Encouraging Community Service
As a junior at Loyola College in Maryland, Neil Mitten, 20, could stay sheltered from the harsh realities of inner-city poverty. Instead, he chooses to volunteer at a transitional housing program for men who have been homeless.
The Rockville, Md., native has been volunteering for years. While in high school, he helped build an aqueduct for poor people living in the Dominican Republic as part of a five-week immersion experience.
"It opened my eyes a lot to some of the poverty that does exist in the world and the inequalities which I had not seen," Mitten says. "I came from more of a suburban lifestyle. Going from that to the rural part of the poor areas of the Dominican Republic was very eye opening. It instilled in me the idea that I did have a responsibility coming from more of a wealthy part of society to reach out and do what I could to be of service."
Mitten, a political science major, serves as the student representative for the board of directors of the National Coalition for the Homeless and volunteers for the Fredrick Ozanam House. He says kids often begin to volunteer, thinking they just want to help. However, they often find they receive more than they give.
"The men I met through the program have opened me up to a side of Baltimore I would not have seen if I stay on Loyola campus," he says. "They all have different stories about how they ended up being homeless. I got to hear the different stories and issues that Baltimore City faces, such as the lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs that pay a sufficient wage and some of the issues surrounding drug abuse that face the city. My perspective was widened. At the same time, they are really great guys, and I made a lot of friendships."
While parents can encourage their children to volunteer at any age, they also need to be aware of and ready for their support to go beyond the local community. Children who start volunteering in their preteen years may grow to take a similar career path.
Mitten's parents supported him in his desire to volunteer in the Dominican Republic and help the homeless population. They have also helped him become aware of what a lifelong commitment to working with underserved populations could entail. "They have been encouraging but have been real with me," Mitten says.
Tricia Bock of Nashville, Ind., an administrative assistant with the American Cancer Society South Central Area Service Center in Bloomington, Ind., has three children: Jeremy, 8, Terry, 17, and Dustin, 19. They all volunteer when they can.
"I think it gives them a better understanding of what the American Cancer Society actually does," Bock says. "They have come in the office a couple times and helped with bulk mailings and also help during relay season. The Relay for Life is a huge thing – it's the signature fundraising event for the American Cancer Society, and during that season, we may be doing whatever they need us to do at Relay. Even the smallest one may be scooping sand into bags for luminaries, and while he is putting them around the track, he stopped a couple times and said, 'Hey, that's my Grandma's bag. Hey, that's for my Grandpa.' It gives them a personal perspective on why we are doing what we are doing. My mother passed away from it when she was 49, and my dad is a survivor, so for the older one, it gives them an idea that we are making a difference."
Bock recommends that beginning volunteers find something that interests them. For instance, if your preteen loves animals, you might encourage her to volunteer for the Humane Society.
"I think the other thing, as far as volunteering, is make it something that is enjoyable to them and something where they can see they are making a difference," she says. "They are not just stuffing envelopes; they are helping people."
As They Grow
As young volunteers get older, parents may see an increase in the intensity with which their child pursues community service.
Jesse White, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and coordinator of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau in Washington, D.C., works closely with high school and college students active in homelessness issues. She says students serve at soup kitchens as well as at homeless shelters. They might also go to Capitol Hill and talk to the representatives about different pieces of legislation that are coming up for debate.
"I've also seen a lot of late-high school, college-age students really get heavily involved in activism and advocacy by organizing letter-writing campaigns to representatives, by organizing call-in days to representatives, by hosting hunger and homelessness awareness weeks [and] by organizing educational events," White says.
Whether students organize rallies or volunteer at a soup kitchen, they feel plugged into the larger society as opposed to the smaller social circles within their high schools or colleges. While parents often want to shelter their children from these issues, they also need to balance that with giving their children a taste of the real world with all of its complexities, inequalities and heartache.
"A lot of the students we work with that come from upper middle-class, suburban communities don't really realize the extent of how many people are homeless and how many different kinds of people are poor and homeless and using various services," White says. "I think a lot of times they have a particular stereotype in their head of homeless people [that they] are all white, middle-aged drunks, and when they volunteer and they get to actually meet people who are homeless, they see there are a lot of women and children who are homeless."
A Family Affair
White says parents can encourage their children to volunteer by setting a good example. Make volunteering a family affair, she says.
Parents need to be educated about what is going on in the community so they can sit down and have a real conversation with their children. "Then it can really be not only a bonding experience for the parent and their child, but also an enlightening experience that both of them can go through together," White says. "Many parents have lost touch with things beyond their job and their neighborhood, as well."
Several organizations sponsor family volunteer days and encourage families to organize service projects for their communities. Visit VolunteerMatch.com for ideas. White says another great resource for local volunteerism is through churches, synagogues and youth groups.
"A lot of times there are already well-organized youth groups that are doing all kinds of different volunteerism [and] advocacy, and for parents to really become aware of those youth groups and then encourage their kids to get involved in it can be helpful especially if the parent is maybe a single parent and does not have the kind of time it would take to really invest in volunteerism themselves," she says.
Children gain perspective on life by volunteering. It also beats boredom during the tumultuous preteen and teen years. Volunteering can also help children overcome feelings of loss when someone close has passed away.
To start, help your child find volunteer opportunities that match his personality and skills. Many kids instinctively want to help, and by helping, they feel better about themselves. The good is magnified when volunteerism becomes a family project.