Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Volunteering as a family

Over time volunteering has become more and more important in our family and in my kids' education. As we have become more involved in our community and my kids have become more aware of the needs around them, and as they have gotten older, volunteering has naturally evolved into a regular family activity.

There are amazing benefits that come from volunteering.
~ It exposes kids to other ways of living. By dedicating their time to organizations which provide services to people with fewer economic resources, my kids have gained an appreciation that not everyone lives with all the amenities they have. Other volunteers talk to the kids about different passions, different choices and different viewpoints.
~ It also exposes them to potential mentors, other adults who care about the things they care about and who appreciate the efforts and connections my kids are making. This has become more important as my kids get older and I want them to connect with adults that model ways of living their values.
~ Volunteering gives my kids a sense of both power and accomplishment. They love to tell their grandmother about the number of food boxes packed, or trees planted, or hours spent with seniors. When faced with a challenge or a story about a problem, my kids initial reaction is now "How do we fix this? What can we do?" It is becoming part of their natural assumption that they have the responsibility, power and the opportunity to make a difference. I think this helps them not feel paralysed when something like the Haiti earthquake happens. They feel powerful to make a positive contribution.
~ It also connects them to their community in a variety of ways. The trees we plant become part of "our" forest. They check the food bank bins at the grocery store to see what we could donate and to make sure that no one has mistaken them for a garbage can. They clean up trails as we walk, put away garbage cans for the neighbours whose walks we shovel, pick up books off the floor at the children's library because they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for these spaces.

We've been lucky in our community that there are a number of organizations which welcome the contributions of kids. Finding opportunities to volunteer with young kids can be a challenge. But you don't have to start with a structured organization to introduce your kids to the concept of giving back to your community. There are plenty of informal ways you can model that lifestyle for your kids:
~ organize a clean up day at a favourite park or trail and invite friends
~ shovel your elderly or busy neighbours walks,
~ have them help choose food and deliver it directly to the food bank
~ invite them to participate in the discussion about and the act of donating
~ stay after a meeting or church to clean up chairs or toys
~ take flowers or cookies or magazines to a senior's home to share

Other things our friends with younger families do:
~ volunteer for non-profit thrift stores to sort and count game and puzzle pieces,
~ deliver meals on wheels
~ become reading buddies at a neighbourhood group or school
~ participate in toy cleaning at toy libraries
~ help with the garden fresh box to sort and pack produce prior to delivery
~ helping with the general maintenance and clean up of community garden space
~ helping at CSAs (community supported agriculture) - maintenance, picking, packing, sorting etc

How do you make volunteering and integral family value?
~Nurture compassion in your children. Help them notice the situations others face and give them some ideas or opportunities to help.
~ Talk about your own volunteering and why it is important to you.
~ Acknowledge their efforts and ideas and find a way to help them make things happen. They may not be able to pull off the full scale concert that they are planning but perhaps they could busk at the farmer's market and donate their takings.
~ Create a culture of pitching in in your own family so that everyone does their part and supports each other.
~ Realize that we all want to feel needed and as though we have a purpose. Find ways to honour and support that in our children.

Ways to make volunteering a success:

~ Choose opportunities that your kids are passionate about, or which have a natural connection to your daily life so that your children are engaged from the get go.
~ Be realistic about what they can do and look for opportunities where they can succeed. A very busy 3 year old will probably do better helping to spot garbage on a hiking trail than in a situation which requires them to contain their energy and enthusiasm.
~ Prep your kids. Talk to them about the expectations for appropriate behaviour. Teach them that volunteering is a gift we give to others but also to ourselves and that the situation deserves our best efforts. One of the places we pack boxes has a wonderful way of talking with the children about packing with love and respect so that the recipients will feel our care when they open the boxes. While volunteering should be fun, it is not a time for boisterous play or to forget our purpose.
~ Keep it short. With younger kids, and even with older ones, an hour or so of focused effort is fantastic. Kids will leave enthusiastic about what they accomplished and willing to do more.
~ Celebrate! Help your kids understand what their efforts mean. Call the grandparents and share about the day's activities, write it down in the family journal, have ice cream for dessert.
~ Share the appreciation. While organizations love volunteers, remember to thank the organizations for allowing you the opportunity to serve together as a family and to model action for your children.

Monday, February 22, 2010

If not me, who? If not now, when?

I can't wait to see this in its entirety. It moves me to tears - just these five minutes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Making Friends

I am regularly amazed and inspired by people I encounter who find ways to make a difference in their communities or in the broader world. Sarah of Dolly Donations is one of those people. She hit upon a wonderful idea to share some handmade love and found a way to make it work. I wish I remember how I came across her blog. As soon as I saw it, I knew I'd be making dolls for an orphanage in Haiti. And so I mentioned it to a few friends. And those friends inspired and overwhelmed  me with their willingness to create and to give.

This week, just about every time we saw friends, I was handed bags with small gifts of love, gently sewn into rag dolls. And this weekend we are sending out 37 dolls to the Abundant Ground Foundation who will deliver them to Haiti and into the hands of the children they were made for. The gifts are both humble and profound, made by children sitting on the laps of adults as they sew and stuff, or by mamas who tucked their own children into bed and then stitched together some hope and love for children living a world away. As I embroidered smiles on small brown faces to make friends for children I will never meet, I was thinking that what all of us really want is to make their world right, with a mother to tuck them in safely and sing them to sleep. The dolls are a small substitute for that love but hopefully they will bring some smiles and comfort into the world of those children. I think my friend Joanna said so it beautifully. 
I am not kidding myself that this will change very much in their hard lives. I know, though, that if my little ones ever found themselves without me there to care for them, I would be overcome with gratitude if another Mama, somewhere in the world, shared a little bit of her hand made love with my children.

The language of friendship is not words but meanings.
~ Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, February 20, 2010

World Day of Social Justice

The child becomes largely what it is taught; hence we must watch what we teach it, and how we live before it.
~Jane Addams

In 2009 The UN declared February 20th World Day of Social Justice. Governments meeting at that Summit pledged to make poverty eradication, the goal of full employment and the fostering of social integration overriding objectives of development.

It's a huge topic to talk to kids about. What does it mean to have a fair society? What stands in the way of that? And most importantly what can we do about it? What do we need to learn about in order to make changes?

As a family one of the things we talk about our assumptions and how those influence what kinds of decisions we make. If we assume that everyone has the same access to education, to wages, to food, to safe places to live, then we may not make decisions that are inclusive and respectful. If we assume everyone experiences things like we do, as people who were born here and learned English as our first language, who look like most of the people in our city look and who have not had to learn about the culture here, then we might think the way people treat us is the way people treat all our friends and neighbours.

I find social justice tricky to talk about, in part because the term covers so much ground and in part because it challenges the kids assumptions that all people value each other regardless of colour, religion, socioeconomic status, language etc. But books always help and therese are a few we have enjoyed recently. And every time I close the cover of a book and look at my children I realize that my job is mostly to nuture the innate sense of justice and fairness and good that they were born with - to keep my own prejudices and assumptions and fears out of the way so that they can continue to grow in ways that will make all the difference.

The Magic Beads by Susan Nielsen-Fernlund
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
A child's garden: a story of hope by Michael Foreman,
Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

(More at Teaching for Change)

More Resources

The Free Child Project

Cooperative Games for Social Change

Making Cents of Priviledge

And a little hard work for parents Part 1 and Part 2

Wherever there are beginners and experts, old and young, there is some kind of learning going on, some kind of teaching. We are all pupils and we are all teachers.
~ Gilbert Highet

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Random acts of kindness

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
~ Leo Buscaglia

Before we were struck down by various sorts of illness in our house the last week or so, we had plans to do something each day before valentines day to show people we appreciate them. I am hoping that by Monday we will all be well again and able to take part in Random Acts of Kindness Week.
There is a long list of ideas to jumpstart our acts of kindness week.

On my list:
~ write thank you letters to a few organizations which do work I would like to support and recognize.
~ make some simple gestures to show appreciation to community members and neighbours.
~ become more aware of opportunities to practise kindness and to talk to my kids about it.

In doing some research I came across this article from the Seeds of Compassion website that is absolutely worth exploring.

Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.
~ Eric Hoffer

The Child's World of Kindness by Moncure, Jane Belk.
Kindness by Pryor, Kimberley Jane, 1962-
Paulie Pastrami achieves world peace by James Proimos,
For parents
Above All Be Kind by Zoe Weil
On kindness by Adam Phillips,

Kindness trumps greed: it asks for sharing. Kindness trumps fear: it calls forth gratefulness and love. Kindness trumps even stupidity, for with sharing and love, one learns.
~ Marc Estrin

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Black History Month

February marks Black History Month in Canada and the US.  It's a great time to talk to your kids about what history is and why we mark the history of a specific group at a specific time.

Some ideas to celebrate and educate.
~ Watch Black Like Me, Separate but Equal, The Rosa Parks Story or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and discuss with your kids. Find more film suggestions here.
~ Celebrate scientific achievements of black inventors and scientists whose advancements brought us everything from peanut butter to blood banking.
~ Read together. Here's a great book list and a long list of other book lists to choose from.
~ If you have a group of kids you can try some of these activities:
Anti Racism activity using Dr Seuss's The Sneetches
Why Frogs and Snakes Never Play Together
~ Check your community for a gallery, musuem or concert venue which may be hosting an exhibition of some sort to honour Black History.
~ Use music, art and food to create a celebration of black culture and history.
~ Watch this Brainpop video about the impact of the Harlem Renaissance.

Teaching Tolerance Resources
History of Black History Month
Spririt of Greensboro
Time for Kids Black History Month Edition
Surfkids Black History resources

Monday, February 8, 2010

Raising Awareness of Homelessness

Find out more here.

The Girl Effect

The Girl Effect

Girls hold up this world by Jada Pinkett, 
The Girl Effect Facebook Page (more videos here)
See it in action - Watch Beatrice and read her story Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier
Beatrice Biira is a young, poor woman from Uganda who was able to leave her village in Africa and attend an American prep school -- all with the help of a goat.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Heroes and Inspiration

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
A week ago  Ryan and I went to a talk by Greg Mortenson, author of the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Greg's organization, Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace are dedicated to promoting and supporting community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan

Thursday's presentation was held up but weather and Greg seemed a bit flustered but the talk was interesting in any case.

The key point of his message was that education, particularly of girls, is fundamental to eradicating poverty and promoting because it stabilizes population growth, increases a family's income substantially and girls with an education tend to educate their elders and their children in ways educated boys do not. It's also his theory that educated women are less likely to allow/encourage their sons to fight and have the resources to give them other opportunities.

He said that North Americans are basically uneducated about the ways of the world and how those other ways may actually be better than our own. He talked about the transmission of stories and traditions from elders to kids and how in Canada when he asks the question in school about how many kids spend a lot of time with their grandparents or other elders only about 10 percent put up their hands - in the US it is about 5% and in Afghanistan it is about 90%. He encourages kids to study another language and immerse themselves in another culture if they can. He told stories about growing up in Africa in a very diverse culture and coming back to the US where he learned about racism here.

He also talked about how important it was for community buy-in to projects - and for solutions and leadership to come from the community that is being served. He requires something like 5,000 hours of community work in order to fund a school and believes that is one of the reasons that his schools are often left alone by the Taliban - because the community is so invested in it that they protect it with all they have.

The talked confirmed much of what I had already read and knew but the real value was in chatting with Ryan about how one thing can change your life and one person can make such a difference. We got talking about another talk we had been to a few years ago, with Craig Kielberger where the message was basically the same. It's so important to me to provide my kids with inspiration and heroes that portray what really matters.

The greatest personalities that ever existed have been those who united human beings and put them on the road toward cooperation and effectiveness and peace. Those whom the world has held highest have helped to unite and not sever interconnectedness. They have not been the destroyers of differences but the harmonizer of differences.
~ John Lovejoy Elliott

The hero's trail : a guide for a heroic life by TA  Barron,
Paths to peace : people who changed the world by Jane Breskin Zalben, 

Peaceful heroes by Jonah Winter,
The purpose of boys : helping our sons find meaning, significance, and direction in their lives by Michael Gurian,
Heroes and she-roes : poems of amazing and everyday heroes by J Patrick Lewis,
Kidhaven's young hereos series
How to Raise a Hero

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Story of Food

Right now, if you go to the produce section of any supermarket – anyone at all – and buy fruit or vegetables, or cottage cheese, or meat, you would have to eat something like five times as much of that food to get the same amount of vitamins and minerals as your parents or grandparents got in the 1950s.
Canadian writer and journalist Thomas Pawlick

Like the Story of Stuff, this short animated film called The Story of Food highlights the issues that come from not thinking enough about what we are consuming - in this case food.

The need to balance priorities and values can be a challenging one. Food budgets are often one place families can exercise some level of flexibility and many of the ecological and sustainable choices can be more expensive. It can be overwhelming to navigate choices when choosing one often means sacrificing another. Is it better nutritionally and environmentally to by local or organic? If you are new to these ideas the who thing can leave your head spinning.

Over the past few years our family has been slowly integrating changes into our diet. We've always shopped at our local farmer's market for things like local vegetables and fruits, eggs, cheeses and honey. (This has the added benefit of almost no packaging on these items, or packaging that is reusable and sustainable.) I canned far more this fall than I ever have meaning that more and more of our staples are local, many are organic. I have been finding more local sources for items like flour and have been investing more time making our own bread and yogurt. With a new freezer in the plans I hope to be able to freeze more of our winter needs - vegetables like peppers, beans, broccoli and corn, and fruits like berries, and peaches.
I'd love to try gardening but need to be realistic about what we could hope to achieve in our postage sized lot that sits in full shade all summer long.

But there are more things we could do:

~ Grow some of our own food - a small plot of greens, herbs in a window sill, tomatoes in a pot in a sunny corner, or plan a bigger garden if you have the space.

~ The movement to urban homesteading is huge. Use google to see if there is an organization or an urban farm you can visit.

~ Find out about community garden space, garden sharing programs and support these projects in our communities.

~ Grow heritage varieties, save and trade seeds, ask local farmers about whether they use heritage seeds and how you can support them.

~ Get to know local sources; CSAs, farmer's markets, local farm stands and support these enterprises.

~ Make more of your own food. Technology like bread machines and yogurt makers mean we can have fresh food, free from preservatives with a minimal amount of effort.

~ Teach our kids about food and help them establish a connection to it. We've been lucky to be able to tour local goat farms, apiaries, dairies. We are able to pick apples and berries each year for freezing and canning, help friends with their back yard chickens, meet the farmers who grow the tomatoes we can and who press the cider we drink.

~ Talk about the decisions we are making and why.

~ Tour the supermarket to see where food comes from. It can be a bit frightening.

~ Food, Inc. [videorecording DVD] / Magnolia Pictures,
~ Omnivore's dilemma (Young Reader's Edition) by Michael Pollan,
~ Fast food nation: the dark side of the all-American meal by Eric Schlosser
~ Scientifically engineered foods: the debate over what's on your plate by Allan Cobb,
~ Farmers market by Carmen Parks,
~ WWF's Biodiversity educational resources
~Resources for Rethinking
~ The Edible Schoolyard (some of the recipes and lesson plans are fun).