Community service projects are a great way for PTOs and PTAs to bring their entire school together. Giving back and helping others inspire feelings of gratitude and good vibes all around.

Whether your parent group wants to organize a food drive or clean up a local park, keep in mind that successful school community service projects have the same basic elements:

  • activities that students can participate in,
  • good communication with those benefiting from the project,
  • and timing that works for all parties.

Get Students Involved

Angie Henderson founded Sunrise Point Elementary PTO’s community service committee to give back to organizations like Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House that had helped her family. She started by organizing a monthly meal delivery to the Ronald McDonald House.

Find community service ideas for kids, classrooms, and families

Henderson also created the Service in a Box program at the Overland Park, Kan., school, which allows parent volunteers and teachers to incorporate a community service project into Halloween, holiday, and Valentine’s Day parties. A detailed guide outlines eight different service projects, which include making placemats for Meals On Wheels, as well as preparing no-sew blankets and collecting mittens, hats, and comfort items for Children’s Mercy patients.

The guide includes supply lists, directions, and a brief description of each charitable partner. Students donate supplies for many of the projects. A PTO reimbursement form is included in the guide for supplies that volunteers purchase. After the parties, members of the community service committee collect the projects and deliver them to the charitable partners.

“People want to help but don’t know what to do,” Henderson says. “With Service in a Box, we are giving parents a step-by-step guide on how to make a difference and teaching our students the valuable lesson of giving back.”

It’s important that school community service projects get kids involved, says Amy Tecu, cochair of the community service committee for Washington Elementary PTO in Park Ridge, Ill. The PTO sponsors two schoolwide donation drives for Chicago-area charities. To promote participation, the principal makes announcements about how many items have been donated and grade-level prizes are awarded.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing something that involved the children,” Tecu says. “If the parents do all the work, kids lose the message.”

Communication Is Key

For Henderson, the first step in creating Service in a Box was learning what each community partner needed most.

“I contacted each charity before putting them on the list to make sure we didn’t waste time on things they didn’t need,” Henderson explains. At first she had planned to provide special handmade dolls to Children’s Mercy. Staff members use the dolls to communicate with patients about their conditions. “After speaking to staff, I learned they never have enough mittens and hats. The hospital also always needs comfort kits—totes filled with items like books, toothbrushes, and small toys."

Communicating with the chosen organization before starting any project is essential, says Lee Duckett, associate director of marketing and events at Operation Breakthrough, an early learning and social services agency serving 400 underprivileged children in Kansas City, Mo. The organization receives birthday books in bags decorated by students at Sunrise Point Elementary.

“Contacting the charity and asking what is needed the most is really imperative, but it’s really helpful if someone from the parent organization would stop by for a visit and take a tour to see what we do in the organization,” Duckett says.

Having a good understanding of what the charitable organization does and communicating that to students will make their work on community service projects more meaningful.

Timing Matters, Too

When scheduling a community service project, consider the events on the school calendar as well as the needs of the community organization. Many charitable organizations, like food banks, see increased demand during November and December. Find out if the organization would prefer donations to help meet holiday demand or donations after the holidays to help restock their shelves, for example.

Uncle Pete’s Lunches, which delivers food to needy people in the Chicago area, sees a decline in donations—and an increase in need—during January and February. The Washington Elementary PTO collects donations for the organization during those months to help meet that need. The timing also works well for the PTO, which has a major fundraiser in the fall and another schoolwide community service project in the spring. The spring service project supports Bernie’s Book Bank, based in Lake Forest, Ill. Students collect new or gently used books for the book bank to distribute to children around the Chicago area.

Tecu and her cochair, Harmony Harrington, inherited the community service committee at Washington Elementary. While the school always did some kind of charitable project, it was really informal and news spread by word of mouth. Tecu and Harrington decided to make it more formal and host two large schoolwide projects a year benefiting the same charitable organizations.

Additional community service project resources:
8 Easy Community Service Ideas for Any Time of Year
Ideas That Raise Students’ Social Awareness
Student Community Service Projects slideshow