By Jill Anderson
As adults, we all know how good it feels to give back to our community. This is an important lesson that we can share with the children in our lives. Our children learn empathy from watching us. They also watch how we respond to others through our interactions and how we demonstrate appreciation to people we encounter in our lives. By volunteering with your child, you send a powerful message that contributing to your community and giving to others is a value that is important to your family.
Volunteering has other benefits as well. Giving to others has been shown to raise self-esteem. It also provides children with the opportunity to think outside of themselves and to gain a new perspective. Another perk: Volunteering allows parents and caregivers to spend time working together with their children (no technology!) and opens up the opportunity to discuss what they appreciate in their own lives.
At Hillsides Education Center, we make it a point to encourage volunteerism. Last year, for example, our 11th grade students participated in two volunteer projects. First, under the direction of teacher Julie Howell and teaching assistant Dawn Bobo, the students created treats for chimpanzees in a local animal shelter. Then this past December, they spent a day volunteering at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, where they worked diligently to help sort and pack over 7,900 pounds of food for families in need.
Ready to get started volunteering? Here are five tips:
- Know your children. Find out what that your children might be interested in. Do they love animals? Are they passionate about feeding the homeless? Or maybe they are avid readers or want to give toys to children in their community. You might need to provide some guidance and direction depending upon a child’s age, but it’s much easier to get children engaged in a volunteer project if it is something that is meaningful to them. If possible, let them take the lead. It will empower them.
- Do your research. Once you have an idea in mind, work together to check out volunteer opportunities in your community. Food banks, nonprofit organizations like Hillsides and animal shelters always need help. There are also many websites that list volunteer projects by date and location. Check out this one: volunteermatch.org.
- Realize there may be some restrictions and/or requirements. Keep in mind that some volunteer opportunities have specific requirements volunteers must meet. For example, for some agencies, if you are working with children, you will need to get a fingerprint background check. Other charities have age requirements for volunteers; for example, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank requires volunteers to be at least 14 years old. Make sure you’re up to speed on any requirements before getting you and your children’s heart set on volunteering there.
- If you don’t find the exact match for your family, create your own projects. Try making items that you can assemble at home such as goodie bags for the homeless in your area. What about a bake sale or lemonade stand to purchase books for your local library or school? Or, try shopping with your family to donate to local nonprofit organizations that need items for children and families not only during the holidays, but throughout the year. For example, at Hillsides, we serve 13,000 children and families throughout Los Angeles County, which means there is a constant need for food, clothing, and other staples as well as the little “extras” that can bring joy to a child’s life, such as birthday gifts.
- Make volunteering a family event. Get everybody involved and it will be more fun and rewarding. Have teens invite a friend or two to help. Once you get your family involved, make it a regular occurrence. Try planning a few activities throughout the year and make your favorite volunteer project an annual event.
–Jill Anderson, LMFT, is a therapist at the Hillsides Education Center.