Learn how you can create meaningful family volunteer experiences.
Family volunteer experiences are a wonderful way to spend time together, share talents and values and take positive action to improve life for others in your community. While volunteering used to be primarily for adults, increasing numbers of organizations in need now offer families opportunities to work together. How do you find family volunteer experiences that work for your family?
Where to Look
A good starting point is to take a hard look at the time you can make available to volunteer as a family. If family time is relaxing time, you may want to look for volunteer opportunities that let you work on a regular basis. If family time is already hectic, you may have to identify activities you can give up occasionally to volunteer.
The other issue that will clarify your search for family volunteer experiences is the preparation you will need to do with your children to make your experience meaningful and worthwhile. In some volunteer experiences your effort involves meeting only other volunteers. In others you will have direct contact with the people who benefit from your help.
Questions to ask yourself about your family includewhether your children are old enough to understand what your volunteer experience will accomplish. If your children are still young enough to be intimidated by strangers, working in a direct-contact program such as a soup kitchen may confuse and frighten them. Then again when told they are helping people, are your children likely to expect to see the people they are helping and be disappointed when they do not? You know best how your children think and function. Add good preparation to that knowledge, and your children may surprise you with how well they undertake the project you have chosen.
Let Teens Take the Lead
Especially with older children and teens the secret to successful family-volunteer experiences may be to let them take the lead where you volunteer. A teenager who is already resistant to doing anything family-flavored but is passionate about the environment may be happy to round up groups of people to an environmental-cleanup project, even if some folks might describe those people as family. Volunteering is a good way to share interests; it is an even better way to show your growing child that you truly share their concerns and how they put them into action.
As a starter for your new volunteering family, consider a weekend fund-raising walk. Equipment is minimal: good sneakers and a water bottle get you ready to go. Some major charities raise money strictly with an entry fee. Others ask that you gather pledges from friends and neighbors to bring to the event. If you plan to raise money before the event, involve your children in planning who to ask. Even a small donation from a scout leader, uncle and aunt or Sunday School teacher raises a child’s estimation of his or her abilities and provides a very special reason to carry through the event.
Finding the Right Opportunity
Communities often hold cleanup efforts around Earth Day, Make-a-Difference Day or local days of celebration. Your local newspaper, nature center or local TV station are all good places to check for local cleanup events, and usually all family members are welcome. For events like these or home-building and home-repair events, check to see if there are age-limits for children. Working close to water, on hillsides or in construction areas may raise safety issues that limit or prohibit participation by young children.
Houses of worship tend to be excellent sources for family volunteer experiences and often are particularly hospitable to children. Usually you need not be a member to participate. The only church in town serving hungry people a Christmas dinner on Christmas Day will welcome all volunteers willing to defer their holiday to help others. Corporate employers increasingly encourage volunteering individually and as families. Ask your human resources or public-relations department. And if they don’t sponsor volunteer efforts, perhaps they should!
Programs feeding hungry people need lots of volunteers because people who were hungry yesterday most likely will be hungry tomorrow as well. A suggestion for preparing children to work is where they will meet people benefiting directly from their work. Hunger, poverty and homelessness have gradually become such permanent problems in our society that people have become the homeless, the hungry and the poor. Referring to those you will be helping as hungry people, people with cancer, elderly people and homeless people makes a new experience less intimidating for children learning to volunteer.
Whatever you choose to do, family volunteer experiences enable all family members to share beliefs, values and concerns that matter to them. Family members see one another in new ways. You may find yourself saying to someone you know and love, I never knew you could do that! Family volunteer experiences can build good family bonds and great family memories.