Before becoming a mother, I was maniacally involved in my community. I sang in the community choir, mentored, organized concerts by my piano students at nursing homes, led writing and performance workshops with various youth groups, served on the board of my spiritual community, and volunteered with several political groups. Naturally, after my son was born, life changed drastically; somehow I didn’t find my way back into regular service work for many years. And the volunteering I did do was without my family.
Many first-time parents just don’t think of babies and toddlers as capable of serving their communities. Some aren’t sure what is age-appropriate, and others are worried their little ones might disturb the adult activity. I personally found the task of finding the right situation daunting. And fitting something else in our schedule seemed, at least for awhile, nearly impossible. But now that my son is six, I’m seeing that his world is very small and I’d like him to participate in some way. I want him to experience the joys and challenges of service and to live the value. But where to begin?
Why community service is important for kids
The Corporation for National and Community Service (https://www.nationalservice.gov/special-initiatives/days-service/martin-luther-king-jr-day-service/toolkits/other-resources-0) explains that volunteering is an extremely important and healthy experience for children.
“Through volunteering, youth learn to
- respect others
- be helpful and kind
- understand people different than themselves
- develop leadership skills
- become more patient
- gain a better understanding of good citizenship.”
These are such basic aspects of being human and ones that children develop naturally when they are involved in service work.
How can I volunteer if I have a baby with me?
Many communities welcome tiny humans in at least some of their activities. Spiritual or religious communities are often intergenerational; check with the coordinator of the committee that interests you to see if you could attend and “wear” your baby or toddler in a sling. Chances are there will be many adults on hand who would welcome their turn at holding the baby while you help out. Those moments are often particularly wonderful for older women and men whose children and grandchildren are grown up. Your baby has something unique to offer your community.
To make volunteering easier, get a friend or sibling involved with your baby from the beginning. If your baby is used to that person, you can both go to a volunteer activity and take turns helping out and doing childcare.
What precautions should I take?
Think about the health impacts, both for your child and for the population you’re serving. For example, bringing a young baby to an elementary school might not be the best move, since the baby is likely to pick up any germs that are around (and trust me, there will be lots of germs). Similarly, bringing a toddler to a nursing home might not be wise, for the reverse reason: frail elders will have a harder time fighting off viruses that toddlers tend to carry.
I want to volunteer with my whole family. How do I decide what we should do?
The world really IS your oyster if you are a family looking to help out, but it’s important to try to make the experience positive for everybody. There are many experiences available for families that are easier when the children are four or older, though once again, don’t be limited by that. If something catches your eye, look into it; it may be fine for the little ones too.
Consider everybody’s interests
Think about what each of you enjoys doing. If your family is active, look for a physical service activity like Green-up Day or Habitat for Humanity’s construction projects. If you are a very social family, there are many organizations that service elders where children volunteers make a beautiful impact on what can be a very dreary life in a nursing home. If you enjoy the arts, think about ushering for community theater performances or signing up to perform in a benefit talent show. Nothing brings people closer than working up an act together!
Keep current about current events
Look at the headlines of your community newspaper. Sign up for newsletters (and read them) from the groups that interest you to see what’s happening and who needs volunteers. At the moment of writing this article, there are thousands of Syrian refugees being resettled in Canada and Europe, and many of the resettlement groups rely heavily on volunteer families to help assimilate the Syrian families. It’s great for kids to have other kids to relate to in such an intense and difficult process.
Begin with the end in mind
Without being too heavy-handed, it’s good to think about what you want to get out of the experience and what you’d like your kids to come away with. For example, if you’d like them to experience other ways of living, you might want to consider WWOOFING (trading work on an organic farm for room and board); check out this link if you think this could be interesting. http://wwoofinternational.org/news/can-i-wwoof-with-my-kids-2/. Or maybe you want your children to be exposed to people who are very different from them, in which case you might want to call an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities (like VSA, a group that brings arts programs to developmentally disabled people, or Easter Seals, The Arc, or Friendship Circle International). Perhaps you want your child to understand what it means to be economically disadvantaged. You could serve meals at the local homeless shelter or volunteer to lead a play group at a battered women’s shelter.
In writing this article, I asked fellow parents to send me anecdotes about serving their communities with their kids. These are the responses I received:
Amy Stuart, Burlington, VT
As a family, we rode our bicycles together for the ChampRide to raise money among family and friends for Vermont CARES. We participated in seven to eight rides over the years, mostly the four of us, sometimes two, sometimes three. My husband Mark rode his bicycle the first year with daughter Sophie on the tagalong and daughter Eleanor in the trailer! The next year, Eleanor was on the tagalong and Sophie on her own two-wheeler. The third year we all rode our own bicycles. Each year, their growth and independence was evident, not only in what and how far they rode, but also in their understanding of why people come together for good, important work. Today, each in her own way participates in her community. Eleanor is pleased that during her fifth Penguin Plunge she will have raised over $1500 for the Special Olympics over the years. Sophie has enjoyed offering violin practice sessions to children attending the Violin Shop and caring for trails through the Appalachian Mountain Club. Mostly, they’re kind, generous people. Mostly, they know they’re connected to others.
Mireille van Ijperen, Bleiswijk, Netherlands
Here in my town at the high school, it’s a required school subject to do some volunteer work. The kids can choose themselves what kind of work they want to do (work with elderly, children, animals, or whatever volunteer work they can find). They have to work for 30 hours and write a report about it. From an early age, I showed them it’s good to help others in need. We are here on this earth to help each other, right? Not to be selfish. They are now a bit older and I see them helping others like it’s the common thing to do. Makes me proud!
Mélanie Goupil, Montreal, QC
My son, Antoine, is part of the volunteer medical team that his father has run since he was eight. For example, during the Longueuil marathon, he had to verify that the paramedics had all the first aid equipment on hand. He reassures injured children and he patrols to ensure that there are no injuries. During different events (Steps Against Cancer, Christmas market, soccer competition, shopping, etc) he is part of the team that ensures the safety and physical care of people. He took two trainings and feels very valued as a carer and to be part of a group of “people of heart.”
Annette Urbschat, Burlington, VT
As is true with so many things we try to teach our kids, role modeling is probably the most important thing to do when it comes to teaching volunteering and service. My mother volunteered many hours as an English and German language instructor for dozens of immigrants in our home. Witnessing our mother interact with people of all races and from all kinds of backgrounds left an indelible impression on us four children, and we have all volunteered our time to many worthwhile causes since. My daughter Maya and I volunteered together for First Night Burlington for several years in a row. Nothing terribly exciting – just checking people’s buttons and ushering. My son Tobin volunteered regularly at Bike Recycle Vermont while he lived in Burlington’s North End. He volunteered by repairing donated bikes there. My other son, Kye, volunteers annually helping low-income individuals fill out their tax returns. He started this in Washington, DC, and really likes to help out in this way.
Edie Magnus, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
There were different ways we worked with our boys – and it was extremely important to me to do it.
(1) After Hurricane Sandy, we spent a day in the Rockaways helping people who’d been washed out of their homes. It was a devastating mess as you can imagine and they remember it to this day. They manned a food line for all the volunteers who were working there, and then we went up and down the streets literally meeting strangers and offering to help, going in and out of soggy spaces, many of which had already been condemned. It was just awful. But now every time we go to JFK and there’s that sign for an exit off to the Rockaways, we take a moment to reflect.
(2) I have been rabid about recycling clothing that my sons grew out of and giving it to an organization called Midnight Run in Dobbs Ferry which works with families in Yonkers. It’s almost a joke in my home how often I will ask the boys to go in their closets and find anything that doesn’t fit and put it in a giveaway pile. They also worked with this organization through our temple delivering food and working at a food pantry. The point that I’ve tried to drill home with them is that you don’t throw out things that someone else can use. My hunch is that when they’re older they will say “…remember when Mom always used to have us go through our drawers!” I literally did it just this Christmas when they were home from college.
(3) I took my son, Sam, with me on a medical mission to Africa with our Physician’s Assistant program at Mercy College where I work. He was 13. Mali is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world and Sam experienced it full force. I joke that, apart from his birth, this is the most intense experience we’ve ever shared.
I certainly think there is age-appropriate volunteerism. The boys were (I think) in middle school when Sandy happened; if they’d been much younger it would have been scary and strange instead of meaningful, which it was. But I don’t believe kids are ever too young to be told that there are other kids in the world who don’t have what they do, and that we share with our time or with our possessions whenever we can.