We all know what it's like to feel so busy that we
can't possibly fit in one more activity or event for the family.
There are parties to plan and soccer games to attend, not to
mention carving out an hour each day to sit down to dinner
together. But amid the craze of obligations and activities,
families might be missing out on one of the most engaging things
they can do together: volunteer.
It almost goes without saying these days that volunteerism
is good for teens. It encourages responsibility, humility and
generosity, and it sure looks great on college applications. But
volunteering can, and should, start before those teen years.
Families with young children who volunteer together find that they
experience better, more meaningful conversations while children
learn important values.
The tricky part comes not from deciding to volunteer, but
figuring out where. Many organizations require volunteers to be a
certain age, so opportunities for families with young kids seem few
and far between. But if your family has decided to volunteer, here
are a few places you can start. You can also search online at
VolunteerMatch.com for opportunities in your area.
For a high-energy, emotional volunteer experience,
families can do no better than Feed My Starving Children. Founded
in 1987, Feed My Starving Children is a nonprofit hunger relief
organization that provides packaged food mixtures to children
suffering from malnourishment around the globe. The food packs cost
only 19 cents to produce, and they provide all the nourishment a
child needs to thrive. Volunteers pack all the food, and more than
half of volunteers are under age 18. The minimum age is
"Children leave the site so excited about what they were
able to do," says Gwendolyn Cowle, marketing manager for Feed My
Starving Children. "They feed their own spirit as well as pack food
that feeds another person." The organization sees a lot of families
donate their time regularly, and some children even choose to have
their birthday parties at the packing sites. "The kids are the ones
dragging their families back in the door," Cowle says.
For more information, go to fmsc.org.
The San Jose Obrero Mission provides housing and
employment services to Chicago-area Latino men, women and families.
There are many opportunities for families with young children to
volunteer here, says Beth Van Dam, volunteer coordinator, and
speaking Spanish isn't necessary. Aside from the standard food
preparation and serving that many shelters offer, families can also
facilitate day-care and after-school programs. From playing with
toddlers to playing games with school-age kids, young volunteers
provide a huge benefit to shelter residents simply by socializing.
"To see people who care enough to spend time with them, treat them
as human beings and get to know them, really benefits participants,
especially the children who are staying here," Van Dam says. "We
really support that kind of interaction." For a unique family-wide
activity, consider sponsoring a family movie night at the shelter.
You provide the movie and snacks, and the kids and parents get an
opportunity to relax.
For more information, visit sjom.org and fill out the volunteer orientation
packet or call (312) 243-4347.
If you don't feel your family can commit to a specific
organization or regular appointment, there are still other ways you
and your children can give back. Consider a neighborhood food
drive, or if that seems too passé, a collection drive for other
items. Matter of Trust, a California-based organization, collects
material like hair, fleece and nylons to make oil-absorbing booms
for the Gulf Coast region. Moms and daughters (or even dads and
sons!) can grow their hair long together and donate it to Locks of
Love, an organization that provides wigs to children suffering from
long-term hair loss. The family can even work together to put on a
neighborhood puppet theater or talent show to raise funds for a
local animal shelter. Use your own family interests and be
At Bethesda Home and Retirement Center, kids help out best
simply by stopping in and hanging out. Bethesda strives to feel
like a real home, rather than an institution, and kids are a big
part of establishing that feeling of kinship. "My philosophy is, I
want as many people as I can get in Bethesda so that it feels like
a true community," says Ruth Werstler, director of life enrichment.
Bethesda currently has 130 volunteers who range in age from young
children to older adults. The opportunities for what volunteers can
do are virtually limitless. Parents bring babies in to play with
residents through a program called Baby and Me, and children often
come in with their pets. For children without pets, they can simply
spend time with residents, playing Nintendo Wii, drawing pictures
or passing the time. Werstler says the activity and youthful energy
makes a world of difference to residents, who grow very close to
their young visitors.
For more information, call Werstler at (773) 836-3254 or
stop in the center.
Allison Martin is a freelance writer living in Oak Park
and an education manager at Lincoln Park Zoo.
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