We talk about compassion in our family. We talk about donating toys, clothes and money to people who can’t afford them. We even box these things up and drop them off at donation centers – but beyond that, my 5-year-old has little understanding of what it means to be compassionate toward people outside her immediate circle. These people we’re helping – they have no faces. There is no connection.

Then one day, we were walking up the sidewalk to our home when a stranger approached. He told us he was homeless and had no money. Could we help?

I said no, that I was sorry. That I couldn’t help.

And we walked inside the house and we shut and locked the door. I don’t give money to panhandlers at my home. That just seems risky.

Then I realized how strange that may have looked to my 5-year-old. Where was all that compassion I talk about? How could I reconcile the fact that the one and only time my daughter saw the face of someone who asked me for help, I said no?

I wrestled with this for a few days before settling on an idea – rather than trying to explain to her why I said no in that situation, I would show her how to say yes to compassion. I began searching for a community service project we could do together, which was not as easy as I’d hoped. When she gets older the possibilities are vast, but what would be appropriate for a 5-year-old? Something in which she could really contribute, and something that would be fun?

An email to our local senior citizens center revealed an answer. The center runs a Meals on Wheels program, providing lunch to many area senior citizens. The center suggested we make cards for the seniors, and the volunteers could drop them off with a meal.

I knew my crafty girl would like this idea and I knew her crafty friends would too, so we made it a party. Six girls stamped and stickered and colored and drew on construction paper all afternoon, making cards as we parents talked about the importance of caring for the elderly.

In two weeks we’re getting together again, this time to assemble care packages to go along with the cards. I look forward to bringing Camille with me when we drop off the donations. I’m hoping we’ll have a chance to say hello to some of the seniors there – perhaps some of the same ones who will receive a card and care package.

I wish she could hand-deliver each card herself, but no matter who delivers them, I imagine these cards will be met with smiles.

I’m finding additional opportunities at my church as well. When a group of church members got together to pack boxes of donated shoes to be sent to children in the Philippines, I brought Camille along, too. When our church hosted a dinner for a group of homeless families with children, I brought Camille with me so we could eat with them. I’m realizing that there are things we can do – from big projects like the care packages, to small gestures like a meal with strangers – to help her understand what it means to be compassionate.

I’d love to hear other suggestions as well. If you have found a great project or a fun way to teach your child about compassion and community service, please share with us!