By Colleen O'Connor Toberman
Community service is a wonderful way for children to learn ideals such as generosity, self-awareness, compassion, and appreciation for diversity. However, the lessons will be lost if volunteerism isn't introduced to children in the right way.
As a professional volunteer coordinator, I often field inquries such as, "Where can my children and I volunteer together?" Here is some of my best advice for making community service an enriching experience for both your family and the organization you are serving.
- Consider your child's passions. If your son loves animals, find an opportunity for him to express this passion. If your daughter asks you questions about people you see who are experiencing homelessness, take advantage of this teachable moment. Children (and adults) learn best when they are engaged with their work.
- Realistically plan for your child's needs. Account for childrens' energy level, daily rhythms, and comfort needs. There are many opportunities that can be done at home on your own time, which may work best for some families.
- Use your child's talents. A budding artist can make cards to send to troops abroad. A violinist can perform for nursing-home residents. Soccer fans can teach younger neighbors how to play. Children love sharing their talents and seeing that almost any skill can be used to better the community.
- Find a volunteer opportunity. Good places to find family-oriented service projects include Doing Good Together, your child's school, scout troops, or your faith community. With some brainstorming you may even be able to come up with your own projects around the neighborhood: picking up trash, making cookies for a neighbor, or hosting a block barbeque. Ask your children what needs they see around them; you'll be surprised by their answers.
- Make sure it's the right opportunity. When inquring about a volunteer project, be open with the coordinator about your family's abilities and needs. Volunteer coordinators are passionate about giving people great community-service experiences. However, a project that doesn't go well leaves your children turned off to volunteerism and the organization without its needs met. Therefore make sure that you have a clear idea of what will be expected and that the coordinator has a clear idea of what your family is prepared to do.
- Take the organization's needs into account. Introducing children to volunteerism is crucial, but so is making sure that the organization is furthering its work. Pay close attention to what the organization's needs are and be sure that you can meet them while requesting a minimum of special accomodations. Some projects just aren't suited for young ones, and bringing your children along won't actually be helpful to the organization. Make sure you've found a project that suits your family.
- Learn and have fun! If the work focuses on tasks that your children can do well and will enjoy, they'll be begging to volunteer again. Even very young children pick up on your attitude, so make sure you are enthused about the task at hand. Turn projects into games that make the time go by and may even incorporate some learning. Ask questions such as, "Why do you think people come to the food shelf?" or, "How many weeks of your allowance would it take to sponsor an endangered panda?"
- Volunteer year-round. Community service often comes to mind during the holidays; however, children need to see that sharing with others isn't just a December activity. Most organizations have more volunteers than they can handle during this season, but their needs exist 365 days a year. By volunteering at other times of year, you might find that volunteer coordinators have more capacity to arrange a great experience for your family. You may also have more space in your schedule, and your family will have more energy to devote to the work at hand. Children don't need a holiday to get excited about community service. Any day will do!
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