One day while walking our dog, my 6-year-old son suggested we clean up a wooded area full of Styrofoam cups, newsprint and other unsavory items near our home. We organized a few other families for a work party on a warm sunny morning; the dozen kids involved wore gloves, filled plastic bags and called for help when they stumbled on broken glass or syringes.
Make helping a habit
In just a few hours we cleared the entire area, filling the back of my truck with bags for the dump. Before leaving, one parent asked if I’d organize something similar every month—she wanted her kids to get used to helping out the community.
Getting into a pattern of volunteerism during the busy years of kids and work commitments may seem like one more thing you don’t have time for. But making community service a priority for the whole family can have lasting benefits.
Mayo Clinic research from 2009 found people who volunteer live longer than those who don’t. Putting in 40 to 100 hours a year, just one or two hours a week, is enough to make a difference. More recently, the American Heart Association journal, Stroke, reports that a purposeful life—including volunteering—can protect against blockages in the brain, dementia and even death.
A family affair
“To make volunteering a part of my life, it has to be a part of the family's life,” says Liz Demke, a married mom with two children from Sandy, Utah. “My kids can hear about things I do, but if they do them with me, they get the same experience and they want to do it again.”
A long-term relationship between your family and a particular organization, rather than a one-time project, can be particularly powerful. The Demke family has interacted with a domestic abuse home in its community for many years. “We have loved bringing dinner a couple of times a year to the family shelter,” Liz says. “It is a very humbling experience to see complete families that look exactly like ours, staying in a shelter and lining up for you to feed them. My kids talk about it for weeks every time we go.”
Some communities have created websites where volunteer opportunities are listed and organized specifically for families. In Austin, Texas, Marissa Vogel was so frustrated with the challenge of finding ways for her children to get involved that she started Little Helping Hands. Now volunteers can search a calendar of events, create specific family friendly occasions and find requests from different organizations.
Make it personal
For the Crosby family of Cumming, Georgia, diabetes related events are a given. One of their four kids has Type 1 diabetes, so raising money for the cause has personal relevance. In Anchorage, Alaska, McCormack family members focus their volunteering on outdoor activities, like a yearly cleanup of Campbell Creek. They spend lots of time camping, hiking and fishing, so helping maintain the things they care about makes sense.
To make volunteering part of your family culture, doing is always more powerful than just saying; telling your children that every life has value means a lot more when you together help provide socks or underwear for the homeless."
If you want to start getting involved in volunteering but aren’t sure your kids will be on board, Liz suggests you “think of a few options and talk about them with your kids. Let them be a part of the discussion so they are motivated to help.” That might mean letting them figure out a category of service: children, elderly, environmental, etc.
It is also important to prepare before going into a new situation where you may encounter circumstances different from day-to-day life. If your children are animal lovers, a visit to a shelter can be upsetting with so many lonely creatures. Talk to them beforehand about what you’ll see, potential difficulties, and what you will actually be doing. A conversation on the way home doesn’t have to be heavy handed or preachy but you do want to answer any questions your children might have.