Students at Horace Mann Elementary are excited to make a difference in their wider community—and each year, they get a chance to explore how at the PTA’s Family Service Fair.
Each fall, the PTA at the St. Paul, Minn., school encourages parents to brainstorm about charities to support as well as service projects that students can take part in to create donations for those charities. The initiative culminates in a schoolwide service fair in February, at which 150 to 200 students and family members rotate through stations to make the items for donation.
Any parent with a charity idea is encouraged to attend the open meeting and voice her thoughts. Past projects have included writing cards and making craft kits for hospital patients, assembling snack bags for the homeless, compiling cleaning kits for families who have recently received permanent housing, and creating colored placemats to donate to senior citizens through Meals on Wheels.
“Different parents come in and have different contacts in the community,” says service fair cochair Terri Shefelbine. “It prevents burnout and keeps the event sustainable. It is exciting for volunteers to learn about new charities, too.”
Horace Mann is among many schools across the country to hold a Family Service Fair. The program is organized by Doing Good Together, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that promotes kindness and service to others. It offers a comprehensive toolkit to help groups hold their own events, complete with charity recommendations, sample letters to send to nonprofits, posters, and more.
The PTA ensures that families are motivated to continue their good deeds beyond that night by setting up a reflection station at the fair. Students are encouraged to look back at what they accomplished in the past few hours, and they receive a list of ways to continue volunteering in the community.
“Hopefully that inspiration does carry over,” says Jenny Friedman, founder and executive director of Doing Good Together. “Even if they volunteer once a year, it inspires students to do more and is even more of a powerful benefit for the family and the community.”
This year marks Horace Mann’s 10th Family Service Fair. The PTA selects five to seven projects and assigns one or two parents to serve as captains of each project. Then they turn it over to the 2nd graders.
As part of their annual letter-writing unit, the 80 2nd graders write to about 25 small businesses and major corporations asking for donations. These companies provide gift cards to purchase supplies as well as donations of cleaning products and healthy snacks.
“It’s amazing what you can get in donations,” says committee cochair Kate McMullen.
The students say things like “‘I wrote a letter to Target!’” Shefelbine says of their excitement. “It’s a real-world sense of empowerment for the kids. They take ownership of the project, and it is super exciting to see that.”
Although the PTA budgets a few hundred dollars for the fair, leaders rarely dip into the funds because of the generosity of businesses, along with families who also donate supplies.
The night of the event, captains oversee each station, while additional volunteers help children complete their projects. Parents work in shifts so that everyone gets a chance to participate with their kids. Middle- and high schoolers who attended Horace Mann come back to their alma mater to help out, too.
Students and families can come and go as they please. Some children make a placemat in 30 seconds and are off to the next project, McMullen explains, while others might choose to stay and make three or four. Each station has information about the charity that the project is supporting, in the form of a flyer, poster, or video.
“We always have great, positive feedback,” McMullen says. “Parents really appreciate having something meaningful to do with their kids. They’re little kids, but they’re impacting someone’s life.”
Horace Mann Elementary PTA
St. Paul, Minn.
475 students, grades K-5
Helping Families Do Good Together
- Set date for fair at end of February
November to December
- Hold planning meeting open to all parents; pick theme, brainstorm projects, identify charities that can benefit
- Select one or two captains for each project
- Reach out to charities to confirm acceptance of donations and determine requirements
- Check in about supplies needed for projects and identify businesses that may donate or pay for supplies
- Students write to businesses to solicit donations of funds or supplies
- Check in with station captains to ensure they’ll have enough supplies
- Recruit additional volunteers—four to six per station, over two shifts
Week of Event
- Purchase any supplies still needed for stations