Local families spend the holidays teaching their kids to care for others
Last year, Kim Singletary began a touching holiday tradition with her daughter, Avery. After popping the Thanksgiving turkey in the oven, Singletary, 40, and Avery, then 6, joined another friend and young son to deliver six holiday meals to homebound seniors as part of the “Home for the Holidays” program at the YMCA of Greater New Orleans. “The holidays really make you think ‘What am I going to do that’s going to create these kinds of memories and teach these kinds of lessons that I want to teach?’” says Singletary, who lives Uptown.
Spending a total of two hours on the road Thanksgiving Day, the friends visited with each meal recipient, many of whom were lonely and unable to cook for themselves, Singletary says. The meals included homemade pumpkin bread that Avery helped prepare. “My daughter was especially excited that she could make something that she could give as well,” Singletary says.
Many local families choose to volunteer over the holidays as a special reminder to give back to those less fortunate. “I think it was a great learning experience,” she says. “One of the very few, if only, (opportunities) that I know of that kids of that age or even younger can be a part of. That’s really unusual.”
Kids can help
Many organizations have age requirements preventing younger children from helping, which can keep entire families from volunteering together. That’s why Ashley Johnson, 33, of St. Rose, started her own volunteer organization that allows kids to give their time alongside adults.
The families comprise Feed Nola, a volunteer group that feeds the homeless under the elevated U.S. Highway 90 near the New Orleans Mission once a month. Johnson and a small group of volunteers shop, cook and serve meals such as red beans and rice, jambalaya, hot dogs, salad, chili, vegetables, and macaroni and cheese for about 150 homeless people at each mealtime, Johnson says.
While Johnson’s niece, Amber Dillenkoffer, now 14, says it initially was upsetting to see so many hungry people, she adds that “It was really neat getting to see their reactions” when she started handing out the meals when she was 10 years old. “I had never done anything really like that at all before,” Amber says. “It was really cool. It was really fulfilling.”
This year, Johnson says her dream is to create a big Thanksgiving meal for her regulars and “treat them like it’s a restaurant.” But so far, she lacks the necessary tables and manpower to do so. The group includes just 10 regular volunteers each month to shop for food, cook, set up the tables and serve, Johnson says.
One reason for the lack of volunteers is that some people are “afraid to let their children be close to these people,” she says. But, Johnson says she sees regulars each month, and they have become like a sort of family to her.
Family time is a bonus
For the Walther family, also of St. Rose, volunteering as a family began as a way for their oldest son to gain service hours as part of his membership in several academic clubs. But after volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans for more than a year, the Walther family has grown to love the time they spend together at the non-profit organization. “We’ve gotten hooked,” says Lisa Walther, 49. “It is rewarding and fun to do it together.”
The Walther family, which includes Lisa, Chris, 50, Joshua, 12, and Christopher, 17, volunteers about once a month for a three-hour shift, Lisa Walther says. Usually, the brothers unpack, unwrap and check the expiration dates on donated boxes of food, and make sure the food is then passed along to the next station before it is sent to other food distribution programs around the area, says Christopher, a senior at Destrehan High School.
Christopher says he enjoys volunteering at Second Harvest because the physical work leaves him feeling “accomplished.” It’s also a job where he can also have fun with his family, especially Joshua, he says. “I always have him next to me, and we work as a pretty effective pair,” Christopher says.
During last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, the family helped unpack huge boxes of sweet potatoes, Christopher’s dad, Chris Walther, says. Volunteering during the holidays has become a tradition, and family members who are coming into town this year will join the Walthers at Second Harvest, Lisa Walther says.
“As a parent, it’s a good opportunity to set a good example for your kids about the importance of helping out in the community,” she says. “Plus, I enjoy spending time with them other than doing other activities. This is a more meaningful activity, and we’re doing something that’s going to be helping others. I find it very rewarding.”
On a mission
The Frederickson family of Bay St. Louis, Miss., is planning to volunteer together this holiday season, but they have a personal reason for doing so. Laurie Frederickson, 55, will volunteer with her son Colin, 17, daughter Leigh, 21, and family friend Tristan Bush, 17, just before Christmas at the New Orleans Ronald McDonald House.
Frederickson’s father-in-law passed away from prostate cancer that metastasized to his bones when Colin and Leigh were small, Frederickson says. “I want them to understand cancer more and what happened to their grandfather,” Frederickson said.
The Ronald McDonald House allows families with children ages 21 and younger who are seeking medical treatment in New Orleans to stay there for a small donation each night, according to the non-profit organization’s website.
A New Orleans native, Frederickson found out about the Ronald McDonald House from Bush’s mom, who cooked hot meals for the guests staying at the home, she says. Frederickson, Colin, Leigh and Tristan will shop for the meal themselves and cook it in the kitchen at the Ronald McDonald House. “We really wanted to do that because it’s a holiday and it’s just not great to be in the hospital over the holidays,” Frederickson says.
Told to prepare food for 20 people, they plan on making chili, some side dishes and Christmas cookies, Frederickson says. “It’s like a home-cooked meal instead of eating in the hospital cafeteria,” she says. “It gives them a feeling of home.”
Frederickson and her family have volunteered before, serving food to the homeless and even helping a Texas man gut his house when it was recently flooded, she says. “I think these children need to see how fortunate they are and need to know there are people out there who need help.”
Kate Stevens is a journalist and mother of two whose work has appeared in Nola Family, the Times-Picayune, the Advocate and the Charlotte Observer.