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Steve Rosen

My exercise-class friend Sarrisa planted the compassion seed in her kids many holiday seasons ago and well before their teenage years.

Every year, her family does something different to help those in need.

This December, it was a trip to McDonald’s to hand out about $50 in gift cards to a group of homeless people living near a bridge on the banks of the Missouri River. The year before, the kids bought toiletries and personal items for the homeless.

Their contributions didn’t require a lot of money — just a realization that many people struggle to get by day to day and that a simple act of kindness can make a difference. Moreover, it’s not just a Christmas check-off-the-box commitment. Their charitable giving is year-round.

If you’re trying to instill the gift of giving in your kids during this season of getting, it’s never too early to start. Kids love to help. Here are some philanthropic strategies for the entire family:

– Parents can start by matching their kids’ personal interests to the world around them. There are scores of nonprofit organizations devoted to causes that kids of all ages can relate to.

For example, if your kids are interested in science and astronomy, check out the International Dark-Sky Association (www.darksky.org). Then there’s She Jumps, a Salt Lake City organization (www.shejumps.org).

– If your kids want to fight hunger and poverty around the world, they can donate a sheep or a dairy cow in honor of you or their grandparents through Heifer International (www.heifer.org).

The Little Rock, Ark., charitable group has been helping impoverished families in more than 25 countries since 1944. For example, kids can contribute $50 that goes toward a share of a heifer or $500 for an entire cow.

– A great way to teach your kids about giving is to let them pick the charities to support.

If you have older children, talk to them about cause-based marketing; shop at retailers that support causes or make products that are socially or environmentally friendly and fit their teenage agendas.

– Give the gift of time. Your kids can volunteer by working at a food bank, going through their closet and contributing clothing that no longer fits, or collecting toys to give away that they no longer play with. If you have neighbors who are elderly, encourage your kids to offer their services to play board games, work on jigsaw puzzles, shovel the driveway or run errands.

– Create a family endowment fund. So-called donor-advised funds can be set up at community foundations and at many investment firms and banks.

Anyone named on the account can recommend grants; children can be added to the account as they get older so they can make grants. If parents or grandparents control the fund, have the children research charities and present them for a family vote.

Your generosity can be targeted at favorite causes, and your gift can qualify you for a charitable deduction and tax savings.

It’s easy to teach kids about charitable giving during the holiday season, but what about the rest of the year?

To encourage year-round giving, talk to your children about setting aside part of their allowance for making charitable donations. To reinforce the concept, buy a piggy bank that includes a slot for money to be given away. You can buy them from companies such as the Money Savvy Generation (www.moneysavvy.com).

Whatever you decide, find ways to get your kids involved in giving. Don’t just write a check and stick it in the mail. Talk to your kids about why you selected the organization and what will be done with the money.

And remember, charity begins at the home. Kids will follow your lead.

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