Stop saying "let me know if I can help" and just take a tired friend's kids for the day

(Charity Mathews)

Do you have a friend who's going through a rough patch? With a new baby? A sick partner? Or just your average overwhelming modern life? I've had two families from church on my mind for a while now and here's why: Both have both adopted girls from China in the last year. Each of them already had three children but that didn't stop them from opening everything-their hearts, their homes, their bank accounts, their reserves of patience and energy-to embrace a new daughter.

We support a number of kids through international sponsorship (a combination of World Vision and Compassion International) but we're not in a position to adopt because we already have four children and that's our honest max. I used always end that sentence saying, "but I'd really like to support those families who do because I think it's amazing." And yet. What support was I really giving? Tossing out the occasional "you guys should come over for dinner!" isn't exactly a silver bullet for a family struggling to teach their new six-year-old English.
Charity is an ABC11 Community Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog .

So this winter, I finally did something.

I invited both families over for the day - as a drop-off playdate. Emails were sent and soon enough there were 12 kids ranging in age from three to 13 at my house for the whole morning. I stood on the porch, waving good-bye to visibly relieved parents headed off to shop, nap, clean, Netflix their brains out, I didn't know and didn't care. They had hours to themselves, which seemed like a good start.

FEEL-GOOD ACTIVITY IDEAS FOR A PLAY DATE

In the meantime, here's what the 13 of us did:

Took a big walk. I learned this from the savviest preschool teacher I know. When you've got a big group, start off with a lot of movement to get the wiggles out and also invite those endorphins in. We live on a bunch of acres so we walked to a horse farm down our tiny road. Feeding carrots to horses was the perfect way to start but honestly a little walk anywhere would've done the trick.

Made good Samaritan bags. Ahead of time I'd asked the families to help bring supplies and together we amassed enough for 40 bags to hand out to the needy or homeless. Each of the kids drew pictures, then went around our kitchen "shopping" for essentials like snacks, deodorant, socks and more.
Had a simple gift exchange. Each child brought one tiny toy (preferably from around the house), wrapped it up and we followed the basic rule of starting with the oldest, who knew the game, ping-ponging to the youngest: Open a gift or steal one that's already open. If your gift gets stollen you can open another gift or steal someone else's (with a limit of 3 steals per gift). I loved this activity for Christmas time but think it could be played any time of year.

Ate lunch. You can believe that I made a version of our Magical Macaroni & Cheese (with pureed vegetables in the cheese sauce) for this crowd! I always like to experiment when I have new tasters in the house.

We had planned a kid-friendly movie but the weather was so nice, the kids played (and played) outside so much that we just ran out of time.

5 THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT HOSTING A BIG PLAY DATE

All in all, it was such a fun day. The whole point here isn't that I'm such a charitable soul. If you get anything gout of this post I hope it's this: If I can do this, you totally can! That said, here is what I found really useful:

Make sure there are a few big kids in the group. That was a game-changer. We had three kids in the 12/13-year-old range, and they were great leaders. If that's not possible, ask an adult friend to come over for the day.
Plan your get-together in the morning. We hosted kids from 9am through 1pm and it was a great time of day for basic levels of energy.

Keep the food simple. I put out a huge platter of cucumbers, carrots, apple slices and cheese with crackers for a snack. Then made a giant pot of mac and cheese for lunch, with grapes on the side.

Drawing pictures for the bags takes lots of time and space. Make sure you have lots of paper and crayons/markers and it's not a bad idea to have an example for the kids, with encouraging phrases like "Have a great day!" and "Someone's thinking about you!" written out for pre-spellers.

This is the most important part: You don't have to do all or any of these activities. A couple of board games and a video would be fine. I'd been wanting to make care packages for the homeless for a long time and this seemed like a good place to get it done. So many hands!

IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE PERFECT

The point wasn't for the kids to have a nice time anyway. Not really. The real message was for their parents. I wanted those gorgeous souls to know that I see them. That I hear how tiring it is to wake up at 2am because your daughter has night terrors. That I support them as they navigate the labyrinth of services available (or not) through the public school system. That they're not in this alone. Not all the time.

It can feel so overwhelming to know when to step in as a friend. What can I really do? I kept asking myself. And in the end, I came up with the most straightforward thing. The one thing every parent I know could use more of: I could offer them a morning of peace. I like cooking, I like kids. Yes! Yes, I can do this. It's no life-changer, this one morning, but hopefully the feeling of support lingers much, much longer.

Until the whole crowd comes back again this summer. I can't wait.

Charity is an ABC11 Community Influencer. Read more of her work on her blog .
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