How to Involve Tweens and Teens in Holiday Giving

By Barbara A. Lewis, author of The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects, What Do You Stand For? For Teens, The Teen Guide to Global Action, and Social Emotional Stories

How to Involve Tweens and Teens in Holiday GivingThe big questions will hit you: “How do I start a holiday service or gift giving with the tweens and teens I work with—when I’m already suffering from time and sleep deprivation? And how do I get the youth enthused about doing this?”

Begin with a story, video news clip, or student report about young people’s service or giving that will help them feel an emotion.

Here are two examples:

1. Thirteen-year-old Rylee Brooke Kamahele, in Mililani, Hawaii, galvanized her friends and other youth to create Rylee’s “Secret Santa Project” for kids staying in shelters.1 Rylee and her friends held donation drives and raised money to provide gifts for the kids who were out of their homes. To top it off, Rylee held a holiday party for them, making a memorable day of tasty food, gifts, games, shaved-ice trucks, and dripping slush machines for those who might otherwise miss the celebrations and connections of the holidays.

2. Here is another experience from a group of high schoolers:2 Islesboro is a small island that lies just three miles off the coast of Maine. The high school graduating class of 2021 consisted of eight students from the island and five who traveled to school by ferry from the mainland. The tradition for seniors was to hold fundraising events to finance a once-in-a-lifetime class trip to a far-away place in the world. The students were very successful in raising money in donations and planned to journey to Greece, Japan, or South Korea. However, COVID-19 squelched their plans. What would these disappointed youth do? They met together and unanimously chose to spend their money a whole lot closer to home by donating it all to Island Community Fund for those whose livelihoods were hit hard by COVID-19 fallout, to vaccination clinics, and to other philanthropic causes. Eighteen-year-old Liefe Temple explained to the Associated Press: “We could really see how the whole world and the island, too, was struggling, so it felt really good to do that with our money—to give it back to the people who gave it to us.”

Imagine how Rylee, her friends, and the high school students on the island of Islesboro felt. They must have felt terrific to see the impact of their service and gifts, with rewards coming back to them in the form of warm feelings of acceptance and happiness. We know such warm feelings cause our brains to surge with “feel-good” hormones that lead to even further empathy, joy, and understanding.3 What a social and emotional learning experience for all!

Rest assured that that your kids’ gift or service won’t need to be as huge as Rylee’s or the Islesboro students’. The amount of social and emotional growth will mostly correspond with how much the kids are involved in making the choices and leading the project. In other words, while simply telling the kids what to do will make a nice service for them, if you want greater growth, the students need to be involved with selecting and implementing the gift or service. You won’t be left out. You become their facilitator and cheerleader.

Tips for Starting a Gift or Service Experience

  • As suggested earlier, you can begin with a story, a news clip, or a report from a student. You can share one of the stories in this blog (or another you know) to stir up enthusiasm about service or gift giving. Ask kids how the story made them feel. Let them talk and share their own feelings and personal stories. Ideas for a service or gift may pop out at that time.
  • Seat students in small groups and ask them to discuss whether they want to give a gift or a service and brainstorm projects they would like to do.
  • Invite one person from each group to tell the larger group why their gift or service is the one the whole group should do.
  • Summarize the ideas and ask kids to vote for two different service or gift ideas that were presented. Most students will vote for their own ideas first. The second vote really chooses the winner.
  • Then set about planning your holiday gift or service. Allow the young people to lead, with you as their facilitator. Tell them that the facilitator (because of age, experience, and knowledge) has veto power. This allows you an option to pull the plug if necessary to ensure that the project is safe, legal, and a great learning experience.

Ideas to Jumpstart the Brainstorming Process

  • Give secret Santa gifts to someone in need.
  • Trim a mitten/sock/scarf tree by hanging these gifts on the tree. Then deliver it to a youth shelter, school, or hospital.
  • Buy a goat or chickens (or medicine, supplies, or water wells) for needy people. You can buy them from one of the several mission organizations, such as World Vision, Heifer International, Compassion International, Canadian Feed the Children, or other philanthropic groups.
  • Fundraise and donate money to a young person with a medical need.
  • Sponsor a party at a child care or senior setting.
  • Sponsor a family in your community and provide food, toys, or medical needs for them.
  • Donate diapers for a newborn NICU or a pregnancy clinic.
  • Raise money and plan a drive-through gift-giving activity at a fast-food restaurant. Arrange ahead with managers. Pay for the food for everyone who drives through in a period of time. The youth can sing outside the drive through while surprising the visitors with free food.

Finally, remind tweens and teens that gifts of the heart are not always wrapped in paper and ribbons. Heart gifts are gifts of time and service. Sometimes the kids’ “presence” is more powerful than their “presents.” Service usually allows students to develop relationships and see the perspectives of others more deeply than only giving a gift or donation. But all gifts can provide opportunities to grow socially and emotionally through reaching out with kindness to others. It’s really true that good things do happen to the those who do “good.”

Benefits of service and gift giving

Much research has been devoted to the benefits of gift giving and service. Those benefits include more psychological, social, intellectual growth.4 Young people can grow in social responsiveness to the perspectives of others, develop empathy, feel happiness, 5 and increase their grades, school performance, and attendance.6



2Sharp, David. “To Aid Island During Pandemic, Students Forego Senior Trip.” Associated Press, June 30, 2021.

3 Park, Soyoung Q., Thorsten Kahnt, Azade Dogan, Sabrina Strang, Ernst Fehr, and Philippe N. Tobler. “A Neural Link Between Generosity and Happiness.” Nature Communications 8, no. 15964 (2017).

4Conrad and Hedin 1982; “5 Psychological Benefits of Putting the Needs of Others Before Your Own. Daniel Conrad and Diane Hedin. 1982. “The impact of experiential education on adolescent development.” Child & Youth Services, 4 (3-4), 57–76.

5 Samuel, Rachel. “How Service Learning Projects Can Build Student Empathy,” November 19, 2019. Read to Lead.

6Student Participation in Community Service Activity, Chapter 1 (NCES 97-331). National Center for Education Statistics, April 1997.


Author Barbara LewisBarbara A. Lewis is an author and educator who teaches kids how to think and solve real problems. Her elementary school students initiated the cleanup of hazardous waste, improved sidewalks, planted thousands of trees, and even instigated and pushed through several state laws and an amendment to a national law. She has been featured in many national newspapers and magazines and on news programs, and her books have won Parenting’s Reading Magic Award and have been named “Best of the Best for Children” by the American Library Association, among other honors.

Free Spirit books by Barbara A. Lewis:

What Do You Stand For? For Kids What Do You Stand For? For Teens   Kids Guide To Service Projects The Teen Guide to Global ActionSocial Emotional Stories by Barbara A. Lewis

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