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Open Your Kids Up to New Possibilities: Have Them Volunteer

by Eric Fichtl

Whether you approach it from a parent’s or a kid’s perspective, there are many great reasons for children to get involved in volunteering. At a basic level, volunteering opens up new horizons for kids, exposing them to different experiences, activities, and environments. And while volunteering is often fun, it also teaches important life lessons, such as the value of mutual respect and a deeper understanding of our society. It also provides real-world experience that children can draw on for the rest of their lives—in school and college, and in their hobbies, relationships, and careers.

From a parent’s point of view, encouraging your child to volunteer can be a rewarding and illuminating experience. You are likely to learn more about your child’s interests as you discuss the sorts of projects he or she will get involved in. It can also be a chance to introduce your child to an experience that is outside your family routines—perhaps by working with the homeless or hungry, helping an elderly neighbor, or assisting immigrant classmates to adjust to life in the United States. At the same time, you will be fostering a sense of social responsibility in your child while also helping him or her learn how to contribute to your community in different ways.

From a kid’s perspective, volunteering can be a fun chance to spread his or her wings. Volunteering can spark new creativity, lead to new friendships, and teach children crucial skills like knowing how and when to lead, follow, and compromise. Kids who get involved in volunteering with those less fortunate than themselves often gain insight into both their own good fortune and the importance of enhancing others’ well-being. Kids who volunteer also get a chance to try new activities that can broaden their worldview, and potentially help them choose new hobbies and eventually even inform their college and career goals.

But there is more to volunteering than learning life lessons: Volunteer work can be a lot of fun, too. Whether you volunteer as a family or your child gets involved in a project by herself, chances are the activities will be enjoyable. Your child will often work with his peers, providing opportunities to make new friends. Meanwhile, seemingly banal activities like raking leaves, picking up litter, or painting walls can turn into a fun-filled few hours based on the sense of camaraderie with other volunteers. Likewise, children can also share laughs and heartfelt moments by spending time with elderly people in retirement homes, visiting kids in hospital, helping out at a food pantry, or playing with puppies at an animal shelter. Volunteering as a tutor or mentor for younger children who are struggling at school can be an eye-opening, educational experience for all involved.

There are several resources that can help children (and their parents) find volunteer opportunities in their community. At school, teachers and guidance counselors often have ideas for community volunteering. Similarly, local religious and political leaders may be able to suggest a variety of volunteer projects that children can join.

Umbrella nonprofits like the United Way (www.unitedway.org) and the Hands On Network (www.handsonnetwork.org) often have information about the volunteer openings at local social service agencies and other nonprofits, as well as other ways to get involved. A number of national organizations focus on encouraging child and youth community involvement, including Youth Service America (www.ysa.org), Do Something (www.dosomething.org), and Youth Venture (www.youthventure.org).

Action Without Borders/Idealist.org (www.idealist.org) has developed an entire website for Kids & Teens, with a searchable database of kid-specific volunteer opportunities, lots of ideas for getting involved in the community, and even a series of profiles of nonprofit organizations founded by young people who wanted to address their concerns. Idealist’s Kids & Teens site is www.idealist.org/kt/index.html.

A note on safety: As with other extracurricular activities, it is important for parents to meet the organizers of volunteer projects and ensure that their children are comfortable and safe doing the work. It’s smart for parents to keep tabs on, and show active interest in, their children’s volunteer activities. Parents who are looking to open their children’s minds and give their kids fun, challenging, and inspiring activities that are outside the daily routine should encourage their children to volunteer. With so many ways to get involved, children will always find some volunteer project that they can enjoy and learn from, and your child—and your community—will be better off because of it.

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Published:
Los Angeles Family Magazine, October 2005



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