The holiday season is a natural time to reflect on the blessings in life, and there’s no better way to do so than giving back to the community through service projects. For families interested in adding a service project to their holiday calendar, there’s a whole world of options that extend beyond volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating gifts to needy children.

Before you dive into a project, consider the qualities of your family and the needs of your community, to find one that matches both. Do you want your children to develop empathy for others? Are you looking for a creative way to help those who are less fortunate?

"Think through what goals you have for your family that are leading you to volunteer in the first place," advises Robert Rosenthal, spokesman for the website VolunteerMatch.

Heather Jack, founder of The Volunteer Family, recommends taking each person’s interests and talents into account, and ultimately letting the children choose a project. Ask them what they care most about. "You can help other children in need, for instance," Jack says.

"You can help animals. You can help the environment. You can help the homeless." Animal lovers might make dog treats or cat toys for a local animal shelter. Nature enthusiasts might want to take part in a cleanup of a nearby park.

Once you have an idea of what cause resonates with your family, gather project ideas by contacting nonprofits that work in your area. Organizations such as VolunteerMatch and United Way maintain databases of volunteer opportunities; VolunteerMatch features nearly 80,000 organizations. Search for activities that are good for children or groups, and then ask them if they need your help.

Still hunting for ideas? We’ve got you covered with some of our favorite service projects.

  1. Write letters or cards of appreciation to troops stationed overseas during the holidays, with words of encouragement from the home-front. Soldiers' Angels and the American Red Cross' Holiday Mail for Heroes program are among the organizations that collect these letters and care packages.
  2. Your project can be as simple as raking leaves or shoveling snow or an elderly neighbor, says Mei Cobb, vice president of volunteer engagement for the United Way Worldwide. Something as simple as repainting the community center or volunteering to babysit a family friend’s kids can be fun and helpful ways to spread the love.
  3. Are your kids learning about local history in school? Rosenthal says that some museums and historical societies accept groups of volunteers. Contributing to one of these organizations helps your community and reinforces the importance of commemorating history and culture.
  4. If you’re interested in solving a particular social problem, Cobb recommends writing a letter asking public officials to take action. Depending on the issue, you might choose to contact the city council member, state lawmaker or senator.
  5. Many nonprofits receive a flood of requests during the holiday season, and see a drop in interest right after the New Year. Rosenthal says suggests using the holiday time to investigate possible activities to do for the rest of the year. "The whole idea of pledging is really powerful because it's a family making an oath to volunteer," he says.

"Anytime is a great time to start," Cobb says, although volunteering during the holidays is a great way to cultivate year-round altruism.