Volunteering with Children (with Capital District Suggestions)
by Katie Beltramo
We all want to raise kids who are conscientious and kind, and a great way to teach these values is to volunteer. But parents often find the prospect of volunteering with children daunting. After all, we've all experienced times when our children's "help" hasn't been terribly helpful, and we don't want to become a burden on organizations that we're trying to support. So, how can we teach our kids empathy and encourage them to serve our community in a manner that's developmentally appropriate and is also actually a service to the community? Here are a few suggestions to begin a lifetime tradition of helping others.
[UPDATE for the holiday season: here's a list of local Adopt-a-Family and other holiday giving programs.]
Cultivate a Caring Attitude
There are so many opportunities to help one another that you're probably already doing something. Show kids how it's done, and keep your eyes open for opportunities that will draw them in.
- Model volunteerism. One day when I was making a double batch of soup, my preschooler walked into the kitchen and asked, "Who had a baby?" She knew that new parents meant that we'd drop off a meal, and she'd be surprised (and dismayed) if we didn't.
- Seek pleasure. If you come home grumbling about a committee meeting, it's time to find something that's more satisfying to you. You and the organizations you help will both benefit if you're doing something that you enjoy, and your kids will see that volunteering is a pleasure, not a chore.
- Make it personal. You might be inspired to raise money to research a disease that's affected a family member, do clean-up work for a friend who's suffered from a natural disaster, or support the animal shelter where you met your family pet.
- Seize the opportunity. Point out community helpers at area festivals, read stories in the newspaper about issues that concern you, and suggest ways in which you and your children are fortunate. Then, when you see a spark, fan it into a flame quickly by finding out how you and your child can help.
Start With Small Steps
Kids don't have to serve strangers in a formal program to learn that helping others feels good, and even toddlers can complete simple tasks. For the youngest kids:
- Assign chores like picking up toys and setting the table. After all, family is a community, too.
- Pick up trash as you take walks. Make it a habit to pack plastic bags and disinfecting wipes whenever you go out, and you'll always be prepared to leave places looking better than how you found them.
- Be a good neighbor. Bring cookies or a card to an elderly neighbor, clear the sidewalks of leaves or snow while you're catching up with yard work, offer to walk a neighbor's dog when they're busy.
- Hand down toys and clothes. Make it a regular practice to offer outgrown items to a friend, a local shelter, or an organization, and soon your kids will cull items independently to offer them to others.
Come Up With Your Own Project
If you'd like to do something bigger but aren't ready to commit to an organization, there are still projects that you and your child can do as a one-time activity. You might:
- Host an alternative birthday party. When you invite folks to a birthday party, ask them to bring donations to a chosen organization or cause instead of gifts. This works especially well if you're having a large party or separate family and friends parties.
- Encourage entrepreneurship . Kids can run a lemonade stand, sell painting or crafts, or offer their services in other ways in exchange for donations to a charity of their choice.
- Take a walk. Many organizations run family-friendly runs or walks to raise money and awareness for their causes, and this is an easy and fun activity, especially if you can recruit some friends.
Connect With an Organization
Looking for a way to move beyond your immediate neighborhood and connect with others? There are plenty of not-for-profits who are always in need of help.
- Consider joining an organization that includes social action as one of its missions. If you'd like a variety or can't choose what you'd like to do, you'll find easy opportunities to serve through religious organizations, scouts, or other groups.
- Call your local assisted living facility to see if they encourage visitors. Some will match a family with a resident who has no local family to visit them.
Check our calendar for upcoming volunteer opportunities: These activities have been tagged as volunteer offerings.
- Check out our list of organizations. We have a list of organizations that have indicated that they have volunteer opportunities for children.
The APF runs programs to teach kids about animal care. Children can also complete projects like cat toys to donate to the shelter.
Children can help set up, serve, and clean up meals. Families can also make sandwiches at home and bring them into the mission. Click the link for other ideas.
If your children are old enough to walk and stack cans, they can help you when you volunteer at the food bank, sorting food donations. Find more information here.
Children of all ages can help with bi-monthly drives or help prepare food at home for delivery to the hungry. Kids ages 10 and up can help serve meals with an adult. Find more information on their Facebook page.
In the springtime, children can help put together Easter baskets and bags that will be distributed to food pantry clients. In summertime, children can help prepare lunches at SICM or serve them at area playgrounds. Contact Janet Mattis for more information.
Children over 12 can serve meals, and families with younger children can arrange a visit to donate homemade food or funds raised off-site.
Scroll down for a list of more organizations that have indicated that they have volunteer opportunities for children.
© 2013 Katie Beltramo.
Katie Beltramo, a mom of two, is editor of Kids Out and About for New York's Capital Region. She also blogs at Capital District Fun.