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.