Volunteering with Your Family

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc.

If you are like most people, there are simply too few hours in a day. You have many demands on your time, from doing what your boss wants to doing what your children want. And with all that is already filling your schedule, you can't see how you can become a volunteer, even if you want to help solve community problems.

Here's a unique idea that has many benefits: become a volunteer along with some or all of your family members!

Family volunteering can be done by the whole family together or by one parent and one child or teenager as a special "twosome" project. Or it can be several siblings together. It can involve both parents or one parent and an extended family member such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle. The mix-and-match possibilities are endless. The agency receiving your volunteer services benefits by having more helpers at one time. If you volunteer on a regular schedule and occasionally a family member cannot come one week, there are others to help fill in.

What do you gain by volunteering together as a family? First of all, you assure that elusive but much-sought goal of "quality time" with each other. You share a common bond while doing something worthwhile for others. You get to know your children in new ways, and vice versa. The process of demonstrating skills and learning new ones gives both age levels the chance to respect one another, work together towards the same goals -- and have something to talk about all week!

If you are already active as a volunteer somewhere, you can continue your participation with less guilt about the time you spend away from your family. Now you'll be with them -- and the organizations you care about will receive even more volunteer help!

Choosing a Family Volunteer Project

Call a family meeting and take time to consider this whole idea. Make sure everyone, no matter how young, participates in the discussion. You might want to proceed this way:

  • Make a list of all the volunteering each member of the family is doing now. Would the others like to help with any of these activities?
  • What causes interest you? Allow everyone to suggest a community problem of concern to him or her. If some of the ideas intrigue the whole family, start exploring what organizations in your community are already working on these. Use the Yellow Pages, go to the library, visit the Volunteer Center.
  • Also consider what types of work everyone wants to do. Make two lists: one for "Things We Know How to Do" and one for "Things We Would Like to Learn How to Do." Make sure something is listed for each member of the family. This is a great chance to acknowledge the talents of parents and children. These lists will also prove useful when you interview with an agency.

It may take several family meetings to complete these steps, but the conversations should be very interesting!

You will then be ready to offer your services as a family volunteer team. Call several organizations for appointments and screen your options. See whether the agency representatives are comfortable talking to your children as well as to the adults in the family. Does the agency have something meaningful for you to do as a group? You may want to begin with a one-time activity. This will test the water to see how everyone likes volunteering together.

Once you have committed to a volunteer project, take it seriously. Show your children that volunteer work is important and meaningful. Talk about the activity during the week and plan ahead to do it, even when things get hectic. Some of the work may introduce your children to new ideas and possibly to people different from themselves. What a wonderful opportunity to pass along your values and ethics-- but only if you take the time to talk about everyone's reactions. You, too, may be challenged by what you experience as a volunteer. Share those feelings with your children.

If you have several children, the time may come when you want to focus on an individual son or daughter. Sharing a volunteer project as a twosome may be the key to helping each child feel special.

What about Divorced Families?

Divorce is a fact of life for a growing number of Americans and may be for you, too. And although there are many models for joint child custody arrangements, in the majority of cases one parent becomes the primary custodian of the children. If you are the non-custodial parent, you face the prospect of short-term "visits," often over weekends or school holidays. Do you fear becoming solely a playmate in your child's limited free time?

All of the reasons why volunteering as a family unit is a good idea go double for divorced families! By selecting a mutual volunteer project, you and your children have the chance to share something special together -- something not done with the primary care giving parent.

You have a purpose to some of your mutual time, beyond filling the hours with play. Of course the volunteering should be fun, but it has a meaning besides enjoyment. You can demonstrate values and ethics to your children, passing along important parental expectations that might otherwise come up during an afternoon at the ballpark.

Non-custodial parents can lose track of how fast their children develop. By teaming up as volunteers, you can observe your youngster's skills and personality traits. Similarly, your son or daughter has the opportunity to get to know you in completely new ways. Because time is precious during a visit, you may not want to commit to a volunteer assignment requiring weekly attendance. Volunteering can be scheduled once a month or even seasonally at first. If you live in the same community as your children, it may be possible to arrange for joint volunteering at a time in addition to your predetermined visits. For example, if your child is active in a youth organization or sports league, you might become an adult volunteer and join your son or daughter at the regularly- scheduled group activities.

As children grow into teenagers, the rationale for parent/child volunteering becomes even stronger. The much-discussed "communication gap" is a problem even when a teen lives under the same roof as the adult. When a parent is separated from the daily growth process of a teenager, it is important to find ways to become re-acquainted as each new stage of maturity is reached. If the volunteer work is truly selected out of mutual interests -- or perhaps in support of your child's concern for a cause -- the volunteer activity becomes an anchor around which to maintain a relationship.

Youth and Family Volunteerism Resources by Other Organizations

  • The Big Help (Nickelodeon TV): A nation-wide program driven by local activities. The focus is on kids, as individuals and in groups, volunteering in their own communities. The Toolkit offers advice for kids on organizing, promoting and running a project, as well as a list of partnering organizations.

Copyright Energize, Inc., used by permission.