The morning air is clear and cold as the Watz-Hittler family piles out of the car by a small white building in downtown Minneapolis. Annemarie, Caroline, and Nicholas -- ages 10, 13, and 15 -- have come here with their parents to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 75 elderly people, just as they've been doing for years. "My kids have grown up with this," Donna explains. She and husband Bill, both attorneys, have spent almost every holiday here since the kids were born. "This year, we asked the children if they'd rather have dinner at home or with relatives instead, and they all said no," Donna says.
Inside the festive hall, Nicholas and Bill tie on white aprons and begin chopping fruit and washing dishes. Donna and the girls set the tables with china, crisp white cloths, and centerpieces of balloons and flowers. "When the kids were younger, they couldn't play an active role like this," Donna says. "To keep them occupied while we worked, we had them do things like coloring pictures of turkeys." Over time, though, the children have grown increasingly helpful and comfortable with the volunteer work. As the guests arrive for dinner, the kids help take coats and fill out name tags. When it's time to eat, they spread out among the guests. "Initially, the kids would only sit with us, but now they feel comfortable enough to take any open spot," Donna says.
These occasions make Donna and Bill particularly proud of their children. "If there's a job to be done -- if someone needs butter, say -- they'll handle it," Donna says."The things we nag them to do at home seem to come naturally here." What's more, the children truly enjoy sharing the holiday with people who might otherwise be alone. "Some of the elderly have few chances to interact with young people. Our kids bring them as much joy as they bring to us."
Benjamin Aha, 4, may not fully understand why his family is spending Thanksgiving at the Ronald McDonald House in Camden, New Jersey. But the little volunteer fills an important role: helping make sure the sick children who are staying there are having a good time. "Ben is a really compassionate boy," says his mother, Maureen. "He knows if people aren't feeling well or need an extra boost."
The Ronald McDonald houses serve as a temporary home for families of seriously ill children who are being treated at a nearby hospital. Holidays can be particularly difficult, so volunteers like Ben and his family try to create as normal an atmosphere as possible. "Most people in this situation are consumed by their child's illness, and a holiday meal provides a welcome distraction," says Maureen, a school-benefits assistant who has volunteered here for ten years. She got involved through her mother, Judi Godor, who has devoted one weekend a month for the past 17 years to the Ronald McDonald House. Maureen's husband, Chris, who works in the technology field, and sons Ben and baby Jeffrey often come along. Maureen knows her children are too young to understand why they're there. But she believes that including them will help shape their values."Children are open to all kinds of experiences," she says. "If you instill the idea of volunteering early on, they'll want to take some time out to help others when they're older."
When Frank and Jeri Strand, of Las Vegas, survey their Thanksgiving buffet, they're likely to find delicacies like sushi or Chinese pork dumplings alongside the platter of turkey. That's because the couple and their two children, John, 10, and Sabrina, 13, serve as a host family for the "Home Away From Home" program of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Since 1994, the Strands have been welcoming students into their home for dinners, parties, and holidays. "Whenever they're hungry or homesick, they come see us," says Jeri, who manages an outpatient radiology center.
The program's goal is to help foreign and out-of-state students get acclimated to life away from home. It connects them with a local family for their first year at the university, and it's assumed that once they're comfortable, they'll move on. "But that's not what happens," Jeri says. "These people remain part of our family even when we're no longer officially hosting them." Last Thanksgiving, for instance, the Strand's guests included a doctoral candidate from Japan, two graduate students from Brazil, and a college student from Idaho -- all of whom they'd met through the program. "We've hosted a very diverse group," Jeri acknowledges. "It's been wonderful for our kids." By interacting with the foreign students, John and Sabrina have learned about other forms of government as well as different foods, customs and cultures. Sabrina knows phrases in seven languages, and John learned about communism from a student from China. "Hearing about other countries gives our kids a better perspective on their own country and how lucky they are to live here," Frank says. Adds Jeri, "We can't imagine life without this constant exposure to new faces and cultures. We consider it a gift."
The third annual National Family Volunteer Day is Saturday, November 17, 2001. To find out how to volunteer locally at food banks or homeless shelters, log on to www.pointsoflight.org. For year-round opportunities, call 800-VOLUNTEER.
Though preschoolers are not ready to serve turkey to the homeless, even the youngest family members can get involved. Some suggestions:
Bring them to visit sick children at a hospital. When shopping for your child, buy an extra hat or pair of gloves to drop off at a family shelter.
Organize a group of kids in your neighborhood to spiff up a local park, nature preserve, beach, or other public area.
Let your children earn money by doing simple household chores. Then have them spend their money to buy some canned food to drop off at a shelter.
Pick a retirement home, and visit regularly with home-baked goodies or art projects made by your child.
-- Stacey Felsen
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission.