created at: 2012-01-30Volunteering with children is a great way to help them learn about the importance of tzedakah (charity) and performing mitzvot (kind deeds). Children learn valuable skills while “on the job,” as well as how organizations fill specific needs in the community. Volunteering also provides children with the opportunity to remember what they have to be thankful for, a theme you could introduce during your regular Shabbat celebration. Here are several suggestions to inspire successful parent-child volunteering:

Work Together
It’s important to work side-by-side with your child, since leading by example has been shown to be the most effective form of teaching. Children who see their parents volunteering are much more likely to believe in the value of working to help others.

Naturally, working side-by-side with your child will allow you to assist him or her when necessary, ensuring the child’s presence is a help, not a hindrance to the organization’s staff and other volunteers.

An additional benefit of working with your child as a volunteer is the bonding that occurs when people work together as a team. Also, when people are focused on a task, it sometimes fosters deep conversations that may not have occurred with more direct eye contact.

Consider the Right Opportunity
When choosing a volunteer opportunity, it’s important to consider the following:

  • Your child’s interests
  • Your interests
  • Your child’s abilities
  • Your abilities
  • Location, frequency and duration
  • Staff attitude

Your Child’s Interests
If your child is clearly interested in a subject, it may be possible to use that interest as a springboard into volunteering. Children who construct a lot of forts or buildings with blocks, for example, may enjoy helping out a construction organization such as Habitat for Humanity; children who love animals may enjoy helping animal organizations such as the Humane Society.

Your Interests
It’s also important to consider your own interests. Children look to their parents to help them discern how to respond to new stimuli. If you are bored while volunteering, your child will associate boredom with volunteering. Alternately, if you are passionate about your actions, your child will respond to that passion.

Your Child’s Abilities
If your child is very young, it can be challenging to choose a volunteer opportunity that he or she can actually help with. Fortunately, there are opportunities available that even very young children can do with a little parental guidance. I started volunteering with my children when they were 3 and 6 years old. My older child could follow basic directions well with a small amount of supervision. However, my 3-year-old was an energetic little boy with a young child’s motor skills and attention span.

We were able to successfully volunteer at a local food pantry, where his sorting and counting skills worked quite well with close supervision and direction from me. I gave simple tasks, such as taking two boxes of macaroni-and-cheese from a shelf and putting them in each grocery bag. He was able to complete these tasks easily, while I added all the remaining groceries. (For a similar opportunity, contact Family Table, the largest kosher food pantry in New England, which welcomes family volunteering.)

Your Abilities
Just as your child will learn from your passion for volunteering, he or she will benefit from seeing you work well in your element. For example, if you are especially skilled at home renovations, you may find a community restoration project to work on. This would allow you to share your skills while demonstrating the relevance volunteering has to many different careers and interests.

Location, Frequency and Duration
Of course, it’s important to consider the basic logistics of any volunteer opportunity. If the opportunity is close by, a commitment to help out on a weekly basis may be fine. If it’s farther away, you may need to commit to helping on a monthly basis instead. It’s fine to increase your volunteering later, after you’ve tried it out and you know it works well for you, but be careful not to over-commit initially. Remember, your child is already learning work ethics from this experience. You’ll want to ensure you arrive in a timely manner when you’re expected, only canceling or rescheduling when you truly have valid reasons and can give plenty of notice.

Consider, too, the duration of each volunteer session. Older children may be fine with a few hours or more. However, younger children may need sessions to be kept short.

We found our one-hour volunteer session at the food pantry each week worked well during the first 30 to 45 minutes of fast-paced grocery bag-filling. However, the remaining 15 to 30 minutes of shelf-restocking were slow-paced enough that my 3-year-old had trouble staying focused. It was an invitation for chaos. We handled it by simply leaving earlier until he was a little older and better able to handle a full hour of volunteer work at a time.

Staff Attitude
The last item to consider is the attitude of other volunteers and the organization’s staff. Most people will appreciate you instilling a volunteer ethic in children at a young age, but you may find a few “sour apples” who focus more on the decibel level or other potential distractions. (In fact, many organizations may prohibit children under a certain age.)

To some extent, the mission you’re on is more important than any individuals who may not appreciate your child’s input. However, be sure to consider the effect others’ attitudes have on your child. If a child feels like a hindrance, volunteering will end up seeming like a chore rather than a joy.

Resources for Finding Volunteer Opportunities
There are many ways you can learn about volunteer opportunities in the Greater Boston Jewish community, including the following:

  • Visit CJP’s Volunteer page or the Jewish Family & Children’s Service Volunteer Opportunities page for a list of local agencies specializing in volunteer efforts. Contact each organization directly to learn more about family opportunities.
  • Consider starting a canned-food drive at your synagogue to benefit your local food pantry, like Family Table.
  • Check with local Jewish nursing homes or elder-care facilities for “toddler days.”
  • Take on home baking projects for fundraising bake sales or meal-delivery services.
  • Call non-profit organizations you like and ask what you and your family can do. They may have needs or volunteer opportunities that you haven’t even thought of.
  • Check for opportunities listed in national volunteer website databases, such as JewishVolunteer.com, VolunteerMatch.org (has a designation for kid-friendly opportunities) or Idealist.org (has designations for teen opportunities and 12-and-under opportunities).