Shortly before Christmas five years ago, Lynda and Bob Brady of Bloomington, Ill., gathered their six kids in the living room and read them an article from their local newspaper. It was about a father of five who could not afford to buy his young children Christmas gifts. 

“We said, ‘Guys, you have tons of toys. How about this year, instead of Daddy and me buying you a lot of stuff, we ‘adopt’ this family and use the money to make their Christmas special?’” 

The children enthusiastically agreed to the plan.  

‘Extreme’ giving 

It was the beginning of a Brady family tradition. “Service has become something we love to do together,” Lynda said. 

The children — now ranging in age from 7 to 16 — join their parents in food drives, fundraising for cancer charities and in volunteer work for Easter Seals, Special Olympics and other organizations. Last year, the kids spent a school break preparing more than 400 meals per day for the homeless. 

Bob, who co-owns a home-building business, founded the “William F. Brady Day of the Dozer,” named for his late father, which has raised over $400,000 for cancer charities by selling $5 rides on bulldozers, backhoes and other construction equipment. Hundreds of families attend each year. The Brady kids sell concessions and bring water to the drivers. 

Last fall, the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” asked Bob to shut down his business for a month to build a free house for a family in need. When Bob agreed, people thought he was crazy. After all, his business was one of the recession’s hardest-hit industries. Yet, he didn’t hesitate. 

“There’s probably no better time to give than when you’re really hurting,” Bob said. 

The Bradys were moved by the family’s story. The father, Nathan Montgomery, had given up a comfortable salary as an engineer to launch Salt and Light, a charity that feeds hundreds of families each week in his community. Meanwhile, the Montgomerys’ home was literally falling down around them. The roof was collapsing, much of the siding was gone and the foundation was crumbling — but they could not afford repairs. 

From the time the wrecking ball hit the house to the day the furniture was moved in, the house was built within 96 hours — a task that usually takes four months. The builders worked 24/7. 

‘It’s the little things’ 

The Bradys also decided to donate a remodel of the Salt and Light building. The kids held food drives at their schools, helped raise $50,000 to replenish its resources and spent hours sorting food and clothing donations. 

“Martin Luther King Jr. said that your greatness is defined by your service,” said Diane Korman, senior producer of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” 

“The Bradys didn’t decide to give back to the community just because a TV show was coming to town. They’ve been doing it for years.” 

Bob said that while “Extreme Makeover” was exciting, he emphasizes to his children that “it’s not just big projects, but also the little things you do for others that make a difference.” 

Seven-year-old Liam helps his 75-year-old aunt with her gardening. Bobby, 11, does chores for an elderly neighbor. Katherine, 12, and Sarah, 10, help teachers after school. 

“They’re just regular kids who realize it’s so easy to do things for people, and it makes them feel good,” Lynda said. 

Augustinian influence 

Integrating service with family life comes naturally to Bob and Lynda, both graduates of Villanova University, which was founded by the Order of St. Augustine. At Villanova, the couple were influenced by Augustinian values, which include dedication to the common good. 

Bob remembers the example his football coach, Andy Talley, who took players to visit patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and who initiated a bone marrow donor program for athletes. “They were wonderful examples of giving back,” said Bob. 

Lynda agreed: “The Augustinians taught us to work as a family, to do for and give to others.” 

Recently, 16-year-old Anne and 14-year-old Marion approached their parents and asked to go on a mission trip to Haiti. “We’re still discussing that one,” Lynda said. “They’re so young. We’re thinking something a little closer to home ... for now.” 

Jennifer Schu writes from Illinois.