Family Volunteering

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All Together Giving Back

Family volunteering is a multi-faceted way to cultivate civic-minded children, promote character values and incorporate quality time. This results in strong individuals, solid families and stable communities. With the many benefits family volunteering affords, the question is not if parents and children should volunteer. It’s when to start and what to do.
Lynn Henshaw believes getting children involved in volunteering early on lends itself to participation later in life. “When Katie was 6 and Kim was 4, we worked with others once a week to provide a lunch program for needy families,” says the mother of a now 13, 11 and 6 year old. “Even though the girls were young, they would help with simple things like setting up condiments, greeting people and cleaning up at the end.”
To make family volunteering a satisfying and rewarding experience, experts suggest considering your child’s interests.
“When I talk with families, I always ask, ‘What are your interests and what are you curious about?’ Then we work from there,” says Susan Eggert local volunteer service administrator. “If your child likes animals, find an organization that needs help with animals. If it’s nature, tap into one of our state parks. This can lead to a greater passion for that interest. It may even open the door for a future career.”
This was the case with Matt Halterman. At age 12, he began volunteering at a local state park for one reason: he liked animals.
“I had gone to a program on reptiles and amphibians at Borders Books,” recalls the now 19 year old. “While I was there I learned about the youth programs at the park, so I started volunteering. The more I worked there, the more my interest in that field grew.”
Halterman eventually got his parents on board with volunteering, and within a year the entire family was serving at the park. Today Halterman works as an AmeriCorps volunteer, training and raising up other youth volunteers.
For practical reasons, some organizations require volunteer training. Personal Ponies, a nonprofit organization that partners ponies with developmentally disabled and critically ill children, does too.
“Last summer Emily, Chet and a few of their friends went to a training session with Personal Ponies,” says Cindy Greene, mother of Emily, 14, and Chet, 11. “This gave them a chance to interact with the ponies and familiarize themselves with the volunteer program.”
Once initial training was complete, Greene took Emily and a friend to the Special Olympics to work at a display in the outdoor village.
“The girls brushed the ponies, led them around and gave participants who came by the opportunity to interact with the ponies,” Greene continues. “It was a rewarding experience.”
Organizations may also have age requirements. But that doesn’t mean younger family members can’t get involved.
“A child may be able to help his parents organize feed bins at an animal shelter, take a display to a local community fair or participate in a fundraiser walk,” says Eggert. “All of this is important work and benefits the organization.”
What’s vitally important is that children see the fruit of their labor.
“Last year our friends had a flooded basement and my husband, Katie and Kim went to help,” says Henshaw. “One day they dug mud out of a basement. Then the girls helped prepare meals at a church for other victims there. They saw both the travesty of what had happened and the benefit of helping out.”
Oftentimes volunteering stirs up feelings of empathy which can cause families to extend themselves beyond normal limits. Greene found this to be true.
“When Chet was nearing 10, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and he wanted to help,” she recalls. “He knew his birthday was coming up so he decided to have a party. But instead of receiving gifts, he asked guests to make a donation to hurricane victims.”
Greene reports the party was a success. But for Chet, the true gift was the gratification of knowing he had made a difference in others’ lives. Emily’s recent hunger drive served up a feast of self-fulfillment too.
“Not too long ago, Emily did a 30-hour famine with our church youth group to raise money for World Vision,” Greene continues. “While they were fasting, I drove the kids around to neighborhoods and they asked for nonperishable food donations for the homeless. That night just before the fast was broken, we had a knock at the door and there stood a homeless couple looking for food. We gave them some of what we had collected that day. In that moment it all hit home.”
Henshaw and Greene both believe experiences like these are cultivating caring, community-minded children who will become active adult volunteers. Halterman thinks so too.
“When I first started volunteering years ago it wasn’t a passion of mine, animals were. But the work has brought direction to my life and has created a feeling of self-fulfillment and satisfaction,” he says. “Volunteering benefits the community, the environment, the individual and the family. From any vantage point, it’s a win-win situation.”

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.

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