Seeing kindness in action is one of the most powerful things a child can witness and participate in. Spending real time, money, and energy in service of someone else helps widen their perspective. Having a parent include them also communicates a powerful message about your values and priorities.
If you have a favorite local charitable organization, look into how you can get your kids involved in volunteering for it. Even if kids aren’t allowed to help in a warehouse or Habitat for Humanity build site, they can frequently raise money. When I was a kid, I set up a little stand on my front yard to sell pom-pom critters and donated the proceeds to environmental groups. Blogger Ilana Whiles at Mommy Shorts is participating in a program where her kids bake and sell cookies to raise money for pediatric cancer programs.
If you’re not familiar with nearby groups, looking into a local or regional homeless lunch program is a good place to start. Many of them do welcome children volunteering, as long as they’re coached ahead of time on expectations and responsibilities. Others may not have a direct role kids can play on-site, but have other activities they can do for their clients. For example, kids may be able to run a food drive. In addition to the normal canned goods, our food bank accepts donations of produce at the farmers’ market.
Other options may be more creative. Our local homeless lunch program likes having colorful, seasonal placemats for their meals, which can be a really fun activity for little ones.
Whatever group you work with, let the needs of the people they serve dictate your actions. In some cases, the most “fun” ways of volunteering aren’t the ones that are most needed. True service has to center the needs of the people being served, nor desires of the people serving.
Even if you aren’t able to volunteer today (short notice!), try to research what volunteer opportunities are possible with kids in your area. Most charitable organizations, especially local ones, have a “Get Involved” section on their website with the best ways to help.
For Thanksgiving, my husband and four-year-old (nicknamed Sprout) baked an extra apple pie for the homeless lunch program at our church (run by Bethesda Cares, Inc). The church across the street that co-hosts the program with us provided a Thanksgiving dinner for their clients and served the pie with dessert.
Because Sprout can’t yet use a real paring knife, Chris tasked him with taking chunks of apple and slicing them thinner. He approached his task with great gusto! Then, he helped add the other ingredients and mix them together.
Before and during the process, we explained that we were making this pie for people who don’t have homes and wouldn’t have anywhere to go on Thanksgiving otherwise. As I want to cultivate respect and kindness for people rather than pity, we just stated these things very simply. To help him empathize, we added, “That wouldn’t be very fun, would it?” but didn’t try to force any sense of sadness.
To help him see the impact, he did go with Chris to drop off the pie. Chris said he was a little intimated, but I suspect that was because it was a lot of people he didn’t know than anything else.
I hope that we can continue to help him (and as my toddler gets older, him too) get involved in ways that are both rewarding and genuinely helpful.