Easy service projects for kids

All of these ideas take a few hours or less.

Whether your kids want to give back to the community somehow or you just need to fulfill a social studies requirement, these service projects can be done quickly and cheaply. Most are good for year-round service, too. Pick one and spend your next day off teaching your kiddo how good it feels to volunteer.

Cookies for Service People. Our 4H Club just made two batches of cookies for the local firemen and police officers last night and we will be delivering them this afternoon. The kids made two batches plus a few cards to go with them, which are pretty darn cute. The older girls even drew firemen and police officer “chibi” people.

Blankets for People in Need. Whether it’s a crisis nursery or for homeless people, a blanket and other warmth-producing items are very valuable. You can collect them as a group or even make them. If you make fleece blankets to give to homeless people, be sure that they are dark in color so they don’t stick out. Fleece is a great choice because it doesn’t fray.

Litter Pick-Up. What city couldn’t use that? You can clean up your local park, your neighborhood, or even adopt a highway. This last option also gives your group free advertising if you choose to be recognized with a sign, so if your church group, 4H club, or other organization wants to get involved, that’s a great way to do it.

Tutoring. Middle, junior high, and high school students can tutor younger kids in the school subjects they are comfortable with. They also might want to teach children to read, help them with their soccer movies, or otherwise serve as a mentor.

Local Volunteering. Check with the library, hospital, nursing center, or anywhere else in town to see who might have some volunteer jobs for kids and teens to do. Some teens may find a really cool zoo internship that doesn’t pay but provides lots of great experience. Others may be able to put in a couple of hours at the library each week to help stock books or even read to kids.

Animal Care. Animal shelters are often so crowded that they don’t have space for enough animals—or enough volunteers to help out. You can come in and offer to walk dogs, play with animals, feed and brush them, and clean out cages. You can also volunteer as a foster family for an animal until he or she finds a forever home—or you can always adopt one as a family.

Christmas generosity abounds, even with landlords

Generous L.A. landlord drops rent for the holidays.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year, isn't it? I love the holidays, in part because for once, there's no shortage of great news. Maybe the media makes a special effort to find and report on good news more in December?

Whatever the reason, I couldn't be happier to tell you about one such great news story. It's about a Los Angeles landlord who decided to cut his residents a big break for the holiday.

Eventually, the holiday spirit grabs us all in some way. That's apparently what happened to one landlord in Los Angeles, California, this month. A Reddit user posted a photo of a letter he received from the landlord, saying that he'd be dropping everyone's rent by $70 for the month of December.

Before we got our house, I'd been a renter for decades. And in all my years, I've never heard of this kind of thing happening. Yes, it's only $70, but hey that's a lot of money, especially around the holidays. Times are tough, money is so tight for so many, and a generous gesture like this one can make all the difference for so many people. This, folks, is how you make your tenants love you!

The landlord suggests that renters could use the $70 "to purchase a gift for someone special in your life." That's a stellar idea, and one that some tenants will likely follow up on. For others, who might be struggling, it's money they can use for groceries or other bills. It's enough to fund a pretty nice Christmas dinner for a family, too. You can read the entire letter here, thanks to a Redditor's posting.

Santa hats off to this generous landlord for his gesture this holiday season. Do you have any stories about great Christmas generosity you'd like to share? Let's hear them in the comments!

NFL cheerleader shaves her head to raise money for cancer research

Megan M. says she hopes to "help reach others."

Last Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium was a special day. Yes, the Indianapolis Colts were playing the Buffalo Bills, but the game almost took a backseat to the actions of one brave cheerleader. Megan M. shaved her head, hoping to raise awareness for cancer research.

The shaving happened in front of 60,000 fans, and proved a poignant and fitting tribute to Colts head coach Chuck 

Have you heard about ChuckStrong? It's an organizational campaign brought about by Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano's own struggle with leukemia. Money raised via ChuckStrong goes to support research, and so far donations are pouring in left and right.

Now, thanks to brave Colts cheerleader Megan M. (her last name isn't made public), even more people across the country know about ChuckStrong. Megan and fellow Colts cheerleader Crystal Anne shaved their heads during Sunday's game after fans raised $10,000 for cancer research. She said she would do it, the donations eventually exceeded $22,000, and in front of everyone, Megan let the Colts mascot, Blue, do the honors.

The money raised through ChuckStrong will go to help other cancer patients in Indiana, by allowing more research. Hair grows back, and with or without it, Megan M. is a beautiful soul for doing what she did. The Indianapolis Colts organization should be very proud of Megan, because she represents the best of the best.

Megan appeared this week on ABC's Good Morning America, explaining why she made the decision to shave her head, saying:

I’ve had family members and mentors [with cancer] and I volunteer at a local children’s hospital and met little girls who lost their hair and saw the bravery that they possess and it was just something that I wanted to do to help reach others.

If you would like to learn more about ChuckStrong, you can visit the official Indianapolis Colts' official website to make a donation.

Thanksgiving generosity warms the heart

My local community came up big in that department.

As I continue to watch and hear heartbreaking stories from the Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Northeast, I also continue to have flashbacks to my own community's epic struggles following a disaster. In our case, it was a deadly April 2011 tornado that literally ripped Tuscaloosa, Alabama, apart at the seams. Recovery from these kinds of large scale disasters takes a really long time, and all these months later, Tuscaloosa is still in need. My heart goes out to everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere, as they have a long, hard road ahead.

There is great news, though: With the help of a generous community, recovery can be less overwhelming. You'll get national support, sure, but once the headlines fade a bit, it's the locals who step up the most.

This is exactly what happened on Thanksgiving Day 2012 here in Tuscaloosa. For the second year in a row, members of the Alberta Baptist Church served a wonderful holiday meal to countless residents in need of some Thanksgiving cheer. Alberta Baptist, by the way, is a historic local church that was virtually destroyed by the tornado. The church is still rebuilding, but they're starting from within -- helping the people first.

Buildings are important, of course. A church needs, well, a *church* for the congregation to gather and worship. That hasn't stopped the Alberta Baptist Church from reaching out. This year's Alberta Community Thanksgiving Lunch was a huge success, feeding so many and once again uniting a community that was almost ripped apart less than two years ago.

It's efforts like these, I think, that benefit local communities hardest hit by disaster the most. Little by little, this great city of mine continues to pick up the pieces and rebuild, but along the way, spirits are being renewed.

Army veteran runs cross-country to honor America's fallen heroes

Mike Ehredt's tribute is beautiful and moving.

In honor of Veterans Day, I thought all of you would appreciate the story of Mike Ehredt. He is an Army veteran who started something called Project America Run. What is he doing? In short, he's jogging around the country in honor of every single American soldier who has died in the war in Afghanistan. Yes, that means thousands of miles and, tragically, thousands of soldiers memorialized.

Mike Ehredt's journey wrapped up on Veterans Day in Texas, but his tribute to America's fallen heroes will forever be remembered.

Back on August 23, 2012, Mike Ehredt set out on his journey. All total, he ran each day from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, for a total of 2,146 miles. Each mile represented one fallen soldier. And at each mile mark, Ehredt took a small American flag out of a basket, placed it in the ground, gave a salute, and kept going. He stayed with families of some of the soldiers along the way.

Mike Ehredt's Project America Run was a truly beautiful tribute. It also drew attention to the (far too many) soldiers who have died fighting for freedom. Each flag represents a life lost, a family grieving and a soldier remembered forever for the sacrifices they made. When asked why he decided to make his cross-country run, Ehredt said, "I just wanted to do something for them, something genuine and pure that no one would replicate."

At 51-years-old, Mike Ehredt ran an average of 26 miles each day, for 81 straight days. That, friends, is dedication of the highest order. Thank you, sir, for your service to our country and for your genuine efforts to honor the nation's fallen heroes.

Lady Gaga comes through in a big way for Sandy victims

Singer gave how much to the Red Cross?!

I've got to say, despite all of the horror and hardships associated with Superstorm Sandy, I'm heartened by the generosity of everyone, celebrities included. Last week, we had the big NBC Sandy telethon that raised something like $23 million, and now word comes today that none other than Lady Gaga has pledged big. How big?

Lady Gaga is making a $1 million donation to the American Red Cross, in an effort to help everyone affected so terribly by Sandy. That's fantastic news!At this point, the Red Cross has got to be overwhelmed. So many millions of Americans are still dealing with the destruction left in Hurricane Sandy's wake, and all of them will need some sort of assistance -- even if it's just a hot meal and some words of encouragement. Trust me, even that makes a major difference when you've lost everything. The Red Cross needs donations to keep the support coming, and that's where celebrities like Lady Gaga come in...

Lady Gaga has always been a proud New Yorker, and now she's putting her money where her mouth is, in the form of a cool $1 million pledge to the Red Cross. This will go a very, very long way. She says she's making the gift because she's so grateful to New York for "raising" her and her family members.

Other notable celebrities are no doubt opening up their (sizeable) pocketbooks to help, too. Some will make massive donations -- and we'll never hear about them. Thanks too, to the unsung heroes. Every bit helps, no matter how large or small.

If you'd like to donate to the American Red Cross and help victims of Sandy, you can find all the information you need on the agency's official website.

Amid the destruction and devastation of Sandy, heroes emerge

Anyone who helps others during these times is a hero.

We all knew that if forecasters were right, parts of the Northeast would be dealt a devastating blow from Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy when it hit earlier this week. Sadly, they were right, and now all up and down the East Coast, people are dealing with the shock that always comes with a natural disaster of this magnitude. In the days to come, we'll likely continue to hear horrific stories of those who survived -- and, sadly, didn't survive -- come to light. In times like this, I try hard to focus on whatever positives I can.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by Sandy. One thing I learned, from surviving and recovering (slowly, ever so slowly) from a massive weather-related disaster is this: Heroes emerge during the most trying of times. We're starting to realize just how many people are willing to do anything and everything to help others, even when faced with a life-threatening storm.It would be impossible to name all of those heroes who have emerged in the wake of Sandy, but some stood out immediately in my mind: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for his round-the-clock efforts to get help to the most badly stricken areas of his state, for one.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who told people in Zone A of the NYC area to get out well before the storm hit. He saved lives with that evacuation order, no doubt. I do know a thing or two about disaster recovery, and I know that it needs to be a combined effort of federal, state and local officials all working together towards a common goal. When it works, it really works -- and so far, I'm impressed.

Other heroes include the utility crews from all over the country who are helping to get power back on as quickly as possible to millions. I learned today that one of our local Alabama Power crews is busy helping out in New Jersey. It's tiring work, and to me, they are heroes.

To the first responders, the people who absolutely put the lives of others ahead of their own in any situation, I thank you. You are all heroes, and I can only hope as more stories of heroism emerge in coming days that everyone will stop to appreciate what you've done.

Yes, even when faced with the worst possible disaster, Americans do pull together. That, folks, is great news. If any of you are in the hardest hit areas, I wish you the best recovery possible. It may not seem like it now, but you will get stronger from this and you will rebuild your communities stronger and, in most cases, better than before. Eighteen months later, I finally have the perspective to say that.

If you'd like to highlight your own heroes from the storm, please do, in the comments. We'd all love to read them.

Firefighters save couple's elderly cat from house blaze

Lucky feline, Tiki Bear, survived.

Cat lovers, this story is for you. This week, a 17-year-old kitty named Tiki Bear was rescued from his owner's burning home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The firemen at the scene bravely fought the blaze, and they still took the time to get this lucky cat out.

Yes, this is great news, but why do I think it's so important? I'll tell you why: Anyone who owns pets needs to have a special sticker or sign on their doors, to let firefighters know they're inside.Two years ago, a close friend of our family had a devastating house fire. He and his wife lost everything they owned in a matter of minutes. The blaze, which broke out at 4 a.m.., started with an electrical problem in one of their cars. It took seconds to ignite the garage, and then the whole home. Thankfully, smoke detectors alerted our friend and they got out in time.

They got out, and then realized that their two cats were still inside. I don't have to tell you, pet lovers, how devastated they were. There is good news: They had a little sticker inside their door, letting firefighters know there were two cats inside. Both were rescued!

I'll get off my soapbox now, but really, make sure you have some way of letting rescue crews know you have pets. It can make all the difference.

Back to Tiki Bear: Dave Adams and his wife's historic home suffered a lot of damage, but firefighters managed to get the elderly cat outside. He was given oxygen and thankfully, he began to breathe! A vet checked Tiki Bear out for smoke inhalation. The sweet kitty is still in intensive care, but she's alive. A special Facebook page was set up to help the owners pay for all of Tiki's medical care, too.

Get well soon, Tiki Bear!

Puppies help to save lost boy, keep him warm overnight

10-year-old with Down syndrome is home safe and sound.

I just heard the most incredible dog story, and it happened right here in my home state. I knew I had to share this with everyone, because even now I'm just in awe. Animals never cease to amaze me, and I'm thrilled to tell you this great news.

A little boy in the tiny town of Hackleburg, Alabama went missing near his house earlier this week. A frantic search was launched, and now 10-year-old Kyle Camp is home, safe, with his family again, thanks to the heroic efforts of four puppies.When Kyle Camp vanished from his house on Tuesday afternoon, his family was, understandably, frantic. A massive search ensued, and local TV news crews were called out to cover the story. Everyone was worried. Kyle has Down syndrome, and his brother, father and other relatives were desperate to find him as quickly as possible.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, a searcher found Kyle Camp in a wooded area not too far from his house. He'd spend a long, cold night outside in the elements, but he had some company. While Kyle was waiting for help to arrive, four puppies were with him. Officials believe that the pups helped to keep the boy warm overnight.

See? I told you it was an incredible story! Thank goodness for these adorable puppies, cuddling with this lost, probably terrified little boy until he was rescued. Amazingly, Kyle Camp only had "minor scrapes and bruises" as a result of his ordeal. He's going to be fine, thanks to the efforts of his four four-legged new best friends!

Dog walks miles to see owner in the hospital

Zander goes on an amazing journey.

As most of you know by now, I am a total sucker for a great dog story, and this one definitely qualifies. When Zander the dog's owner was hospitalized, the gorgeous white husky missed him terribly. That's not unusual: Dogs love us unconditionally, and they often miss us terribly when we're gone, even if it's just for a few minutes.

Zander decided he missed his owner so much that he was going to find him. And he did -- two miles away, at the Good Samaritan Medical Center in Islip, New York. If this story isn't a testimony to the overwhelmingly wonderful goodness of dogs, I don't know what is!Zander's owner, John Dolan, was in his hospital bed last week when a hospital worker told him that his dog was inside the building. Apparently, Zander (a known escape artist) had moped for days while Dolan was hospitalized, and finally opted to try and find him.

Amazingly, Zander walked two miles through totally unfamiliar territory to the hospital. How on earth did he know where to find his owner? Yes, dogs have an uncanny ability to track via scent, but there has to be something else at work here, don't you think?

Dogs are simply incredible creatures. Their loyalty knows no bounds, and their love is heartwarming. Zander made the journey successfully once, and then, he tried a second time! Fortunately, he wasn't injured. The route from John Dolan's house to the hospital is a dangerous one on a very busy road. Somehow, miraculously, Zander found him.

Here's to Zander, and here's to John Dolan, for rescuing this beautiful creature so many years ago!