Check out these six great Thanksgiving service project ideas that teach kids to give back to their peers, families, and community.
What children’s minister isn’t looking for an ultra-fun service project for kids—especially during the season when giving thanks is on our minds and in our hearts?
Children’s Ministry Magazine tracked down six unique, flourishing Thanksgiving service project ideas in churches around the country that you can do in your ministry. These projects have a track record of success! They’ve grown in size and scope every year, and best of all—kids can’t get enough!
So whether you’re looking for a family-inclusive project, a community-boosting event, or a way to let your kids reach out globally, you’ll be wowed by the wonderful ways these ministries are tipping their hats to God by giving back.
Thanksgiving Service Project 1: Fill It Up
What It Is
Crossroads Community Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, began the Fill It Up project three years ago. This children-led, churchwide project stocks the shelves of two food pantries for an entire month.
How It Works
Each Sunday during one month, kids distribute brown grocery sacks donated by a local grocery store to the congregation. The following Sunday, congregation members return with their food-filled bags and place them behind their parked cars. Kids collect the bags during worship services and then sort and prepare the food for distribution to the food pantries.
“Last year we raised over 20,000 food items, and this year our goal is 40,000,” says former children’s pastor Eric Echols.
The Fill It Up service project is a success for the community and the church, mostly because nearly everyone participates. Echols says he encourages kids and their families to participate. Whether by collecting food from family and neighbors or sorting the returned bags.
“Helping other people is the right choice,” says second-grader Julia Davis about the program. “I feel happy and good inside.” Her brother, Collin, a first-grader, agrees: “It feels good to help other people. I like doing it. It makes me happy.”
Eric Echols offers these tips to churches hoping to begin the Fill It Up service project:
- Learn about needs. Talk to food pantries or cooperative ministries in your community. Find out how you can help.
- Partner with other ministries. Do the project in cooperation with your adult ministries for maximum impact.
- Get kids’ input. Give kids and families the freedom to get creative about how they collect the food.
Thanksgiving Service Project 2: A Humane Mission
What It Is
Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, began the Montgomery County Humane Society mission service project three years ago after revamping their existing family missions program. The church’s goal was to offer mission experiences that partnered with families and connected kids to Jesus.
How It Works
Kids and families can participate in some or all of the four steps of this service project.
“The first step is to partner with us in praying for the orphaned and stray animals currently sheltered at the humane society and their caregivers,” says children’s ministry coordinator Erica Sharp. “The second step is to make treats or toys at home and donate them to the shelter. The third step challenges families to purchase and donate items from a wish list given to us by the humane society. Our final step is to visit the Montgomery County Humane Society.”
The visit is scheduled for a Saturday morning for two hours. About 65 people participate each year. Volunteers get to socialize with animals, help landscape, create cards and treat bags for adopted pets, and wash the vehicles that transport animals.
Erica Sharp suggests these tips for churches hoping to create a similar program:
- Contact local animal shelters to learn how to help.
- Research easy-to-make pet toys that everyone can create.
- Encourage families to invite non-church members who also love animals.
Thanksgiving Service Project 3: Great Day of Service
What It Is
Davidson United Methodist Church in Davidson, North Carolina, started a unique service project in 1996 called the Great Day of Service. This popular event, which blitzes the community with a huge variety of service projects during one day, grew to 860 serving children and families in 2005.
How It Works
The church organizes a variety of mission opportunities—all at the church or within a 30-minute drive—for families to undertake simultaneously during one day each year. Kids and families get to choose their mission for the day—whether it’s weeding someone’s yard or painting park benches. The Great Day of Service has become a community highlight and a much-anticipated time of cooperative service to others.
Mary Allen Conforti, director of missions, oversees this flourishing program with a committee of 10 people. She says that the key to this program’s continued success has been offering families an enticing variety of service projects. Kid-friendly projects include state park cleanups, cleaning and upkeep at local schools, washing the town library’s windows, visiting retirement homes and centers for people with disabilities, planting flowers, and other offbeat missions.
“We have projects where children help glean potatoes with the Society of Saint Andrew at what is called a potato drop,” says Mary Allen Conforti. “The kids literally bag a ton of potatoes that we distribute to families, soup kitchens, and food pantries in the area.”
Mary Allen Conforti’s tips will help you create a similar day of service in your community.
- Select a date and publicize it a minimum of one month in advance. Build hype just as you would for any special event.
- Allow plenty of time to plan and organize the details of the projects. Let families select their projects well in advance. Have them provide any needed supplies, such as paint, gloves, shovels, and more.
- Recruit project leaders who can direct similar projects. This is crucial to the day going smoothly.
- It’s okay to start small. And in the following years, you can begin formally planning about nine months in advance based on what works best.
Thanksgiving Service Project 4: Special of the Month
What It Is
At St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Durango, Colorado, Sunday school and preschool children collect specific goods throughout the year and then combine their collected items to serve meals to members of their community members.
How It Works
Each month, groups of kids are assigned an item to collect, such as pasta, canned meat, or canned vegetables. Once the donations are in, the kids create a meal at the church such as a spaghetti dinner to serve community members in need. During Thanksgiving, for example, kids collect ingredients for pumpkin pies. The ministry has a budget each month to supply any needed extra items, such as spices and pie tins.
“[Kids] decorate a pumpkin man during harvest time and then cook and blend the pumpkin to make pies,” says Joyce Lundberg, director of St. Paul’s preschool.
The service project has been so successful in this small community that this year kids are adding more than just food to their collection lists—they’re also gathering winter coats, mittens, and hats that they’ll distribute to families in need. Lundberg says letting the kids be involved in serving meals and delivering needed items has helped them better understand what Jesus means by loving others.
Use Joyce Lundberg’s tips to begin your ministry’s Special of the Month project.
- Set a budget and stick to it to eliminate financial burdens.
- Involve enough volunteers to keep stress in check. Ideally, you’ll need one volunteer per every five children.
- Have fun! Relax and don’t worry about having the perfect “party”—keep your focus on serving your guests.
Thanksgiving Service Project 5: Love Network
What It Is
Matt Whitson, children’s pastor at Community Bible Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, leads a service project his church started seven years ago. The Love Network ministry began by partnering with the Angel Tree Prison Ministry (www.angeltree.org). The program is for children whose parents are in prison.
How It Works
At the Angel Tree Party, kids and their families eat a delicious Thanksgiving meal with a host family at the church. Then host families share gifts, laughter, and more with their guests.
“Kids also receive gifts from their parent in prison, along with a note of love from that parent,” says Whitson.
To finish the evening, the kids from the children’s ministry act out the Christmas story for their visiting audience. The event serves about 500 people including kids, families, and hosts.
“Our kids give back by helping their parents buy or pick out gifts, making friends, hanging out with the children at dinner, and acting out the birth of Christ so that others may know the truth,” says Whitson.
“This program isn’t just giving a child a gift,” says Shannon Pigeon, a member of Community Bible Church. “This program allows our church to reach out and touch not only the children, but also the caregivers and inmates. In addition, it allows our church community to show love, grace, and care to families they might not otherwise come into contact with; it expands our sometimes-narrow view of reality. This allows us all to see life from another’s perspective and realize that these people and these families are no less important in God’s eyes than ours.”
Prisoners and their families need sponsors all over the country. Ministries can get involved by contacting Prison Fellowship Ministry’s Angel Tree program (www.prisonfellowship.org). Prisoners go through an application process to get involved, and no one is turned away.
Use Matt Whitson’s tips to organize a successful Angel Tree Party.
- Prepare all the details—from the food to the gifts—well in advance.
- Strategically choose families to buy gifts and to host children.
- Prepare your children to be good hosts before the party by talking about their guests’ circumstances.
Thanksgiving Service Project 6: Mission in a Little Town
What It Is
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Polson, Montana, reaches across international borders for its kid-led service project to its sister congregation—the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Israel.
How It Works
Children from 3rd – 6th grade drew pictures of peaceful scenes of mountains, rainbows, and hearts on large squares of white fabric. Then, we transferred each photo to fabric and sewed it to their drawing to show the children who’d made the quilt. To finish the quilts, volunteers sewed the scenes to orange and yellow borders and backing.
“The center squares carried an embroidered message of hope and love,” says Julie Young.
A few of the kids traveled to Bethlehem to present the quilts. Pastor Paul Rowold says that although communication with the children of Bethlehem was often difficult, the project gave everyone lifetime lessons and memories.
“In a ‘little town’ that’s been cut off from the rest of the world by a 24-foot wall, today’s child of Bethlehem has only its Christian school and the tangible evidence of these quilts to remind them that others in the world care about them,” says Rowold.
Use these tips to make a long-distance service project work.
- Look for projects that let kids have tangible roles.
- Let kids help choose the project.
- Make personal connections with the recipients.
- Provide opportunities for kids to learn about the world region of their project.
Lesleigh Keetch is a freelance writer in Durango, Colorado.
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