Families open their hearts to others By Liz DeCarloPhotos courtesy of VolunteerMatch Organizations are opening more opportunities for families that want to volunteer together.
My 7-year-old daughter would like to save the world-one abandoned cat at a time. Her passion for animals and my desire to teach her about volunteering have resulted in our spending Saturday afternoons at a local cat shelter. There we clean litter boxes, brush fur, enjoy each other's company and help the save the world-or at least our little corner of it.
As parents, many of us would like to teach our children the joy of helping others through volunteering. But finding the time in our busy lives and an organization that's receptive to family volunteers can present a challenge.
When Emma expressed a desire to help the abandoned animals she learned about online, I went in search of an opportunity to help as a family. It wasn't easy. For safety reasons, many local animal shelters don't allow children under 12 to interact with the animals, even if a parent is present.
We found our opportunity on the Web. I visited a volunteer matching site that allowed me to enter search by the type of volunteering, the geographic area and the ages of the volunteers. We were thrilled to be matched with the PACT Humane Society, which operates out of a nearby PETsMART store. The PACT volunteer coordinator loved the idea of family volunteering and was eager for us to join them.
We weren't the only ones interested in volunteering as a family. VolunteerMatch, the online organization we used to find PACT, has seen an upswing in interested families.
"As more organizations realize people want to volunteer with their families, they're opening up opportunities," says Jason Willett, director of communications for VolunteerMatch. "It's a win-win situation for the families and the organization."
Jocelyn Dionisio, director of volunteer resources for the Community Resource Network in Chicago, says family volunteering still is relatively new, so families and organizations are still adjusting to one another's needs.
"It's a value for the organization if they know how to be flexible to the dynamics of the family working together," Dionisio says. "But they have to make sure the family has the information to ensure their safety and the family has to be open to what the organization needs and if it's appropriate for children."
"Parents need to be realistic about what types of volunteering they can do as a family," says Susan Norris, volunteer center vice president for the Community Resource Network. "If they have a 1- or 2-year-old, they may not be able to help because of the demands of their child and it may not be safe to have the children running around if the parents are doing something like serving meals."
Norris recommends parents of very young children seek opportunities from home, such as collecting food, clothing or toys for the needy or preparing meals to deliver to a shelter or help sort food in local pantries.
Dena Provenzano of Darien volunteers with Horizon Hospice in Chicago and has found many opportunities for her 2-year-old twins and 6-year-old to help out. Because she works with families who are very low-income, she spends time making meals at home and collecting donations that she and her children deliver to the families.
When she recently visited a family on Chicago's West Side, she brought her three boys along to provide some enthusiastic visitors while she delivered a casserole and some kitchenware for a needy family.
"I love sharing this with the boys because children are naturally givers," says Provenzano. "They have such an openness to give, and watching them, I receive so much, too."
When Provenzano is not able to take the boys with her, she has them make pictures to give to the families, who often live in very stark conditions.
Another option for parents with very young children is to find programs that serve senior citizens, which are often the most receptive to family volunteering, Norris says.
Senior citizens in Westmont enjoy the volunteer efforts of Melanie Domke and Bradley, 2. They deliver hot meals to seniors through the DuPage Senior Citizens Council.
Domke, a full-time mom in Clarendon Hills, was looking for a way to get involved in the community. She saw an ad in the local paper seeking drivers to deliver meals to seniors.
When she called the volunteer coordinator, she found the program offers "mom" routes for people who bring small children along. Domke's route has no apartments, only homes. That way, she can drive up and deliver the food without taking Bradley out of the car if it's cold or he has fallen asleep.
When they started a year ago, Bradley didn't understand much of what they were doing, but Domke says he understands more every time they volunteer. "He seems to enjoy it, and he goes into the senior citizen center and helps me get everything. He loves to get the bags ready and he'll walk up and hand the people the bags."
Research is key Domke's volunteer experience has been successful because she researched the organization and the opportunity to make sure it was appropriate for her family. Dionisio, of the Community Resource Center, says research and planning are integral to the success of family volunteering. She recommends parents talk to other volunteers and attend required training, sans children to get more information.
That's exactly what Barry Glicklich of Warrenville did before taking his children with him to help at a Naperville Public Action to Deliver Shelter facility, which serves homeless people. When he heard volunteers were needed, he spent some time asking other volunteers about their experience. He wanted to make sure his children would be safe and that it would be an appropriate environment for his son Jacob, then 12.
Once he felt comfortable with the situation, Glicklich signed up to work the 5:30 a.m. shift with Jacob. "I thought it was good to expose him to volunteer work and the difficulties others face," Glicklich says. "I recognize that he leads a privileged existence, and I want him to know this."
He especially liked that he would be there to offer guidance as Jacob learned about the hardships others may face. Working together also helps the family stick with their commitment, something that can get difficult with teens and parents whose busy schedules may keep them away from the family all week long.
"One benefit is you sort of pull each other along. Having my kids involved is an added impetus," Glicklich says. "To do this together is meaningful, and it helps to overcome the resistance we sometimes all feel."
For the past five years, he and Jacob have spent Sunday mornings preparing breakfast, washing dishes and cleaning up after the shelter's guests leave in the morning. Recently, his 13-year-old daughter, Elishabet Lato, and wife, Katherine Lato, joined the early morning missions.
Fun for everyone Another key aspect of successful family volunteering is that all the family members have to enjoy the work they're doing. When Sharon Pennington of Chicago was researching volunteer opportunities, she found the best fit was at the neighborhood community resource center where her sons already spent so much time.
She likes helping her neighborhood, and she knows her children are welcome at the center. "It would be hard to volunteer if the kids weren't able to be here," says Pennington, who volunteers at Erie Neighborhood House, which provides residents of Chicago's West Town with affordable daycare, emergency medical services and language classes.
For the past six years, her three sons, Dustin, 11, Darius, 8, and Zachary, 4, have accompanied her as she volunteers at Erie. She is now president of the Parent Policy Council and her sons help with her volunteer work, including the setup and cleanup for fundraisers and special events.
Pennington has found volunteering with her sons provides a way to teach them about those less fortunate and the difference volunteers can make. "They're learning people have needs and everyone's different," Pennington says. "It's a safer way to learn about all different kinds of people because they know I'm here for them."
Don't forget family bonds Being together to share the experience is a huge factor for family volunteers. Families with teens especially enjoy having a set time each week or month to work together. Volunteering lets parents set an example of community service, while sneaking in some quality family time.
Several families with teens volunteer with the Northern Illinois Food Bank in St. Charles. The teens and parents often can be found talking and laughing together as they sort food and load palettes for local food pantries.
"The families that we have here, you can tell these are families that are trying to teach kids about helping out in the community," says Shannon Thompson, volunteer resources coordinator for the food bank. "I rarely see kids dragging their feet. They want to be here and it's fun. In high school, it's difficult to find things for parents to do with their kids. They enjoy working with their parents in a different way."
Gail Lindner and her husband, Ken, of Hanover Park volunteer at the Northern Illinois Food Bank with their twins, John and Joe, 17, and daughter, Juliana, 16. Each Tuesday evening, they check expiration dates on food, box donations and load trucks.
"At first the kids weren't too sure of what we'd be doing and it is manual labor, which Ken and I thought was OK, but the kids weren't sure about," Lindner says. "But the kids really enjoy it. It's a nice family activity. We work together and get a chance to talk and be together."
Karen and Jeff Davis also enjoy the chance to be with their teen as they work the farm at Kline Creek Farm in Winfield. Jeff, Karen, and their 15-year-old daughter, Samantha, have volunteered at Kline Creek for years. Davis says she and her daughter cook, clean and give historical tours of the 1890s farmhouse. Jeff drives a team of horses on the farm.
"It's really a cool way to work together on something we all enjoy," Davis says. The couple hopes to own a farm someday and enjoy the chance to learn hands-on about farming with their child. The fact that their child would also be learning about community service while volunteering at Kline Creek sweetened the deal for the Davises.
"We need to develop the mentality of trying to serve others, and by doing that we all become better human beings," Jeff Davis says. "It's important to both of us to train our kids to make volunteering a part of their life."
And the Davises, like all the other parent volunteers, know that the best way to raise children who believe in volunteering and helping the community is to serve as a role model.
"Raising a child with the volunteer spirit starts by introducing him or her to volunteering as a child," says Norris of the Community Resource Network. "Most people who volunteer were introduced to this as children. So it's a benefit to the community and the families. It builds that volunteer spirit of the future."
If you're looking for a way to volunteer with your family, two online resources offer a multitude of family volunteer opportunities.
www.chicagovolunteer.net This Web site hooks users up to the Community Resource Network in Chicago, which lists numerous volunteer opportunities in Chicago and the suburbs. To find opportunities for families, click on advanced search and under "target type of volunteer" click family. If you find a program that interests you, fill out the online form and hit send. Your application is sent directly to the nonprofit organization, which will contact you with further information. Searches can be limited by geographical areas. This is a free service. www.volunteermatch.org This national Web site lists almost 1,000 volunteer opportunities in the Chicago area. Searches can be customized to meet family friendly and geographic criteria. Each volunteer listing has icons indicating if it is child, teen or family friendly. Volunteers apply for opportunities online and deal directly with the volunteer organization. This is a free service.
Liz DeCarlo is freelance writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.