Teaching a lifetime of values: A family that serves together raises kids who continue to serve
"Nine times out of 10 a nonprofit is going to say, 'No, we don't take children," Harper said. "But that doesn't mean the opportunities don't exist."
To find local service ideas, call 211. Most operators keep a list of kid-friendly ideas. At The Volunteer Family, Harper and her colleagues are constantly updating a searchable online database of family volunteer gigs all over the country.
Children can help deliver food to the homebound through programs like Meals on Wheels. Many nursing homes welcome visits from children. Have children bring a book to read with a resident or prepare a short puppet show to show them.
Even if a nonprofit says "no" to children, though, all is not lost.
With a little planning, parents can work with a nonprofit to come up with a service project that fits the needs of the children and the organization, said Jenny Friedman, author of the book "The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering."
Most nonprofits have "wish lists" of things they need to run their operations, she said. Some needs can be transformed into art projects that can be done at home. For example, make quilts for the homeless shelter, decorate cards for the elderly or even make cat beds for an animal shelter.
Parents can also put together a collection drive and have children make posters and help deliver flyers.
"Make it fun by setting a goal then tracking your progress visually," Friedman said. "If you're collecting socks, put a clothesline in the living room and hang the socks up."
When it comes time to deliver the goods, take the children along and arrange to take a tour of the nonprofit.
"Even if they can't pitch in on location, kids can learn a lot about serving the needy by getting a look at the work others are doing," she said.
Getting everyone onboard
To get children excited about volunteering, choose nonprofits that address topics the children are interested in, said Alexis Boian, executive director of the Young Philanthropists Foundation, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides children with resources to serve their communities. For example, a child who likes building forts or playing with blocks may enjoy helping out a construction organization like Habitat for Humanity. If children like animals, volunteer at an animal shelter.
Involve children in the process of planning the service project, Boian said. If parents donate to charity, Boian suggested deciding how to spend the money as a family.
"The critical component I think a lot of parents miss is they think, 'We can just organize things for them. They'll show up and it will be more convenient,'" she said. "If you involve your kids in the process, you empower them, you give them a voice and you teach them leadership skills."
When working with younger children, make sure to keep things age appropriate, she said. Parents with preschoolers should plan projects that can be done in smal1, 20-30 minute chunks.
"You don't want the project to outlast their attention span," Boian said. "If you are chasing your 3-year-old around as opposed to doing your project, you are going to be bummed about it."
Many times, older children don't want to volunteer because they are embarrased to be seen hanging out with their parents, she said. Skip the drama by planning at-home activities or consider allowing children to invite a friend along.
It worked for the Petersens.
When the family started volunteering about a year ago, they invited neighbor Patricia Crane and her two children to come along. At first there were groans, but now the four kids chat and laugh as they sort food. They keep things fun by building towers out of cans and draw pictures of talking bananas on the boxes.
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