Gifting Social and Emotional Learning during the Holidays

Nikkya Hargrove

The holidays can be tough for all of us for many different reasons. For some of us, it involves the emotional roller coaster ride of buying family and friend gifts, teacher gifts, and shuffling from school events to work events, and so forth. And then there are the added financial burdens just to name a few. There is a way to replenish our tank when it feels like we are no longer running on the fumes of joy during the holiday season – volunteering. Giving back during the holidays is one of the most renewing activities a person can do, especially with one’s family. While the pandemic certainly threw us all in a tailspin, realizing we could go out and help others is exactly what my family and I chose to do around the holidays. While volunteering is and should be a yearlong endeavor, it is so special to interact with people, spreading a little extra joy during the holiday season.

From discussion to action, volunteering helps support social and emotional learning and well-being for those serving and for those receiving. Who doesn’t want to know that someone cares? For me, that is what volunteering, both indirect and direct, is all about. Have you tried sitting and writing a note of gratitude to someone you don’t know and leaving it in a high traffic area for a random person to pick up? And let’s go one step further. Can you imagine being the one to receive the note, a simple “Have a good day” or “You are amazing”! We know words matter and mean so much.

Two Thanksgivings ago, my family and I decided to help the homeless in our neighboring communities. We went shopping for hygiene supplies, headed to McDonald’s to purchase $5 gift cards, and with the items we’d purposefully collected, we packed each backpack with love and care. While in the store, we talked about which items a homeless person could use. We talked about what being homeless meant, especially during the winter months. We talked about the why of volunteering and why we decided to help this particular community building our children’s empathetic thinking. Once we finished packing the bags, we went to the intentional communities our local homeless population made. My son and wife went into their makeshift homes. We spoke to them about what their other needs were. They left and were waved on their way by grateful humans who were touched that someone took the time to care about their needs and wanted nothing in return.

Volunteering is an opportunity to increase one’s social awareness about issues that need more attention, like homelessness and poverty.

Volunteering builds one’s capacity to communicate effectively. Communication is key.

My family and I had a job that day. We needed to work together towards our common goal – building our collaboration skills. Our first goal was to shop for the items. Then we needed to communicate effectively to one another to understand what was going into the bags. From parents to kids, there was a job for everyone. Everyone had a purpose along the way. 

Once we were in the car, traveling towards the predetermined locations, everyone also had a job: to look out for any homeless person – someone holding a sign asking for help. And they did. When they saw someone, I, as the resident driver, would head in that person’s direction. My twin daughters were responsible for handing out the McDonalds gift cards to each person. I knew we’d chosen the right activity for our family that Thanksgiving when the kids argued over who would give out the final gift card.

And it didn’t stop there. The kids learned how incredibly grateful they were for their warm car, their full bellies, and the opportunity to be with their family members – people who loved them and supported them. As we all reflected on the experience that evening, we recognized another important part about our day, everyone we met wanted to be heard and seen. The act of volunteering does exactly that for all. 

Nikkya Hargrove is an alum of Bard College and a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. She has written for the The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Taproot Magazine, Elle, and more. Her memoir, Mama: A Black, Queer Woman’s Journey to Motherhood, is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. She lives in Connecticut with her one son and two daughters and is a staff writer for Scary Mommy. Learn more at

2 Comments on “Gifting Social and Emotional Learning during the Holidays”

  1. So nice to get the children involved from a young age. It leaves a lasting impression on their understanding and empathy.

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