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Community Service with a Smile

Getting the Kids On Board

My 12-year-old son, Andrew, is a great kid. But like many children these days, he's had a lot of things handed to him. So after hearing about the importance of a child's "moral compass," my wife and I felt we needed to make sure his was pointed in the right direction.

We decided the best way to accomplish this was by having him learn what it was like to do something for someone else. And we thought, Why not do it as a family? "Everyone complains about the lack of quality time; well, volunteering together is practically the best quality time you can get," says Diana O'Neill, executive director of the Long Island Volunteer Center in Hempstead, New York. "And to truly learn how to serve an organization and its mission, you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved."

Studies by Independent Sector, a coalition of charitable groups and foundations, have shown that about half of Americans who volunteer do so with family members. The effects of such experiences can be profound: According to Youth Service America, kids who volunteer just an hour a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. And when they donate their time with their parents, they're twice as likely to continue volunteering as adults. "All community service projects build character. But when a kid volunteers with a parent, there's an added benefit — a strengthening of their bond," says Michael Organ, executive director of Charity Guide.

The tricky part is getting your kids on board, which can seem as formidable a task as trying to save the rain forests. Here's how not to announce your plan:

"Every Saturday we're going to the local food pantry and bagging groceries for the homeless. Got it?" This is the must-eat-spinach approach, and it's almost guaranteed not to work. Instead get them to cooperate by igniting their interest.


Ask for Input

"The more involved your child is in the decision making, the more engaged he'll be," says Jenny Friedman, author of The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering (Robins Lane Press). Initiate a discussion during dinner or while watching TV. Unfortunately, it's not difficult to find situations where help is needed. It could be a natural disaster in another state or country, or something closer to home, like a garbage-strewn field. "As kids begin noticing the world isn't perfect, they also start realizing people can do something about it," says Heather Jack, president of the Volunteer Family in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Find an organization that matches your child's passions. Animals and the environment are popular causes, "but there are so many worthwhile opportunities," says Jack. "It's just a question of finding the right fit." If your child is an artist, suggest making get-well cards for sick kids. Or if sports is her thing, help out with the Special Olympics. History buffs may enjoy visiting nursing homes: While providing much-needed company, they may also hear firsthand accounts of events they've only read about or watched on TV.

Many organizations and Web sites dedicated to volunteering help match families with volunteer opportunities. Some to check out:

www.doinggoodtogether.org

www.thevolunteerfamily.com

www.volunteermatch.org

www.charityguide.org

www.pointsoflight.org

www.ysa.org


Be Realistic About Commitment

The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that more than half of volunteering experiences don't happen on a regular basis. "This type of volunteering allows for busy schedules, while also enabling you to try out different activities," says Kathy Saulitis of the Points of Light Foundation. And even a few volunteering experiences a year are better than none. "My feeling is that it's the quality, not the quantity," Jack says. "Talking about it beforehand and reflecting on it afterward is going to make it more meaningful than saying, 'We have to do it every weekend.'"


Have a Postgame Wrap-Up

"Talking with your children afterward will help them appreciate the value of their efforts and feel pride in what they've accomplished," says Organ. The discussion should be purposeful, the questions open-ended. Let's say you just helped out at the local homeless shelter.


You: "How do you think people become homeless?"

Your kid: "I guess they lose their job. Why don't they just go get another one?"

You: "Maybe they can't find a job. Maybe they're too sick to hold a job. Then what?"

Your kid: "What about the government? Can't they do something?"

You: "Maybe. But people disagree about what the government can and should do. Let's read up on this together when we get home."

And there it is: the teachable moment. "In the end this conversation should prompt your child to want to learn more about an issue," Jack says.

Another worthwhile activity is a role-playing exercise called Someone Else's Shoes. Your child tries to imagine the feelings of a person she's helped, and writes them down. You do the same. "Then you compare and discuss reactions," Jack says. "It's another way to keep the dialogue going while helping your child grasp the value of his actions."

On the way back from our afternoon at the local shelter, I asked Andrew what he'd learned from the experience and from meeting the other volunteers and staff. Normally he'd respond to such a question with a distracted shrug. But this time he put down his portable video game — a rare feat — and thought a moment before answering me. "It's really nice that there are people like that," he said. "I definitely want to go back and help out again."

At that moment I sensed the needle on his moral compass start to tremble and move. And it was pointing in the right direction.



Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 29, 2007, issue of Family Circle magazine.