In January, I organized my 15th Annual Martin Luther King Day of Community Service. Before you praise my efforts, I should tell you that my reasons for starting it were completely selfish. I had heard about the push to make the holiday a “Day On, Not a Day Off” and I wanted my children to volunteer, too.
Turns out I wasn’t the only on that felt that way—this year we had a crowd of almost 300. The planning is now an extended family and community collaboration. Friends and strangers alike donate money for purchasing supplies. The most important part, though, is the throngs of local families who come.
This shows me that many parents value the idea of having their kids give back. They, like me, believe that when kids volunteer it teaches them compassion and connects them to their communities. But how can busy families volunteer together year-round?
Here are some suggestions:
- Try at-home projects. You can do volunteer work from home, even with young children. My first MLK Day of Service involved a few toddlers coloring bags for Meals on Wheels. This continues to be one of the most popular annual activities (check with your local Meals on Wheels office—they may have specific bags or guidelines.) Color-A-Smile distributes children’s artwork to nursing homes, or maybe there’s a nursing home where you could bring artwork. You can do the activities right at home and deliver together.
- Organize a donation drive. If you’re pressed for time, this is a great option. First, establish a local need (ideas: foster parents might need help with holiday gifts, food pantries struggle to keep their shelves filled over the summer, and animal shelters sometimes need old towels.) Enlist your kids’ help in decorating a collection box and in asking if they can place the box at school or church. As a family, compose a call for donations that explains what is being collected, for whom, where and by when. Utilize email or social media to get the word out. This only takes a few minutes a day!
- Get crafty. Make Valentines to send to a Veteran’s Hospital. See if the animal shelter needs dog walkers. In the winter we wrap holiday gifts for the patients at a local residential hospital for adults with neurological disabilities; in the fall we make scarecrows to decorate the grounds there.
- Clean up! Each year, as part of our township’s Earth Day initiative, we take a wagon around with a few neighborhood kids and pick up trash. The kids really enjoy the challenge. But you can do it any time, not just once a year. Make a game of it, to see who can pick up the most trash, or turn a visit to the local park or beach into a trash scavenger hunt. Many communities also have “Clean Up” days that are a great way to get kids started in volunteering and caring about their neighborhood.
A couple of points to keep in mind:
- Be realistic about how much time you have to give. Some organizations need you to commit to ongoing service. It might sound doable now, but if your schedule change seasonally with kids’ activities, it might be difficult to maintain. Consider starting on weekends or over school breaks. A Community Café near us allows people to register online for any time slot they can handle.
- Have fun! Remember, if it feels like a chore it won’t do anything to instill a love of volunteerism in your kids. My kids have so much fun with activities they ask to bring friends, and we never have trouble finding some to bring along. Because when given the opportunity to volunteer, families love to do it, especially together.
Do you have ideas for ways to get your kids involved in volunteering? Share them in the comments below.