Several years and several children ago, when I was a mother to a 1- and 2-year old, I spent hours trying to find a volunteer activity that we could do as a family. In high school and college, I was very involved in volunteer organizations and headed up the largest year-round service organization at my university. After graduation, I worked in the housing projects in Washington, DC, running after-school programs. It was my passion and I loved it!
Despite all of my volunteer experience as a young adult, as a parent I came up empty-handed when I searched for volunteer opportunities for my kids. Since then, I’ve become more creative and have been delighted with the experiences I’ve been able to offer my chicks. My kids aren’t yet fully cooked, but I hope that they will be “good eggs” as adults, those committed to serving their communities through volunteerism.
Below are some ideas to get you thinking about how you can better involve your young family in serving your community by thinking about people, places, and passions.
There are people in need in your very own neighborhood. You don’t have to go far to find someone who could use the help of a family, even one with small children.
The elderly or homebound – Are there elderly or homebound people living in your neighborhood? Could you and your children take out their trash, weed their gardens, fold laundry, help them put on their shoes, make sure their pets have food and water, teach them how to use a cell phone, or offer to pick up groceries for them.
One of the activities I did with the middle schoolers who I worked with in DC was match them up with seniors living in a nearby retirement home. The kids would go in pairs to visit their assigned seniors, spend about 30 minutes visiting and helping around their apartments, and then they were instructed to ask if the could pick anything up for their new friends at the corner convenience mart. Precious friendships were created, and the elderly were spared the hassle of going out in the heat of the summer to pick up a gallon of milk or loaf of bread.
There are obvious benefits to those being served, but there are so many benefits to your children by serving the elderly or homebound in their neighborhood. Your children can develop relationships with those who may be lonely. My 4-year-old niece’s best friend is her 74-year-old neighbor! Your children’s confidence in communicating with adults should improve, and it should also improve the safety of those being served by having someone checking in on them on a regular basis. It also makes the kids feel really good. In the strictest definition of altruism, there should be no benefit to the person doing the service, but those who have volunteered before know just how good it can make you feel.
The impoverished – My city is filled with homeless men, women, and children. There are numerous organizations that work to serve them and, although many may not be interested in having children doing direct service with them, there are some that may be open to it.
Two weeks ago I took a group of girls as young as 4-years-old to a soup kitchen. The girls worked in pairs to serve the homeless men and women plates of food and cup after cup of lemonade. The kids kindly elbowed each other out of the way so that they could serve as many people as possible. It was inspiring to say the least. The girls treated their guests with dignity and respect, and greeted each of them with direct eye contact and a cheerful smile. What an experience for everyone there to see these precious children fearlessly serving those that many adults fear!
After leaving the soup kitchen, the girls in my car were on such a high that they wanted to stop under the interstate to help the homeless in their tents, which leads me to my next suggestion…
A recent trend that I’ve heard about from several friends is having “blessing bags” in your car at all times. A blessing bag is a large Ziploc bag filled with things that a homeless person may need – a bottle of water, baby wipes, deodorant, trail mix, fresh fruit, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, a juice box, gloves during the winter, etc. The possibilities are endless! And if that seems like too much, how about having a case of water on the floor of your car to give out on hot days?
It’s important to not be naive. Some of the homeless are mentally unstable and you and your children need to be safe. Passing a blessing bag or bottle of water through the window at a stoplight to a person who is panhandling is a pretty safe way to directly serve them. And if your children are interested and you feel comfortable with it, let them pass it through the window.
A simple thing that children can do is go through their toys and donate some to Goodwill or a similar organization. It makes my heart swell when I see them put something in the bag that they still play with. I’m always amazed at how much and what my kids are willing to part with when they’re told why they’re doing it. In fact, my husband and I sometimes need to go back through the bags and take out items that are really special (like my husband’s childhood toys or a book given to them by their now-deceased great-grandparents). But we do that when they’re not looking. We want them to give generously, even if it hurts a little!
One summer, there was a big event in the park next to our neighborhood. Since parking there is limited, our neighborhood becomes an overflow lot. My kids decided to set up a lemonade stand and donate all of the proceeds to our favorite charity, Kid Power-DC. Passersby were so touched to see such little ones trying to help other kids in need. And my kids had a blast!
The benefits to your children serving the impoverished in your community are myriad. I think the most important lesson learned is that there is very little difference between us and them. Historically, my daughter is terrified of anyone who looks different than she does – a person with a disability or deformity, someone who hasn’t had a bath in several weeks. By going to the soup kitchen and performing a direct service, she saw how the volunteers treating the men and women courteously, that they weren’t scared. She saw her friends cheerfully serving plates of food to the homeless and then cleaning up after them. What she saw, in essence, was that those being served weren’t much different from those doing the serving. It was awesome.
Green spaces - The very first service activity we did as a family was picking up trash in our local park. It’s an urban park and there is always trash everywhere, especially after a busy weekend. My husband and I got surgical gloves for the kids to wear and we each held a garbage bag. The kids, who were 2 and 3 at the time, were instructed to pick up any paper that they saw and to ask before picking up anything else. Like always, it turned into a friendly competition to see who could pick up the most trash the fastest.
What was beautiful was that other parents approached us and asked us what group we were with. When we said we were just a family that used the park frequently, they joined us! They said it was the least they could do to show appreciation for having access to such a historical, oak-filled public park. We’ve done this several times now, even if just for 10 minutes, and when we’re done, the kids get to go play. Everybody wins!
There is a small vegetable garden at another park nearby, and I approached the director and asked if we could occasionally weed it. Of course she said yes, so I would take my little ones out there with gardening gloves and kid-sized trowels to dig up the dollar weed and dandelions. Just like at the other park, when we finish, they get to go play in the park. Happy mom, happy kids, happy park.
Your neighborhood - Do you ever go for walks in your neighborhood? If you have a dog, you probably carry garbage bags with you. Even if you don’t have a dog, you should have a bag with you so that when you come across pieces of trash, your kids can pick them up and put them in the bag. It’s a great way of being invested in the aesthetic of your community.
Are your children interested in something like pets or music? One way to encourage them to volunteer is to have the activity focused on their passion.
For example, if you children are musically inclined, encourage them to share their musical gifts with one of the groups of people mentioned above. Maybe you can take them or their musical group to a Senior Center to perform. Or how about a hospital or homeless shelter?
My daughter is obsessed with animals. Obsessed. So I emailed some animal rescue groups to see if there was anything she could do to help them, like bathing, feeding, or walking the animals. She was too little for all of the groups that I contacted, but one woman told me that pets that were up for adoption were much more likely to be adopted if they were photographed with children. Voila! She became a pet adoption model!
Something I did as a teenager that you could do with your children if you have a really well-behaved dog is ask a retirement home if you could bring your dog to visit with the residents. My daughter comes out of her shell when she’s walking our dog and people ask if they can pet her. My self-conscious girl becomes confident, a clear leader, telling strangers all about what breed of dog she is, her name, and how old she is. Our dog is too nervous around new people to go to a senior center, but if we had a more gregarious pup, you better believe I’d take the kids and the dog to a retirement home for short visits.
What passions do your children have? Can you think of any group in need that could benefit from their help? What volunteer activities have you done with your kids?