When it comes to fighting hunger, the Petersen family works together efficiently — no directions required.
Eleven-year-old Brenden Petersen, happily perched atop a 4-foot pile of canned goods at the Utah Food Bank, launches green beans and mandarin oranges onto an aluminum sorting table. The cans thunk down in front of his 9-year-old brother, who uses his arms as a conveyor belt, sending tomato paste and kidney beans rumbling on down to mom and dad. Mom sorts the food into boxes labled with permanent marker. Dad packs everything up.
Volunteering together is a regular activity for the South Jordan family. The kids say they like rolling the cans around and checking out all the weird food people donate. "Like canned fish," Brenden says, crinkling up his freckled nose. "Eww." But Mom and dad have a bigger goal in mind. By getting them involved in their community when they are young, Justin and Karen Peterson hope to instill in their children a life-long love for service.
"We are very blessed," Karen Petersen said. "I want them to give back."
Experts say there's no better way to teach children about doing good than as a family. Especially when kids are young, though, nonprofits don't always appreciate what families have to offer. Children can be uncoordinated, difficult to manage and — in some cases — a liability risk. So, while volunteering together is rewarding, it can require creativity.
Why volunteer as a family?
Boston mother Lynne Harper started volunteering with her two children when the youngest was just a babe in arms. Now the director of programs for The Volunteer Family, a nonprofit dedicated to matching families with service opportunities, Harper traces her passion for service back to her own childhood, when her mother regularly carted her around distributing food to the needy and visiting the sick.
The memories aren't all fond.
"It'd be a Friday afternoon and we'd be delivering 'Meals on Wheels,'" she said. "The whole car would smell like fish, then you'd go into the elderly person's home and there would be a lot of cats. I just remember thinking, 'Ugh. Do I have to go?'"
But, she remembers, there was something about the way those forgotten grandmas and grandpas eyes lit up when they saw her.
"It really stayed with me," she said.
Research shows people who volunteer as children are twice as likely to engage in service later in life. Sixty-four percent of teens who volunteer picked up the habit by observing family members serving, according to a study conducted by Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs.
"If you just teach kids ideas or values in abstract, it may never be anything more than a good idea," said Sam Hardy, an assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University who specializes in adolescent development. "When you volunteer with them, they get to put those ideas into action. They start to value charity personally."
Volunteering from a young age not only helps children gain a social conscience, but also helps them develop self esteem and understand how they fit in the world, he said. Studies demonstrate people who volunteered as children have a higher sense of self efficacy, or belief that they can make a difference.
"If you are doing good things, you view yourself positively," Hardy said. "You see yourself as someone who can accomplish things. It's empowering."
Finding service opportunities
Finding a place to volunteer with children — especially young children — can be frustrating. Nonprofits worry about children's safety and ability to perform the job. Volunteer coordinators worry they'll be turned into babysitters.
"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.
"I was kind of skeptical at first, but it's kind of cool to see what you can get done," said Benjamin Crane, 11. "Plus," he added, poking Brenden in the side, "This guy's my best friend so it's fun."
Serve at home
Make greeting cards to mail to sick children. Hugsandhope.org posts photos and information about children who are struggling with illness and hoping for some happy mail.
Draw pictures for lonely seniors. Deliver them to a nursing home yourselves or mail them to the nonprofit Color A Smile and they'll distribute them for you. Get more information at colorasmile.org.
Buy ingredients for 80 to 100 sandwiches, assemble them and deliver them to a local homeless shelter.
Put together hygiene kits, baby care kits or school kits. Give the kits to a nonprofit like Church World Service (churchworldservice.org/kits) or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (lds.org) for distribution.
Serve in the community
Adopt a grandparent. Ask the volunteer coordinator at a local nursing home to match you with a senior then visit regularly. Read, write letters or play games.
Mentor a refugee family. Refugee resettlement agencies like Catholic Community Services can help introduce you.
Pick up litter then take a photo of what you've picked up. Write an essay about the experience, email it to the Nicodemus Wilderness Project and become certified "apprentice ecologists." Get more info at wildernessproject.org.
Deliver meals to the homebound. Meals on Wheels is always looking for volunteers to deliver hot, nutritious meals at lunchtime Monday through Friday. Visit mowaa.org for more information.
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