I have to admit that my wife and I have been a bit self-centered in our adult lives, focusing on our work, earning money, and supporting the family. We've done quite well financially, and we've both decided that we should start giving something back to our community. We want to get our kids involved, too, but they're pretty young — only five and seven. Honestly, I don't even know where to start. Are the kids too young? And what's the best way get going?
Your kids are definitely not too young to volunteer in their community. In fact, there's no such thing as too young. Plenty of people bring babies to visit nursing-home residents or shut-ins, and preschoolers and early elementary school kids often go on field trips to the same places to sing holiday songs, put on a play, or just draw pictures. Bringing a smile to the face of people who don't have a lot of joy in their lives is a wonderful gift. Middle schoolers can volunteer to read to visually impaired people or tutor kids their own age in reading and math. Teens can coach sports teams or build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Ideally, volunteering is a selfless act — you do it to help someone else, not because you'll profit from it. But thinking about the future, volunteer work looks very good on college and job applications.
Doing things as simple as serving meals at a local homeless shelter (or, when the kids are older, delivering meals on wheels) shows your children that you're walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Volunteering also often gives kids some insight into just how lucky they are. It can also provide opportunities for them to learn about problem solving and cooperation, hone new skills, and discover talents, interests, and skills they never knew they had. Perhaps most importantly, volunteering can put your kids in contact with people from different cultures, ethnicities, education levels, and socio-economic backgrounds. At the end of a day (or even just a few hours) of volunteering, you'll discover that your family has benefitted as much as your community has — though in very different ways.
As you consider which of the millions of opportunities to get your family involved in, here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
• Start in your own backyard. Your church or synagogue or your child's school might have a social action committee. If so, join it.
• Look inside. There's no better way to pass your values on to your children than by getting involved in an organization that works with issues that you care strongly about.
• Ask the kids. Kids have big hearts. Letting them pick will make them that much more committed.
• Get ready to learn. Some volunteer opportunities — such as being a reading tutor or removing non-native plants from a local marsh — may require you to get trained before you can start working.
• Stay home. There are plenty of ways to volunteer that don't involve leaving the house, including assembling care packages for veterans, translating documents for refugees, building websites for nonprofits, and fostering abused pets.
• Don't go overboard. Start slowly and increase the amount of hours you contribute as you can. Making commitments you can't keep will frustrate you and will set a bad example for the kids. And because organizations count on their volunteers, you could inadvertently hurt the people you're trying to help.