Volunteer As A Family

Please note that most of the organizations on these pages list a minimum age for their volunteer opportunities. There truly is a wide range of opportunities for children of all ages. Unfortunately, we often do not think of involving our children in our volunteer endeavors, and miss out on a great opportunity.

The following article was written by Marilyn Gardner and published in the Christian Science Monitor.

Volunteering – A Family Affair

When Rebecca Spaide of New Canaan, Conn., started planning her ninth birthday party, her mother Deborah, offered an unusual idea. Instead of having guests buy gifts for Rebecca, she suggested, they could bring presents for residents of a local homeless shelter.

Rebecca agreed. When 16 friends arrived for her party last month, they brought everything from food to towels and blankets. The next day, Deborah Spaide drove Rebecca and four friends to the shelter to deliver the bounty. “It felt good,” Rebecca says. “I’m giving something to them instead of to me, because I have so much and they have so little.”

That charitable spirit typifies a growing movement across the country in which entire families are volunteering together.

A family activity

By including children and teen-agers, parents are instilling a sense of community responsibility. They are also turning outreach into family time together.

“It’s a tremendously bonding experience to share something as fulfilling as helping meet another person’s need with other members of your family,” Deborah Spaide says. “How could parents better teach their kids values?”

Calling family volunteerism an “emerging trend of the 90’s” Sheryl Nefstead, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service in St. Paul, Minn., says, “People are trying to put more emphasis on family cohesiveness, and they’re searching for ways to help young people have a sense of hope and satisfaction.” Other motivating factors include greater awareness of social problems and a realization that governnent support is diminishing.

In a Gallup survey conducted last year, more than a third of American households said volunteering together is part of family life. The most common activities include: helping older people, working with youth programs, and helping church or religious programs. Nearly half of volunteer families assist in sports or school programs. A third are involved in environmental programs and a quarter in serving the homeless.

For the Spaides and their five children, who range in age from 7 to 18, volunteer activities have included repairing a public housing apartment, making sandwiches for a soup kitchen, and raking leaves for elderly residents in their town. As their experiences broadened, Spaide turned her expertise into a new book, “Teaching Your Kids to Care: How to Discover and Develop the Spirit of Charity in Your Children” (Citadel Press).

Charity, Spaide explains, helps children and teen agers discover talents, develop skills, and learn about cooperation and problem-solving. It also teaches what she calls anti-materialism. “Charity is process-oriented, not product-oriented,” she says.

Nationally, a program called Family Matters encourages families to volunteer together. The 1-year old program has recruited more than 5,000 families, staff member Barbara Lohman says. These range from upper-middle class suburban families outside New York City to a Central American immigrant family with three children in Los Angeles.

Although two-parent families make up 60 percent of households volunteering together, according to the Gallup survey, family configurations vary widely. “I’ve had single mothers tell me there’s no excuse for them not to find time to volunteer with their kids,” Lohman says. “They feel it makes their time together more valuable.”

Corporate encouragement

Family Matters also urges businesses and nonprofit organizations to recognize the value of family volunteering, which Lohman calls “the next wave” in corporate volunteerism. Among companies with corporate volunteer programs, half encourage employee families to participate, according to a recent survey by the Conference Board.

One company with a long history of volunteerism, Target Stores in Minneapolis, encourages employees to include family members in community service. Activities range from “paint-a-thons” – painting houses for low-income homeowners – to taking disadvantaged children to the zoo or cultural programs.

“We’ve had wonderful response,” says Target’s Carolyn Brookter. “By including family members, employees find volunteering to be more important.”

Lohman cites other benefits. “I’ve talked to several families who say they believe that family volunteering has kept their family together,” she says. “That’s a pretty powerful statement. They see each other now in a different way and value each other in new ways.”

Often, Lohman adds, children get parents involved, rather than the other way around. “They may have a project in school, perhaps something involving environmental volunteerism,” she says. “Kids decide they want to do it and recruit their parents.”