event is about so much more than just receiving presents and eating tasty food. Sure, Maddie, age 10, and a fifth-grader at Harris Hill Elementary School in Penfield, gets as excited as the next child to meet Santa and receive her presents. It’s just nowadays, Maddie becomes even more excited by the chance to give back to those less fortunate than herself.
Doing Good in Our Community
Maddie became fascinated with volunteerism and giving back to her community at last year's “Christmas with Santa” pancake breakfast. As the calendar turns into November with the rapidly-approaching holiday season, the numerous not-for-profit agencies in Rochester and the surrounding area hope that more and more people follow Maddie’s lead and get involved in volunteerism.
“It will be cool volunteering at the ‘Christmas with Santa’ event. I really like to be around people and it’s really fun to help people out,” says Maddie, who loves to volunteer with her mom, Kim, her dad, Kyle, and twin brothers Ryan and Colin (age 7) and younger brother Dylan (5). “Volunteering makes me feel good. I like to help out other people and make them feel good, and it’s fun helping out the people of Heritage Christian. I enjoy the good feeling I have after I help someone out.”
Volunteers are the lifeblood of any non-profit organization, says Tim Scott, volunteer coordinator with Foodlink, which helps fight hunger by providing food to more than 125,000 individuals in 450 member agencies across 10 counties. Groups such as Heritage Christian Services, Foodlink and Volunteers of America, to name a few, need volunteer workers to accomplish their service goals, which during the holidays can spike. “We rely heavily on our volunteers and there’s no way we’d be able to do what we do without their efforts and hard work,” says Scott, who adds that Foodlink volunteers have logged more than 12,400 volunteer hours in the last six months alone. “You don’t need to volunteer every day; people can come in for one day and still make a huge difference,” Scott asserts. “This is a great activity for families. Children, as long as they’re at least eight years old, can come and help; and for parents, this is a great way to bond while teaching the importance of giving back.”
Maddie and thousands of other school-aged children in Rochester have grown up associating the Thanksgiving holiday with both being thankful for the blessings in their own lives, while keeping those less fortunate in their thoughts and prayers. That conscientious effort to help out others can get lost in all the commercial noise of the holiday season, where obnoxious commercials pushing the latest toys and gadgets invade our homes and can dominate our thoughts.
Yet putting the needs of others before your own needs is a valuable life lesson that should be celebrated year-round, not just at the holidays, says Kim Nash, Heritage Christian Services’ volunteer coordinator, who has spent the last 20 years of her life helping children and adults with developmental disabilities. Heritage Christian Services serves more than 1,600 children and adults with developmental disabilities through its homes, day programs, respite care and service coordination. The organization impacts citizens in Monroe, Livingston, Wayne, Erie and Niagara counties. Throughout the year, Heritage has a consistent need for volunteers to assist with programs such as the Legacy Mile and 5K run, the “Christmas with Santa” pancake breakfasts, clean-up and leaf raking days at the 60 assorted group homes, as well as at the Heritage Christian Stables in Webster. Combined with the participation from the United Way’s annual Day of Caring service event, Nash says more than 1,100 volunteers will donate their time helping the residents of Heritage Christian Services.
Along with her daughter Erika (12) and son Charlie (9), the Nash Family volunteers whenever possible to benefit the community. When Heritage hosted the Legacy Mile and 5K race/walk on Aug. 25, the Nash and Kennedy children lined the course at Monroe Community College, handing out cups of water to thirsty runners and walkers as they passed by. “Volunteering is so important for the success of an organization like Heritage Christian, and it is even more important to instill in youths that interest in giving back to the community,” says Nash. “Volunteering as a family is a great activity and a good way to help build a strong parent-child relationship as you volunteer alongside your children. Whenever I volunteer with my kids, I feel so proud of how much they want to give back to the community.”
Outside of Our Community
The volunteer opportunities are not limited to Rochester and the surrounding area. Several years back, Greg and Kate Kremer took their three children, Julia, Jacob and Tess, on a volunteer mission to Nicaragua with their church’s youth group. While there, the Kremer family worked at an area orphanage, an experience meant to both help out those less fortunate, and also to show the Kremer children just how good they have it back in America. The lessons of the Nicaraguan trip stuck with the Kremer children, as years later, all three are still involved in church groups and volunteerism.
Each holiday season, the Kremer Family, through F.I.R.S.T Robotics and the Volunteers of America, sort and organize holiday food baskets for needy families. “There’s more to life than just what makes you happy, and we wanted our kids to realize the importance of being part of something bigger than yourself,” says Greg Kremer, who works for a non-profit Catholic organization in town. “The experiences we’ve had in service to others has been extremely beneficial to our family, whether it’s helping out a family around the holidays, volunteering in Nicaragua or playing our musical instruments and bringing sandwiches to people at a shelter. Being other-centered, and not self-centered, is at the heart of who we are as a family.”
How to Get Involved
There are several websites that match interested volunteers with needs in the community. The Finger Lakes Regional Volunteer Center (www.FingerLakesVolunteer.org) is a collaborative partnership between local non-profits that allows volunteers to search through a database of volunteer opportunities. Additionally, www.VolunteerMatch.org is an online clearing house that assists volunteers seeking ways to give back to the community. www.CrayonProject.org and www.CommunityWishbook.com are two other sites for people looking for quality ways to donate their time.
Most churches and religious groups desire volunteers, and if they don’t have a need, they can put you in touch with groups that do need volunteers. Also you can check with area schools, hospitals, youth sports organizations, animal shelters, libraries, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, among others, for potential volunteer opportunities.
“My husband and I want our kids to know there’s so much more to life than just our house and our backyard,” says Kim Kennedy. “The simplest act of kindness can do so much good and our kids in turn learn the value of paying it forward. As a family, we get so many great stories and memories from volunteering together.”
Regardless of which volunteer opportunity you chose, the most important lesson, according to volunteers of all ages, is that you put others before yourself and donate your time. “Volunteering can definitely bring a family closer together,” says Maddie Kennedy. “There are lots of volunteer opportunities out there, and like my mom says, ‘even the smallest event could be volunteering to help someone.’ There are always people that could use the help.”
John Boccacino is a frequent contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. He lives in Webster, NY and reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College.