Give back together: Opportunities for family volunteering in Chicago

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 for opportunities in your area.

Pack some food with Feed My Starving Children (Aurora, Schaumburg, Libertyville, coming soon)

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 5.

“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

Host a movie night at San Jose Obrero Mission (Chicago)

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 and fill out the volunteer orientation packet or call (312) 243-4347.

Neighborhood drives or events

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 creative.

Bring a Pet (Chicago)

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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