The last bell of the school year has rung, and your child faces the freedom of summer. Try to view these months, however, as an opportune time for her to get involved in “something bigger.” Volunteering is an interactive way to introduce the act of giving and donating one’s time for a greater cause. And an invaluable benefit? The process teaches a child much more about herself – and how easy it is to help her community.
Brian Hawkins, a national board member at Kids Korps USA in San Diego County, says it’s important for kids to start volunteering early. “Younger children are very open to volunteering, as if they’re learning a foreign language. It easily becomes part of their spirit – woven into their DNA,” he says. Currently, his nonprofit’s popular project involves making seedballs – balls of clay filled with native Southern California plant species, which volunteers place in burn areas to foster revegetation.
How early can your child begin volunteering in a project of their choice? Kids Korps’ youngest members are five to seven years old, and participate in a variety of projects, from wildlife protection to animal care. “Kids who volunteer for the first time are often 50 percent excited and 50 percent scared. They haven’t been around the homeless, or horses, or haven’t seen the beach, for example,” says Hawkins. “In the beginning, they are uncertain because it’s a new experience, but they settle in quickly, and within half an hour, you begin to see a transformation.”
Older students who have started early and been longtime volunteers throughout their schooling often find ways to excel in their communities later in life. “The spirit of volunteering stays with them as they matriculate,” says Hawkins. Diverse projects exist, which are fitting for all sorts of personalities. Your child, then, will be able to pinpoint the type of project she wants to be involved in.
But where do you start? If you’re eager for your children to test the waters of volunteering, consider these tips:
- Introduce the concept at home. Take on a project at home to see if your child enjoys the process. Contact organizations or members of the military who send care packages abroad, suggests Hawkins. Help your child prepare a care package, and gauge his excitement. If he’s interested in doing more, seek out a nonprofit that can connect him with an organized project.
- Research various programs. Do a Web search on organizations that offer projects specifically for kids. “Get the contact information of other parents involved in the program and ask them about their experiences,” says Robert Rosenthal, the communications director at VolunteerMatch, an online service that connects people to volunteer projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Evaluate your child's interests. Many nonprofits exist, all catering to participants with unique skills and hobbies. “Help select a nonprofit that your child will be interested in,” says Hawkins. “Offer choices. Children know what they want.”
- Explain that your child is making a difference. “Explain in an age-appropriate way that sharing one's time and energy is an act of giving that all of us can perform,” says Rosenthal.
- Volunteer your time as well. “Children get the most from volunteering when their parents take part, too,” says Rosenthal. If you are unable to, however, make sure a supervisor with child care credentials and/or experience is on site.
- Know your child's limitations. If your child has health conditions or physical handicaps that may hinder him from performing certain tasks, inform the supervisor before the project begins. “Be alert to volunteer coordinators who seem uncertain how to involve your child,” says Rosenthal. “A good volunteer coordinator should be able to make it work.”
- Be upfront about your child's availability. Depending on the project, a volunteer stint can last just one day, a few weeks, or the entire summer. “For many nonprofits, it's better to recruit the right volunteer than one who needs to leave the program early,” says Rosenthal. If your child has made a specific time commitment, she must keep it.
- Encourage post-project feedback. Urge your child to keep a journal during the project so she can jot down feelings, accomplishments, or complaints. Follow up with the project’s supervisor by forwarding your child’s comments. Talk to your child about the experience and what she enjoyed or disliked.
Kindergarteners are already out in their communities, engaging in interactive projects. “Volunteering isn’t something that’s forced. In fact, kids find it’s a privilege,” says Hawkins. Ultimately, they learn and have fun, too.