Volunteerism and Your Kids

Raising kids who care.

It’s the age of “selfies,“ instant gratification and, some might say, general narcissism. But as a parent, and especially during a consumer-driven holiday season, how do you combat all the external forces that bombard your child with the message “it’s all about me” all of the time? One word – volunteering. Coming into contact with those who are less fortunate is a sure way to get your children to realize how much they already have and how much they have to give. The happy side effect – your child will find out the precious secret that giving of yourself unselfishly to others is not only in keeping with the spirit of the season, it’s also immensely gratifying.

Planting the Seeds of Compassion Early

“Compassion starts young,” says Meghann Ray, communications director of Iron Gate Tulsa, an independent nonprofit organization that feeds the hungry. “Our philosophy at Iron Gate is that you are not [ever] too young to give back.“ The Kids Helping Kids program was launched there last year with the specific focus of giving kids the opportunity to help other kids. There is no age minimum or maximum for volunteers. Young people who volunteer through the initiative might help assemble nutritious snack bags for children who are in need, serve hot foods in the soup kitchen line or pass out groceries in the pantry.

Iron Gate also provides an education component to its volunteer opportunities for young people — whether giving tours of the facility or doing outreach at area schools and youth groups. When Ray speaks to youngsters about Iron Gate, or leads them on a facility tour, it is sometimes the first time they’ve seen a homeless person or anything like this, she notes.

“Kids instantly want to know how they can help. They are so jazzed to make this work. It’s inspiring,” she said.

Ray believes that kids are most receptive while they are still young. As our future leaders “if we want a more compassionate city and country and a more compassionate approach to helping those less fortunate,” education and exposure to those who have less, is key.

A Family Affair

It’s no secret that kids imitate their parents‘ behaviors — good and bad! So, what better way to inspire your child to give back than to model it yourself? Erin Boyd, mother of the 10-year-old fundraising phenom Keith Boyd  of “Keith’s Ice Cold Lemonade” fame, believes that just bringing your kids along when you volunteer (so long as it is appropriate), is a “great way for kids to develop a desire to volunteer” themselves. She witnessed many parents bringing children as young as four years old to volunteer at various Keith’s Ice Cold Lemonade stands over the summer. “Those parents are really grateful too,” she adds. “I heard that a lot.”

The Boyd’s family commitment to raising money in support of the Little Lighthouse was the impetus behind their son Keith’s desire to donate the excess proceeds of his very first lemonade stand in 2012, and the reason his little front-yard outpost grew into the mega-fundraising effort it is today, with over $120,000 raised at 10 different locations. Keith has cerebral palsy and was a student at the school. “He just saw us [giving back to the Little Lighthouse] and was motivated,” she notes. “There was nowhere else in our area where we could’ve received the services we did.”

Boyd also believes it’s a parent’s responsibility to not only encourage their child to volunteer, but to provide physical support as well. Whether that means driving your child to a volunteer commitment or, as in her case, helping set up a lemonade stand, children benefit greatly from having parental assistance.

Giving back was always a part of the culture of the Cummings family from Skiatook. It was 16-year-old Lily Cummings who inspired her dad recently to join a Habitat for Humanity build. As a carpenter, it was a perfect way for father and daughter to share his talents for the greater good, and they are now looking forward to doing another together soon. “We may not have a lot of money to provide for others,” notes Lily’s mom Ellen Cummings, but as a family “we can give of our talents.”

Where to Start?

Whatever you do, “don’t make volunteering onerous” counsels Ellen Cummings. “Make it something fun [your child] is passionate about.”

Indeed, the easiest way to encourage a child’s willingness to volunteer is to connect the project with an existing interest and turn it into an enjoyable means of giving back. And it needn’t be complicated or lofty. “If they like to dig in the dirt, find a community garden,” she suggests. “If they like animals, animal havens just need people to pet the animals and love them.”

Lily Cummings is a Skiatook high school junior who now regularly volunteers at Iron Gate, as well as through her school. She used her own passion for animals to spur on her first attempt at organizing a volunteer effort as a middle school student. Calling it a “treat drive,” Lily and her friends collected animal food, treats and bedding for a local animal haven.

Keith Boyd agrees. “Find something you care about and it will be fun!”

Though it’s wonderful if your child is motivated and interested in spearheading a volunteer effort from the ground up, there is no pressure to re-invent the wheel. Your child’s school, scouting organization or your place of worship may already have established programs in place to connect youngsters with different opportunities either on a recurrent or one-time basis – and as such are a great, easy first stop in getting involved.

Opportunities Abound

You can even start the process of giving back without leaving the comfort of your own home.  By collecting household items, clothes and toys that your family no longer needs or wants to an organization such as Goodwill Industries of Tulsa, you support their mission to provide training programs for people who are disabled or disadvantaged. Nancy Webster, Goodwill Tulsa’s director of community relations and volunteers, notes that it’s a great way to instill the idea of sharing in younger kids and an opportunity to explain what their good deeds will benefit. And if done with some regularity, perhaps a Spring-cleaning exercise, it can become a family tradition with the added benefit of ridding your home of clutter.

For older children who have a special performance talent to share (say, belting out show tunes or strumming a guitar), or for those who may not have grandparents who live close by, volunteering at a retirement community could be a great option. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Cathy Audley, who handles media relations at the Montereau community. “The intergenerational interaction is wonderful. The kids learn from it, and the residents‘ lives are uplifted by it.” Individual volunteers are usually teenagers, though younger children are welcomed as part of a service group. Audley notes that teens who wish to spend time with the residents can craft an experience that will be in keeping with their interests and beneficial to the community – assisting in setting up holiday celebrations, bringing pets for a visit or just reading and having conversations to brighten a day.

Animal-loving children might consider organizing a pet food drive in their neighborhood or school, much like Lily Cummings did, to help support their local SPCA or animal rescue group. The Tulsa SPCA is always in need of supplies from dog food to kitty litter to flea shampoo and everything in between, says Volunteer Manager Terry Walker. Older children can help in securing healthy, loving homes for pets up for adoption through the Animal Rescue Foundation of Tulsa (ARF). ARF holds weekly showings of pets to adopt at two Tulsa-area PetSmart stores and is always looking for volunteers to show, walk and generally love the animals looking for owners.

Something Special to Give

Having something to give has nothing to do with material wealth. It’s a matter of stoking feelings of empathy for those who have less or are in an unfortunate situation. As a parent, it’s great to point out to your children that “there’s always someone who needs your help; there’s always someone worse off than you,” says Ellen Cummings. And indeed, in this season of joy and family and yes, excess – why not take some time to encourage your children to reflect on how much they truly have and share some of  the abundance?

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