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Do you feel a sense of entitlement slowly creeping into your family?

Are you frustrated with the cell phone constantly in your teen’s face? How about doing a gratitude activity to change things up?

Perhaps you feel like you’ve already done all the community service project ideas. For instance, you’ve fed those without a home, done scouts, and you’ve helped your neighbor multiple times.

However, things haven’t changed.

What else can you possibly do?

What about doing something together as a family that is different? Even life-changing?

A good idea might be to go on a mission trip. Why? Because there is something about leaving town and serving for several days together instead of just doing something for a couple of hours.

In this post, you will learn why it is so important to get away with your family and do a gratitude activity such as a mission trip. I guarantee you it will be impactful on your family and it may be just what you need to turn things around.

How a Gratitude Activity Will Impact Your Kids

Personally, this gratitude activity has taught my kids things I could never teach them at home or at church. Going on a mission trip is that important. Really. 

You might be thinking...my kids will never go for this. It is going to be miserable listening to them complain. I’m going to complain! I hear you.

Do it anyway.

Many churches offer mission trips during the summer and spring break. Find one that includes the whole family, so there will be other kids close to your kid’s age participating as well. Additionally, you will not only bond as a family, but you will also bond with other believers.

To make it more enticing, you might attach a small vacation at the end of your mission trip. This will give them something to look forward to when they are done. Sort of a reward for giving back.

If you are having a hard time with your teenager, it’s time to consider a mission trip. It is by far the best gratitude activity with the most long-term impact.

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How to Teach a Gratitude Lesson

The great thing about going on a mission trip is that you don’t have to teach any lessons. Life is going to do this for you!

And let’s face it, at this age, the only way teenagers really learn is through experience. They are pretty much done with what you have to say!

However, what you can do is empower your teenagers by asking for input. Let them talk about their passions. Who they feel needs the most help.

Ask them to participate in the research. This alone will teach them about the world around them just by reading about impoverished places.

Don’t worry if they don’t buy into this idea. The gratitude lessons are still coming. And you don’t have to say a word.

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Check out these 9 tips when preparing for your gratitude activity for middle school or high school students. These ideas will help you narrow down the best mission trip for your family.

1. Research organizations

Look for a non-profit organization that aligns with causes you and your teenagers care about. Consider factors such as the organization’s mission, cost, location, reputation, and time commitment.

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I highly recommend Hearts4Kids. My church has been partnering with this organization for at least 20 years.

We know the leaders personally. They are amazing! (They are located at the Texas border, so it makes it not only inexpensive but safe.)

2. Discuss and choose your gratitude activity

Meet as a family and discuss the different mission projects you found. Encourage everyone to share their interests and preferences.

Obviously, the cost will play a big factor. You may not be able to do what your kids want this year, but you can save money to do it in the future.

3. Plan the gratitude activity (mission trip)

Contact the chosen organization or church to discuss the requirements for participation. Determine the date, time, costs, paperwork, and specific tasks or projects you’ll be assisting.

Ensure you understand any guidelines or requirements for volunteers. You may need to bring tools such as paintbrushes, hammers, wrenches, etc.

5. Mentally prepare for the gratitude activity

Before your trip, talk about what you want to accomplish as a family. Clearly state your expectations, but do it in a soft tone. This is about empowering your kids to make a difference in the lives of others, not threatening them to behave.

Reinforce any good thoughts they have and tell them how proud you are that they are taking an interest in others.

6. Do the gratitude activity (mission trip)

Pack clothes that can be ruined. You may get paint, dirt, or stains on your clothes. Don’t forget to include any tools or supplies you committed to bring. If you are driving, spend time talking about what to expect.

Follow the instructions provided by the organization, work together as a team, and contribute your time and effort to the best of your abilities. And, for heaven’s sake, put your cell phones away!

7. Reflect on the gratitude activity

After completing your trip, take some time to reflect as a family. If you drove, you can do this in the car.

Discuss the experience, the impact you made, and the gratitude you feel for the opportunity to serve others. Encourage your teens to share their personal reflections and the lessons they learned.

8. Express appreciation

Show your gratitude and appreciation to the church or organization and its staff. Write thank-you notes or send an email expressing your gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

You may be surprised by the friendships you develop while serving. Try to keep in touch over the year. Follow them on social media, if they have an account.

I still follow the pastor of a church we served five years ago. It’s nice to see how our small contribution has multiplied over the years.

9. Start when your kids are young

The younger you start your kids doing mission trips, the easier it will be to take them when they are teenagers.

By consistently engaging your family in meaningful service, you not only contribute to the well-being of others but also teach your kids to develop a deeper appreciation for the resources and privileges they have.

Why South Texas Is Perfect For a Gratitude Activity

You may wonder why my family chose to do a gratitude activity in South Texas and serve at The Colonias with Hearts4kids.

Let me explain. The Colonias are communities in an unincorporated makeshift area about a mile from the Texas-Mexico border. These areas are just beyond the municipal boundaries of any city or town.

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Many sections of land have no drinking water, electricity, or sewage service. Texas has the largest number of Colonia residents; more than 500,000, mostly immigrants, who live in these shanty houses.

Additionally, many of the houses in the Colonias barely stand up straight because they are built with a mixture of plywood, cinderblocks, metal scraps, and tar paper.

Residents have extension cords running from one shanty to another trying to get electricity to their shelters. Some shelters are a little better than a cardboard box.

While driving through the area, I saw one makeshift home that had three “walls” (scrap wood) barely secured and no roof. A baby was sitting outside of the “home” in the 100-degree heat left in a stroller by himself. There was no one around.

It was beyond imaginable. I wanted to stop and rescue the child, however, we had to keep driving to our destination. This is the hardest thing about volunteering. Once you are there, you become overwhelmed with thousands of needs everywhere you turn.

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Why Teach Gratitude Away From Home

One of the gratitude activities we did as a family was food distribution. We went door to door handing out food and inviting people to come to a cookout on the following Saturday. (This may seem scary, but we were in a big group.)

One of the  “houses” we approached was actually just a big box on blocks with no electricity, water, or sewage. The people inside were barely existing.

It smelled like death. Yes, death has a smell. 

What’s more, we found dead rats under the house that had been meticulously slit open and gutted. It appeared they had been eating the rats for food. This still haunts me. I don’t know how they were living this way.

After we talked to the family, the teens decided we should go back the next day and help them clean up their yard. We also brought more food for the family.

This one act changed the trajectory of a family’s life. Eventually, they accepted Jesus and moved out.

From this one experience, my kids learned how their behavior affected others greatly, not to mention how blessed they realized they were.

They would never have learned this gratitude lesson at home. There are some things you just can’t teach. They have to be experienced firsthand.

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The #1 best gratitude activity for teens

The Long-Term Impact of  Volunteering

You may wonder why doing a long-term community service project with your teen is going to change things. Or how serving in a dirty and forgotten place will help you emotionally reconnect with your family.

It seems counterintuitive. The secret sauce is that volunteering together away from home will help you to find what really matters.

My otherwise, phone-addicted teenage children, had to put down their devices for several days and work. At first, it was shocking because the world was no longer about them. But after a while, they started to engage with the community.

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More importantly, they started to love the children. They experienced poverty. They felt its relentless sting. And then they realized how blessed they were to have so much.

This alone changed me as I watched my kids find the true meaning of life through this powerful gratitude activity.

True happiness is not found in a bigger house, a faster car, or a better job. On the contrary, true happiness is found in giving to others who will never be able to pay you back.

When you see your son pick up trash in a stranger’s yard for hours or you see your daughter give a child extra snacks because he has not eaten all day, it makes you realize this is the best thing your family has ever done together.

My family found true purpose in the heat, dust, and dirt of an abandoned area that no one else cares about. We found who we really are as a family and as Christians who love Jesus.

My daughter has said over and over again she would rather be in South Texas than on a big, fancy vacation.

RELATED: 15 Tips On How to Parent a Teenager (and Not Freak Out)

I would love to hear how your gratitude activity changed your family. Tell us in the comments below. 

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Author

Julie is a wife, mom, author, and blogger. She writes about Christian family living, marriage, and faith with a touch of humor.

57 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful ministry that you and your church embark. It’s a privilege to be in a position to help others and this experience is enriching the lives of the children and grownups involved. God bless you! <3

    • Edith, thanks. We are blessed to be able to do this. I know God loves those people. We are his hands and feet.

  2. What a gift your family is to the families who so desperately need your help!
    It is a blessing to be able to share these teachable moments with your children.
    I can begin to imagine how hard life must be for them. It truly puts things into perspective.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Rachel, mission trips are such a blessing to our family. We are the ones who learn and grow. These people are so thankful for the smallest things. It is a huge reality check.

  3. BLESS YOU for doing this and sharing your experience! I’m so interested in this work, I’ll be back to spend more time on your website.

    • Thanks, Terri. If there is anything I am passionate about, it is helping those who are hurting. I wish I could do more. I want others to see the truth of what is going on down there.

  4. This is amazing! Thank you for what you do and for sharing it with us. This is inspiring.

    • Thanks, Jodie. I just want others to see what is really going on at the Texas-Mexico border. It is a huge problem. Something needs to be done now. Thanks for your comment.

  5. You and your family are truly amazing!! What special memories you’ve made. Thankful for you!!

  6. Ohhh.., God bless you. Keep up the good work. Your deeds will not be unrecognized. 😀 How gratifying it must be to see your work becoming productive. 😀

    • Thanks. I am just one person doing a little, tiny bit. There are organizations that are doing way more than me. I am so glad to be a part of a church that recognizes the need in our own backyard.

  7. Thanks for this informative post. Learnt about something new today. Hope the people get the support they need to lead a healthy and meaningful life.

    • Yes, me too. I wish I could do more. At least I can write about it, and tell people it is a real problem. They need help down there. Thanks for your comment.

  8. It’s interesting to read this in light of all that has been happening at the border recently. I’m an American who is fluent in Spanish and I always think about doing something like this. I actually learned Spanish working with undocumented immigrants in my city. I am someone totally in favor of an immigration reform because just like you, I personally know many. It really changes your perspective when you personally know people. No longer are they just statistics.

    • I hope you will get involved. There are many people that are needed down there that are bi-lingual. I felt so limited because of the language barrier. Although, most all the kids can speak English. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Marjie Mare Reply

    Thank you for your informative post which has enlightened me. I am sure many others have learned something new from your post

    • Thanks, Marjie, I appreciate this. I hope more people realize the problem and help push legislation through. Our borders are porous and there are many people hurting.

  10. I commend you for the mission work you do and the journies you are taking in the hopes of reaching and helping others. I love that this has helped enrich your kid’s lives and in return, your family is helping to enrich the lives of many kids and families.

    • Angelle, yes, it has truly changed our family’s life. We are different people because we have seen first-hand what is going on. Thanks for your comment.

  11. It’s awesome that you and your family are helping out those in need . . . it really does put things in perspective! It’s absolutely crazy that there are such huge differences in wealth in our country.

    • Ann, it is hard to believe that we live in the same state as these people. I am shocked at how little people know about this problem. I am glad there is more talk on immigration. Hopefully, people will do something.

  12. As a person from different country it seams very odd to me. It is a problem needs a close attention and I am sorry you guys have to live with it. Thank you for sharing the inside look on it

    • Lyosha, we do have a big problem here. We need some serious help on immigration. There are so many countries around us that are not doing what they are supposed to. I don’t blame them for wanting to leave, but it is not good for us either. We are caught because these are real people who need help.

    • Thank you, Christina. I am the one who is blessed every time I go. They teach me what being grateful looks like. Thanks for reading.

  13. Helping others will never get old. Your acts of service in your community and world is commendable and an example to all of us to help those who are less fortunate.

    • Elle, I am so glad to go. It is life-changing. I only hope more will see the need for volunteering . Thanks for your comment.

  14. This is heart breaking to hear and also the video really brings home how lucky most of us are here in Western Europe. A few years ago my family visited Disney in Florida and then went down towards Naples. We got lost somewhere ( i can’t tell you where as I’m not sure) but we came across acres and acres of a shanty town… I was shocked by the poverty i saw in a state that seemed so wealthy. The Colonias seem worse than that shanty town and i can’t begin to understand what those poor people suffer daily.

    • Kathryn, it is so hard to believe this goes on in the USA. I am shocked, too. It kills me how much the kids are suffering. A lot of these people are US citizens which is even more shocking. It is definitely a reality check. Thanks for your comment.

  15. It’s heartbreaking to see places such as this one. It’s a blessing your family is able to help. You may not be able to help everyone but your best if good enough. I know that doesn’t make it any easier to see all the needs that’s still not fulfilled. Places such as this is why I choose to make a conscious decision to not complain.

    • Tara, isn’t that right! A bad day in my life is a dream in their life. I try not to complain much either. If I do start to get whinny, it is a sure sign I need to volunteer more. It is easy to get caught up in my own first world problems and forget about others. Thanks for your comment.

  16. Your family sounds incredible! It’s so sad that people have to live like this, but I bet they are so grateful for people like you who help as much as you can.

    • Jean, my kids are pretty cool. Of course, it didn’t start that way. One of my kiddos hated going to do any volunteer work. They have been around it long enough it has finally made a difference. Thanks for your sweet comment.

    • Thanks for saying this. It has been a very meaningful experience. I wish I could go back this year! Thanks for your comment.

  17. Thank you for shedding light on this terrible situation. I pray that more is done and that each of us contribute in our own way. God bless you.

    • Chioma, I think volunteering right where you are is the best thing anyone can do. There are needs everywhere. Thanks for your comment.

  18. This made me cry. My husband goes to Cuba for missions as often as he can and two of my kids have been able to go with him.

    • Marya, I bet their trips to Cuba have been life-changing. You can’t see utter poverty and not be moved. Glad your family does this! Thanks for your comment.

  19. I couldn’t stop reading this! I had no idea about this place. What your doing is wonderful. So many mission trips go all the way across the world when it is some places in the US that needs our help too. Will share this with my youth group thanks so much for sharing.

    • Kala, it is a great place to go on a mission trip. It is in the US but it sure doesn’t feel like it when you see the conditions of these people. Maybe your youth group would be interested. Thanks for your comment.

  20. I did some volunteering in Central America throughout high school, and it was so important to my evolution as a person to see the way that people lived outside of my upper-middle-class, suburban-American existence. To connect with other people through things as simple as laughter and play is the most basic kind of joy. I’m glad that you and your kids have gotten to have the same experiences–good for you for exposing your family to what life is like outside of your own microcosm. They’ll be better people for it, and hopefully it makes a difference in the lives of others as well!

    • Robin, what a great experience. I am so impressed your parents let you go. What a mature thing for a high-schooler to do I bet you were changed forever. My daughter is doing more of this kind of work this summer so I know it has been great for her. Thanks for your comment.

  21. Wow! I had no idea this went on in the United States. I’ve seen service opportunities like this in Mexico, but not here. How can others get involved?

    We once visited some very rural, poor villages in China, which changed my children’s lives. I’d love to do that again!

    • Liz, I am blessed to know them. They changed the lives of my family. They are so thankful for whatever we do for them. And the kids are precious. So cute and happy. I learned a lot from them. Thanks for reading.

  22. This reminds me of homeless camps that are throughout the US. It’s sad that there are unscrupulous people that make promises that they do not intend to keep. Glad that you are able to help out where you can.

    • Mary, I think those people are evil. I don’t see how they can look themselves in the mirror. I am glad we have been able to help. Thanks for reading.

  23. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea this place even existed. I guess I need to get out a little more and see what others don’t want to. What you and your family are doing is wonderful!

  24. Julie, thank you for such an informative and inspiring post. I had heard the term Colonias before but never understood what it meant. So I appreciate learning about them. It must be so heartbreaking to see these places and the conditions people live in. What a formative experience for you and your children to get involved and help where you can. I am sure that it does give you tremendous perspective on what is important and an appreciation of what you and your family have. Blessings to you and well done for helping the marginalized and vulnerable. You are so right, Jesus was with you and I imagine He was nodding and saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servants.”

    • Anne, what a beautiful comment. Thank you for your thoughts. I am glad I could help shed light on an area that is so forgotten. It is heartbreaking to witness some of these sad things. It takes a while to mentally process. Bless you!

  25. God bless your good heart! This is so sad that there are people that have to live that way. I am thankful for people like you and your family who go out of their way to make these people’s lives a little better even for just a short time. Thanks for raising awareness and may your tribe increase!

    • Thanks so much. Our church is constantly sending people down to this area. It is a great way to do something so meaningful in my own state. We don’t even need a passport. Thanks for reading.

  26. This is such a great thing to do with your children! And I agree that participating in something like this, really shows you what is important in life. Thank you for the work that you and your Church do in volunteering for causes like this!

    • I am just a small part of such a large mission group in my church. They send many people down to the Colonias during the year. I feel so blessed to be a part of a big mission. Thanks for reading.

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