Character. Compassion. Caring. These are values that all parents want to instill in their children. But how do you teach your kids the value of selflessness, hard work, and generosity when you barely have time to cook a homemade meal? We've pulled together a list of 10 simple volunteering ideas that you can work into your already busy schedule.
When you think about it, volunteering as a family fits right into our modern multitasking lifestyle. When done right, a family volunteering activity accomplishes three goals at once: you get spend time quality time together as a family while having a positive impact on your community and teaching valuable lessons about service and selflessness [source: Potthast]. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon!
Even the youngest children benefit for volunteering alongside family members. Not only do they learn compassion and understanding for others, but they have an opportunity to feel needed [source: Clark]. Even if the job is as simple as pulling a few weeds at a community garden, they feel a sense of accomplishment and the pride of being part of a helpful team.
To figure out what kind of volunteering activity is best for you and your family, ask yourself the following questions:
- How much time do you have?
- What do the kids already enjoy doing?
- What local resources are there?
If this is your first time volunteering with your children, don't be afraid to start small. Start with activities you can do in your home and in your neighborhood. See what the kids are interested in and let them develop their own unique "calling." Even small children can become passionate advocates for causes that are close to their hearts.
Let's start with one of the easiest ways to get out and do some good in your neighborhood: community cleanup.
A trip to the park with the kids is all about having fun. The kids get some exercise, you get some fresh air, and everybody gets a break from the rest of the busy day. As a parent, you realize what a valuable resource the park really is, but do your children understand how lucky they are to have a safe, clean place to play right around the corner? With a little planning, you can help them be more thankful for their neighborhood resources and do a small part to make them even better.
As a family, or along with a few friends and neighbors, organize a community cleanup day activity. Choose a location -- the park, a plaza, or your street -- and schedule a couple of hours of fun and service. Make a game out of it. See which kid can collect the most litter. Create a scavenger hunt to locate things that need to be fixed, painted or cleaned up, the put kids in charge of each activity. If you want to clean up a park, contact your local department of parks and recreation to see if there are any specific projects that your family can help with, like pruning bushes or painting picnic benches [source: Clark].
Items to bring along might include garbage bags, brooms, rakes and gloves. End the activity with treats in the park or at a friend's house. Your kids will be proud of their contribution and will feel a greater sense of stewardship for their neighborhood.
One of the best ways to improve air quality in your neighborhood is to plant a tree. More details on this simple family volunteer activity on the next page.
Plant a Tree
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cooling effect of a single young tree is the equivalent of 10 room-size air conditioners running 20 hours a day [source: Arbor Day Foundation]. Not only do trees provide shade on hot days, but they perform the invaluable task of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Planting trees as a family offers a great opportunity to beautify the community, teach your children about science and make a long-term environmental impact.
In some areas, free tree seedlings are available through the forest service or a conservation district office [source: Keep America Beautiful]. These agencies might even sponsor tree-planting activities in which you and the family can participate. The Arbor Day Foundation will send your family 10 free trees with a $10 membership. And a U.K. organization called the Woodland Trust is giving away millions of trees to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
You can also buy your own tree seedlings or small saplings from a local greenhouse or garden center. Talk to the salespeople about indigenous varieties that will thrive in your neighborhood's soil and climate conditions. Allow the kids to choose what type of tree they want.
Make sure to follow the planting instructions that come with your tree. Give each child a responsibility -- digging the hole, taking the tree out of the pot, covering the root ball with soil and mulch, watering and more -- and take a picture of the tree when you're done. Remember to take a photo of the tree every year or so to track its growth. Your kids will be proud to see the "family tree" become part of the neighborhood ecosystem.
Yard Work, Home Maintenance and Construction
Habitat for Humanity is one of the most successful and well-known volunteer organizations in the world. Teams of Habitat volunteers have built over 400,000 modest, comfortable and affordable homes serving two million people [source: Habitat for Humanity]. Unfortunately, the minimum age to work on a Habitat build site is 16, so families with young children can't participate. But if you look around your neighborhood, there might be home improvement service projects right in your backyard.
Elderly people who are living alone often don't have the resources or the energy to do the types of maintenance and yard work that they used to do when they had young families of their own. If your kids already help you with your yard work -- raking leaves, planting flowers, shoveling the snowy driveway -- consider doing the same work for a neighbor. Or you might notice that a neighbor's mailbox is broken, or has a ripped screen on the front door.
Even if your children are young and aren't overly helpful, make sure they have a responsibility and feel like a member of the team. You might be surprised to see how hard they work when it's in service to someone else. Make a point to explain that we don't always do things for money or even for a "thank you." Sometimes it just feels good to help for the sake of helping.
And if you'd still like to get involved with Habitat for Humanity, the organization has activities on its Web site for kids as young as five years old. Or you can contact your local Habitat affiliate for possible opportunities in your area.
The next simple volunteer activity is perfect for a family of animal lovers.
Help the Animal Shelter
Taking care of a pet teaches kids how to care for another creature and to put its needs above their own. But not all families are ready for full-time pet ownership. Maybe there's not enough space at home or the kids are still too little to take on such a big responsibility. Volunteering at the local animal shelter is great way to teach caring and nurturing of animals without the commitment of pet ownership.
Call your local chapter of the Humane Society or a local animal rescue service. Ask what kind of volunteer opportunities they have for kids. Many shelters need volunteers to walk the dogs or simply play with some of the other animals.
Some animal rescue services operate a foster home program for animals that are too young or too sick to be adopted right now. As a foster family, you can take in a tiny kitten or a newborn puppy and nurse it for a few weeks until it is big enough and healthy enough to be adopted. Foster care requires a family that is ready to commit the time and resources to take care of a fragile young animal. The upside is that it's a temporary commitment, but that can also be the downside. If you and your kids get emotionally attached to the animal, you might not want to give it back!
If you're not ready to take an animal into your home, you can always donate items to the shelter, like old towels and newspapers for the animals' bedding, electric blankets, dog and cat food, and even tiny baby bottles for feeding newborn kittens and puppies [source: Animal Defense League of Texas].
In the next volunteer activity, parents can teach their kids how to support organizations that are doing important work around the world.
Collect Money for Charitable Organizations
Every penny counts. That's a message that parents can teach their children about giving money to charitable organizations. When a child gives freely of his or her own money or collects money for a charitable campaign, it reinforces values like generosity, compassion and gratitude.
For more than 60 years, UNICEF has organized a fundraising drive around Halloween called Trick or Treat for UNICEF. The mission of UNICEF is to provide medical care, food, clothing and other resources to children around the world. Halloween is a time when kids can easily get caught up in the quest for more and more candy. By collecting money for UNICEF during their neighborhood rounds, kids can think about children who not only don't have candy, but may not have enough to eat. When each child empties his or her donation box at the end of the night, they can be proud to contribute to a fundraiser that has collected over $164 million and saved countless lives worldwide [source: UNICEF].
But you don't need to wait for Halloween to collect for a good cause, and you don't need to focus on cash donations. Ask your kids what they're most thankful for. Is it their food? Their home? Their toys? Explain that not everyone is so lucky, but that even little kids have the power to help. You can do something as simple as donate some of your old toys to a homeless shelter or walk around the block asking neighbors for a canned good to donate to the local food bank. Your child might get so excited about helping that they want to organize a clothing drive at your church or a neighborhood rummage sale for charity.
For our next family volunteer activity, we'll look at some unintimidating ways to help out the local homeless shelter and food bank.
Give to Shelters and Food Banks
Let's be honest. Homeless shelters and community food banks can be intimidating places for young children -- even for some adults. As a parent, you want to educate your children to the plight of the less fortunate, but you don't want to scare them in the process. Thankfully, there are some "behind-the-scenes" ways for you and your kids to contribute to your local shelter and food bank.
You can start by asking the kids to collect some old clothes that don't fit them anymore. Or you can open up the pantry and have them choose some canned goods and other non-perishable items. Call the local shelter or food bank and ask about drop-off times for donations. The kids can some along for the ride, but they don't have to actually go inside if they're not ready. For older kids, there are usually opportunities at the food banks and shelters to sort and organize donations.
Many shelters have separate facilities for women and children. There are also shelters specifically for battered women and their kids. Talk to your kids about why these places exist. Ask your kids what they might want if they were staying at a shelter. What would make it less scary? One creative idea is to have your kids pack up nighttime snacks for the kids at the shelter. They can put juice boxes, granola bars and even a little toy in decorated paper bags and deliver them to the shelter [source: Clark].
Now let's look at a fun way for the whole family to get outside, get some exercise and contribute to a good cause.
Walk for a Cause
One of the most popular fundraising events is a walk or run for a good cause. Individuals collect donations from friends and families to show support for their participation, and all of the money goes to the charity of choice. While some fundraising walks or runs are too grueling for young children, there are plenty of less strenuous events in which the whole family can participate.
Taking part in a charitable walk is an excellent way to introduce your kids to the idea of personal sacrifice for a good cause. Instead of going to the park or the zoo on a nice sunny day, they're taking the time and spending the energy to help someone else. Many fundraising walks focus on finding a cure for a deadly disease. This can become an especially powerful activity if someone in your family is fighting a disease like cancer or diabetes or you recently lost a loved one to Alzheimer's.
The American Diabetes Association sponsors over a hundred walks every year throughout the United States. The average distance is three miles (4.8 meters), but some races have special routes for families with young children [source: ADA]. Many families participate by forming a fundraising "team" and walking the route together. Typically, everyone wears matching T-shirts and colors to show solidarity with the cause. Kids will soak up the team atmosphere and the collective energy of the walkers. Who knows, your toddler might even go all three miles!
Now let's look at a way to teach your kids the value of fresh, local food.
Work at a Community Garden
If you have ever planted a garden of your own, then you know the pride that comes with growing your own food. Carrots taste sweeter when they're the product of your own labor. Leafy greens seem even healthier when you know that they have been grown free of pesticides or other potentially harmful chemicals. Kids, too, can get a taste of that pride -- and find a new appreciation for vegetables -- by helping out in a community garden.
If you already live in a location with a community garden, then helping out is easy. Visit the garden in the spring when the first crops are being planted. Speak with the folks who manage the garden and ask how the children can help. Gardeners are always happy show kids how to plant seeds or weed around a fragile seedling. As the kids grow older, you might want to reserve your own plot at the community garden and start growing food in earnest.
Let the kids browse the seed catalogs with you, picking out this season's flavors. You'll be amazed at how deeply your kids will care about "their" tomatoes or "their" green beans if they feel part of the process from the beginning. The same goes for meal planning. After a successful harvest of zucchini or green peppers, let the kids choose a yummy-sounding recipe and help with the preparation. Again, it's amazing how a previously picky kid will gulp down a veggie-heavy dish that he or she helped to create.
Another option is to join something called a CSA, short for community supported agriculture. Your family subscribes to a local farm and receives a weekly share of vegetables all season long. In return, you and the kids can come out and help plant, weed and harvest. It's a way to support local farms and get incredibly fresh produce in return. Find a CSA near you using LocalHarvest.org.
On the next page, we'll look at volunteer opportunities to serve sick and disabled children.
Be a Friend to the Sick and Disabled
A hospital is another institution that can be scary to kids and even many adults. It can be intimidating and uncomfortable to be around sick people, but it's also important to teach children compassion -- how to see through illness and physical differences to our shared humanity. Kids are kids, after all, and everyone can use a friend.
If there is a children's hospital in your area, call and speak to the volunteer coordinator. See if there are opportunities for you and your kids to come in and play with kids in the waiting areas or bring in the family pet to visit with kids in the cancer ward. There is usually an application process to volunteer in a hospital, but the staff and especially the patients are always grateful for the effort.
If you don't think your kids are ready to volunteer in a hospital, think about other ways you can serve those who are struggling with an illness or disability in the family. Here are some ideas from the Web site The Volunteer Family:
- Bring a meal over to a neighbor's house when a family member is in the hospital. Have the kids help prepare and deliver the meal.
- Offer to host families who have traveled to your town for a medical procedure. The kids can help entertain their children.
- If you have a neighbor with disabilities, offer to take him with you and your family to a baseball game, a picnic, or a community event.
- Have the kids grow out their hair and donate it to cancer patients through an organization like Locks of Love.
For our final volunteering idea, we'll explore the opportunities available at local retirement homes.
Visit a Retirement Home
The very young and the very old have a special connection. By taking your small children with you to the local nursing home, you will bring joy into the lives of the residents and your family.
Contact your local retirement facilities and ask for ways in which you and your family can help. It might be as simple as coming in during game night or craft time and participating with the residents [source: Boteach]. It will provide a welcome change of pace for the residents and your children will relish the extra praise and attention. The Nintendo Wii has found some unexpected fans in retirement home residents. Bring your kids in to challenge retirees to a game of Wii Golf.
If your kids are learning the piano or your family loves to sing songs, consider practicing a special song that you can perform at the nursing home.
There are also plenty of ways for your kids to volunteer to help seniors without going to a nursing home. Chances are you have several elderly neighbors who would appreciate an extra hand around the house. The kids can offer to rake the lawn or help clean out the garage. There are also services in many cities where you and your family can go grocery shopping for a homebound neighbor once a month. The kids can help maintain the grocery list, pack everything together and make the delivery with you.
For lots more tips and information about family activities that build character and create lifelong memories, see the related lists on the next page.
Forts are fun for kids and adults. See 10 forts to build with kids to create the ultimate play experience.
- American Diabetes Association. "Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://stepout.diabetes.org/site/PageServer?pagename=OUT_so_faq
- Animal Defense League of Texas. "Foster Care Program" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.adltexas.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=category§ionid=9&id=53&Itemid=169
- Arbor Day Foundation. "The Value of Trees to a Community" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.arborday.org/trees/benefits.cfm
- Boteach, Schmuley. Oprah Radio. "Ways for Children to Volunteer." (Nov. 7, 2011) November 10, 2008 http://www.oprah.com/relationships/Ways-for-Children-to-Volunteer/1
- Clark, Silvana. Kaboose. "Raising Children Who Care: Volunteering Ideas for Kids" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://parenting.kaboose.com/raising-children-who-care.html
- Habitat for Humanity. "Habitat for Humanity Fact Sheet" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.habitat.org/how/factsheet.aspx
- Keep America Beautiful. "Tips Just for Kids" (Nov. 7, 2011) http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=kids_tips
- Potthast, Amy. Idealist Blog. "Three volunteering ideas that fit your busy life." April 13, 2011 (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.idealist.org/blog/en/three-volunteering-ideas-that-fit-your-busy-life/
- UNICEF. "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://youth.unicefusa.org/trickortreat/
- The Volunteer Family. "Ideas: Care for the Sick/Disabled" (Nov. 8, 2011) http://www.thevolunteerfamily.org/be-a-volunteer/step-3-ideas/ideas-care-for-the-sickdisabled/