By Linda Cohen
As parents, inviting our children to join us as we volunteer sets an example that service and volunteerism is a family value. We can teach our children without lecturing them simply by bringing them along on engaging volunteer opportunities.
Several years ago, our synagogue participated in an annual food drive where we collected food donations around the neighborhood. My children grudgingly agreed to join me but told me they weren’t going to ring anyone’s doorbell or ask for handouts.
When we stopped at the first house, however, everything changed. The homeowner put my kids at ease by asking questions about what we were doing and how the donated food would be used. My 7-year-old son answered enthusiastically. I was thrilled the homeowner had taken the time to engage my kids and get them excited about the impact the food drive would have on others.
From that point on, my kids ran from house to house, racing to see who could ring the next doorbell and explain our mission. When we finished, my 10-year-old daughter sheepishly commented, “It was surprisingly fun.” My son eagerly agreed.
Like most kids, mine were less than thrilled about the idea of participating in an activity they thought would be boring or embarrassing. As it turned out, we were all surprised that filling an empty wagon with donated cans and boxes of food would be so exhilarating.
Our children emulate what we do – for better or worse – so finding volunteer opportunities we can embark on together allows us to share with them what’s important to us, whether that’s the arts, animals, the environment, homelessness or some other issue that needs our support.
Introducing your children to volunteering can be surprisingly simple. One easy place to start is at the grocery store. Most of us shop every week, so why not have your children help you purchase food to donate to a food bank? Shop the “buy one, get one free specials” and let your kids choose the food you’ll donate. Many supermarkets have bins in the store where you can donate the food you purchase, but you might want to deliver it to a food bank personally so your kids can see where it goes.
The next step might be signing up to volunteer to stock shelves or engage in another food bank project. Both Oregon Food Bank (oregonfoodbank.org) and Beaverton’s Sunshine Pantry (sunshinepantry.org) welcome young volunteers, as do dozens of other food banks in the area.
Alternately, you might want to volunteer for Store to Door (storetodooroforegon.org), a nonprofit that delivers groceries directly to home-bound adults, or Loaves & Fishes Centers’ Meals on Wheels (mealsonwheelspeople.org), a program that delivers prepared meals. One of the first volunteer jobs my kids and I shared – back when they were still toddlers – was delivering Loaves & Fishes Valentine-A-Grams each February.
Your family also can donate books, gently-used clothing, toys and household items you no longer need. Take your children along to deliver your donations to the Children’s Book Bank (childrensbookbank.org) or Northwest Children’s Outreach (northwestchildrensoutreach.org). These organizations will get your donations into the hands of children and families who need them. (Both organizations would welcome your family as volunteers, too.)
If your family is traveling through the holidays, collect the toiletries you find in your hotel rooms to donate to Potluck in the Park (potluckinthepark.org), Outside In (outsidein.org), or other nonprofits that work with homeless adults or teens. Many of these organizations welcome families with older children to help serve meals to their clients, so be sure to ask when you drop off your donations.
Finding a match
With so many possibilities for volunteering, how do you know which to choose? Consider your children’s ages and interests, then look for opportunities that match.
Do your kids love pets? Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood (catadoptionteam.org) could be a good fit. Do they love to garden and/or spend time outdoors? Portland Fruit Tree Project (portlandfruit.org), which organizes volunteers to pick and distribute fruit that would otherwise go unpicked, could be a great choice.
For younger kids, simple, hands-on projects are best. If your children are older, they might be ready to get involved with organizations dealing with broader and deeper issues, such as homelessness and poverty, human rights or environmental issues.
Brenden Butler is program manager at Hands On Greater Portland, an organization that matches volunteers with suitable projects. He says many local nonprofits welcome children as volunteers when they’re accompanied by an adult. Visit www.handsonportland.org/Kids_Volunteer to find upcoming and ongoing volunteer opportunities for your family.
Linda Cohen is a professional speaker and consultant connecting organizations with doers and donors. She is the author of 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life(Seal Press, 2011). She resides in Beaverton and is the mother of two children, ages 14 and 11.