By: Susan Ragsdale
Can families volunteer? Can I? What age do you have to be to volunteer here? These are the same questions that pour forth every year from 13 eager girls, ages 9-12, involved in my local YMCA's one-week summer volunteer camp.
The questions aren’t new. They pop up every summer as we take girls out into the community to explore the many opportunities they have to touch lives and make a difference. Our program helps young campers find their place in the world through service. We also aim to help young people explore their sparks – those moments, activities or places that make them light up with joy, energy and a sense of purpose.
The WHY behind volunteering has been extensively covered in various research studies that show the impact of serving on academic grades, personal development, enhanced leadership skills, and more. Search Institute research has shown that volunteering builds Developmental Assets; it aids in the development of key skills needed to live and thrive in the 21st century, and it has been linked to health benefits as well.
Providing opportunities for kids to volunteer alone or as part of the family is a smart strategy to equip children with life skills, values and help engage them with a broader sense of purpose and connection to community.
So, each year, when young people ask me, "Where can I volunteer," I turn to some wise insights I've picked up from a few literary characters and one famous civil rights leader. When it comes to serving others, The Berenstain Bears, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Martin Luther King Jr. all said it best.
In the Berenstain Bears book series, there are several stories through which the bears teach their cubs to give like, "Think of Those in Need" and "Lend a Helping Hand." The stories show how “human” cubs can take their old games, puzzles, and the books or clothes that they don’t use anymore to share with others in need and make helping others a way of life (a lesson they learn from a neighbor). These stories show how giving and volunteering can begin at home early in life. Clifford the Big Red Dog encourages acts of service through the BE BIG campaign, and then there’s Dr. King who said, “Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.” Anyone is inclusive.
Get Started Serving—at Any Age!
Different organizations will differ on their policies about when a young person can start volunteering on his or her own (sometimes it’s 14, sometimes it’s older). That doesn’t mean you have to wait until that age to start exposing your child to volunteer opportunities. Try these ideas:
- Participate in an upcoming Global Youth Service Day activity in your city or town.
- The MLK Day website provides a comprehensive list of a variety of service ideas. Check it out.
- At Free Rice, you can play games, and for every correct answer you get, rice is donated to help end hunger.
Try volunteering based on family interests. Try different things and watch for moments when your children get really engaged. I’ve engaged kids in:
- Serving and preparing food at a homeless shelter.
- Collecting Christmas cards to a mentally challenged charity that recycles them into new cards.
- Collecting pennies or loose change for the Society of St. Andrews.
- Delivering meals to home-bound elders.
- Cleaning and pick up trash on trails at the park.
Each of these activities are distinctly different so they didn’t necessarily appeal to each youth. After you’ve gotten your kids involved in service moments, take time to talk about the experience. It’s a great way to see what your child did, learned and thought about the whole thing.
Reflect on Your Volunteer Experience
As you volunteer, reflect on your experience with your child. Ask your child:
- What did you do?
- How did you make a difference?
- What was the best part of the project?
- What was the hardest?
- Would you do it again? Why or why not?
- If you did do it again, what would you do differently next time? Would you want to do the same thing or try a different task?
- What do you want to do next? Where else is there a need that you can do something about?