The holidays are a special time of the year that we spend with the people who mean the most to us (i.e., our families) and celebrate all that we have. While it goes without saying that life is filled with its share of hardship and challenge, for most of us, if we have a roof over our head, food on the table, good health, and friends and family around us, we're probably doing okay.

For many families, however, the daily things that we take for granted are not a given. Countless people struggle just to get a single meal each day, and many get by without a home or family to count on. This holiday season, why not take a little time and recognize the needs of these individuals by volunteering and lending a helping hand?

The holiday season is a time of giving, and our efforts can make a huge difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us. It doesn't take much, and the benefits will be felt by those in need as well as those who are helping out. This is because volunteering is good for us. Helping people builds our self-esteem and increases our awareness of the world beyond our own self-interest. Children who volunteer develop healthier attitudes about money and learn to appreciate the things they have, while introducing them to the real heroes in the world: people who help other people. Finally, volunteering strengthens our communities and may even help us to live longer and healthier lives.

If you're going to volunteer, consider these tips first:

1. Plan Ahead

Believe it or not, many organizations that need help often recruit volunteers well in advance of the holidays to train them properly. Consequently, it is difficult for them to take people who "just show up." If you'd like to help out over the holidays, plan ahead and find out well in advance what you can do.

2. Develop a Relationship

Volunteering can be a year-long activity, not just isolated to the holidays. When you develop a relationship with an organization, it is much easier for them to incorporate you into their holiday schedule because you are already trained and ready to help.

3. Diversify Your Opportunities

Volunteering does not necessarily have to be solely with a charity organization. Local schools, town halls, and recreational and senior centers all benefit from volunteerism. These organizations often have tight budgets and appreciate the assistance, especially at this time of year.

4. It's Not Just About Your Time

While your time and efforts are always appreciated, we can also help out by donating items that people and organizations need at this time of year, including clothes, food, and of course, money. It's fairly easy to contact a local organization and find out what they are in need of.

5. Send a Thoughtful Card

A nice idea at this time of year is to send a letter or card to a person in hospital, nursing home, or even a prison. You can organize a card-writing group and even make your own cards. It doesn't have to be much, keeping in mind that it's the thought that counts. Make sure to contact the place in question to see if this is acceptable.

6. Bake a Cake (Cookies and Pies Are Nice, Too)

A lot of places that provide holiday services are run by staff that have to work extra hard during the holidays. Why not show your appreciation for their efforts by giving them some food or snacks? A plate of cookies will usually be welcomed by your local fire/police department, animal shelter, and even post office.

7. Sing a Song (Out Loud)

A big part of the holiday season is listening to seasonal songs, and one of the best ways to enjoy them is when they are sung out loud by a group of people. Why not form a singing group and sing for a local hospice or hospital? In addition to the residents, staff at these places would enjoy your performances as well. Remember to check ahead of time to see if it will work for their busy schedules.

Volunteering your time and encouraging your kids to do the same is a great way to do something meaningful and rewarding this holiday season. Best of all, there are numerous ways to show you care. Just keep in mind that many organizations require background checks of all their workers, including volunteers, so don't be offended if they request information that they require from all employees. Also, do not assume, even if seems like a "no-brainer," that every organization is in need of assistance. Contact them beforehand to discuss your intentions and get their feedback rather than simply showing up to help.

From all of us at Parenting Squad, we wish you a happy and safe holiday.