Reaching Out As a Family

Teaching compassion is a hands-on activity. Working side by side with your children-whether you’re walking dogs for an animal shelter or serving food at a homeless shelter-is the best way to pass along the joy of serving.

Starting early helps establish service as a lifelong value. A recent study suggests that people who began volunteering as youths are twice as likely to give their time as they mature to adulthood. “We certainly wouldn’t wait until our kids were 18 to teach them manners or reading. Don’t wait to teach them to be good citizens,” says Steve Culbertson, president and chief executive officer of Youth Service America, a resource center for youth volunteering based in Washington, D.C.

Elise Brown of Madison, Wis., demonstrates the openhearted quality that young children often take into the volunteer experience. A few years ago, Elise’s mom asked her to donate a toy for a church toy drive before composing her own Christmas wish list. Elise-who was 4 years old-chose one of her two favorite Barbie® dolls. Her mom was surprised but touched when Elise explained how it meant more to give something she really cared about.

Volunteering typically exposes children to people who at first blush may seem very different from their own families. Although kids may be shy at first, you’ll be surprised at how quickly the walls come down. After spending time together sharing a game or a meal, similar interests often surface, which help with the connection. These positive early interactions develop and strengthen the values of tolerance, empathy and kindness.

Getting Started

So, you’ve decided to dive into a volunteer project-but where to start? Ask the kids. When they’ve helped choose, they’ll be more likely to stick with the effort when it gets tough. And everyone will be more enthusiastic when your project matches family interests. If you are sports fans, collect equipment for the local Little League®. If you love music, usher at a community concert.

Geralyn and William Dunckelman of Houma, LA., took their two sons to visit nursing homes when they were just toddlers, in part because they had an elderly grandmother living with them. Over time, the boys developed projects based on their own insights, interests and experiences. William enjoyed looking at books with the residents. At age 9, he started approaching businesses for donations to buy art materials for nursing homes. Older brother Andrew, who had a visual impairment, realized some residents needed help buying new eyeglasses and solicited funds for the cause. “The key,” says Geralyn, “is to allow them to develop their own unique talents and find their own gifts.”

Over the years, the boys’ efforts have raised thousands of dollars nationwide for nursing homes. In 2001, the Points of Light Foundation honored the Dunckelmans with the National Family Volunteer Award.

Understanding your children’s developmental stages will also help ensure a positive experience. Consider these tips as you think through your opportunities.

Focus on the familiar 
(Ages 2-5)

Start by volunteering in familiar places with little ones so they aren’t overwhelmed or scared. For instance, participate in a cleanup day at a park or help plant flowers at a daycare center. At home, make a card or bake cookies for an elderly neighbor. Beforehand, talk about why you are doing the activity and the importance of your child’s efforts.

If possible, deliver the gifts or cards in person. This helps children see the effects their efforts have on others. Meeting the recipient and receiving a “thank you” motivates kids to reach out again.

Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to empathize. “Even young children can understand people helping each other,” says Dr. Patti Zomber, a Los Angeles psychologist for children and families. Validate these early insights by asking your child how she felt about helping. By listening attentively, you will reinforce the importance of caring. And as she speaks, your child will begin to value those feelings, too.

Hone in on interests
 (Ages 6-8)

Kids this age love to collect. They like to organize and feel in charge of a project. At home or around the neighborhood, they can put this interest to good use by collecting clothes for a thrift shop, canned goods for a food pantry, stuffed animals for kids in the hospital, or used eyeglasses for people in other countries. Give kids time and space to inventory and sort the items. Having a number and seeing the quantity will give them a sense of satisfaction and having made a difference.

Some kids naturally enjoy a project that lets them express themselves. If they make bookmarks for a children’s hospital or get a couple of families together to lead a sing-along at a local senior citizen center, they’ll experience the joy of giving something heartfelt and unique.

At this stage, kids are ready to branch out to other settings in their service, such as an animal shelter, daycare or meal site. It’s important to do so now, while they are open to new experiences, rather than waiting until they are teenagers and possibly more reluctant.

Take it to the next level
 (Ages 9-12)

As kids get older, they develop the patience and insights needed to take on projects that are long-term and require more planning. For instance, they can help plant a community garden-knowing that it will become more beautiful over time-or design and paint a mural at a community center.

Kids this age like to feel grown up. One great way to feel like a big kid is to help little ones. Find a mentoring program where your upper-elementary-age child can help a preschooler read or do math.

Family volunteering, where all members are working on the same task, appeals to an older child’s natural desire for more responsibility and independence. Kids this age relish having a common goal and being equal partners with their parents as together they serve meals, paint walls, or play a game of basketball with younger children.

A final note: Volunteering can be eye opening. As kids serve others, they develop a deeper understanding of problems in society, such as poverty, pollution and substance abuse. Whether or not these issues have already touched their lives, serving can be empowering as they discover their capacity to care and their ability to make a difference. “Service gives children the power to fix problems,” says Culbertson. “And that builds confidence and resilience.”

To find out more about National Family Volunteer Day (November 20) or to contact a volunteer center in your area, call 1-800-VOLUNTEER. Or log on to for family volunteer project ideas.

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