We all have hopes and dreams for our children: values we hope they develop, a vision for the world we want to one day see in their future, and our children’s place in helping to achieve that vision. When I imagine the traits I want my children to develop and embody, empathy, kindness, and compassion come to mind.  

This is a hope that they will view the world through a broader spectrum of ideas, philosophy, and understanding than I had the guidance or opportunity to explore when I was growing up. A hope that they will feel connected to their communities and the rest of the world and that they will be able to see themselves in others. That they will have the inner want to make the world a better place in any conceivable way.

Nurturing empathy in children can be a lofty goal that requires more intention than we sometimes realize is necessary.

Life is beautiful and full of joy, but at the same time, the world can be a dark and heavy space, and the instinct for self-preservation and the development of fears can be more pervasive than we realize. There is a great importance in guiding children in their ability to look at the world from the perspective of others, to understand that the way we treat people and the choices we make, what our government does, how businesses behave, how we treat the earth and so much more ALL HAVE AN IMPACT.

Sociologists refer to this as the development of sociological imagination, which is the awareness of the relationship that exists between personal actions and our greater society.

What better way to bridge the gap between the realities of our children’s lives to the experiences of others than through storytelling? Everybody and everything has a story. Storytelling is an essential piece of what defines and binds us to our humanity. It draws on our connections between ourselves and those that might otherwise be felt or defined as OTHER.  Stories hold power; they aid in the forging of our values and our dreams, as well as shaping our prejudices and our hatreds – all because they tap into our emotions.

Books can be the first step in raising conscientious children.

We can utilize great stories to connect with the world in a way that is different than our normal daily life, expose our children to new ideas, inspire community action through service projects, and more. Volunteering our time is a good way to connect with others, makes us feel good, and improves lives.  It shows that kindness passed to others has a spiraling effect. Using great books to explore citizenship, poverty, pain, fear, community, love, heart-break, struggle, and hope can be the first step in raising conscientious children.

This blog post is full of book recommendations! First up on the docket, check out If the World Were a Village: A Book About the World’s People to encourage children to look outside of their neighborhoods at the greater world and its diversity, and Because Amelia Smiled to see the way people across the globe are connected.

Big Juicy Conversations

Great stories are a wonderful springboard for sparking “big juicy conversations,” as Julie Bogart calls them. These are just conversations that explore new ideas and ask meaningful questions. You can explore things like…

  • What does it mean to be a good citizen?
  • Can one person positively impact the world?
  • What is something we would like to change? Is there an action we can take to impact that change?
  • And, of course, questions & ideas that are specific to stories you are enjoying together.

My Book Club Experience

Earlier this year, I took on the task of running a book club for my homeschool cooperative with the book The Family Under the Bridge. The Family Under the Bridge follows the experiences of a French family as they struggle to survive homelessness under tough economic circumstances, and the relationship they build with a fellow homeless man who learns to love them and share his resources. This book offered a great opportunity for the children to explore local programs that help people in their community through outreach to those at risk for homelessness and those currently homeless.

As a group, my book club discussed possible ideas for community service projects.  They decided to work on three projects during the course of our time together: making sandwiches for distribution to the hungry, a food/goods drive, and creating care packages for the homeless.

We worked directly with the Midtown Assistance Center in Atlanta for our food/goods drive and sandwich making distribution. (Be sure to check them out if you’re an Atlanta local! They are a crisis center working the help prevent homelessness.)

My kids collected a trunk FULL of goods for our drive that included food items, as well as diapers, blankets, and more. They made over 200 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed the hungry. The pride they felt in the work they undertook was palpable, and when all was said and done, they voted sandwich-making as their favorite volunteer effort!

More Book & Service Project Ideas:

Refugees & Immigration

Big Juicy Conversation Starters:
What is a refugee? What kinds of experiences influence people to flee their homes? How would you feel if faced with this situation? How can we help to make refugees feel more at home in our communities?

Book Ideas:
Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams
I Will Always Write Back, How One Letter Changed Two Lives, by Martin Ganda
A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park
Check out this list of additional books that build understanding in the struggles experienced by refugees from Doing Good Together.

Service Project Idea:
There are over 200 detention centers located across the U.S. You can visit
Freedom for Immigrants to view their interactive map to locate the detention center nearest to you and the visitation programs available in your area. You can make a difference in the lives of detainees, many of whom are detained great distances away from their families and would receive no visitation if not for visitation programs. A friendly face and a listening ear can make a huge impact.

Hunger, Poverty & Homelessness

Big Juicy Conversation Starters:
What do you imagine when you hear the word “homeless?” What factors contribute to poverty and homelessness? If you were President, what might you do to prevent homelessness? Is it fair that some people sleep outside?

Book Ideas:
Beatrice’s Goat, by Page McBrier
Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt
Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting
Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story, by Cynthia Rylant
Check out these other books that illuminate the issues of hunger, poverty, and homelessness from Doing Good Together – Chapter books & Picture books.

Service Project Ideas:
Plant a community garden, join a gift-giving project, cook or help with meal distribution at a homeless shelter, organize a food drive, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, or volunteer with emergency assistance centers.

Other Issues

Below are some other book lists that might inspire service projects for your family! Be sure to search for opportunities in your local community for different ways you can help, and support organizations doing the deep work by hosting fundraisers, too.

Books for Environmental Activists

Service Project Ideas: Plant trees, start a recycling initiative, pick up litter

Books for Animal Lovers

Service Project Ideas: Volunteer at an animal rescue, shelter, or wildlife conservation center, sponsor an animal, foster an animal

Books to Celebrate Seniors & Aging

Service Project Ideas: Visit an assisted-living facility or nursing home, help seniors in your neighborhood (grocery shopping, yard work, laundry, etc.)

Books for LGBTQ Activists

Service Project Ideas: Volunteer with The Trevor Project, work with local organizations that assist the LGBTQ community

Do you have other book & service project ideas to share? What ways can you help a fellow human today? Comment them down below!

Using Stories to Inspire Service Projects in Your Homeschool

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