Five-year-old Josie Barnabee, of Libertyville, Illinois, and her 3-year-old brother, Ben, have more "honorary" grandparents than they can count. Since they were babies, they've spent one morning a week at Winchester House, a local nursing home, where they exchange hugs, sing songs, play games, and talk with the elderly residents. "When they walk out of the elevator, the residents come to life," says their mom, Jenny.
The Barnabees aren't alone in their commitment to reach out and help others. Parents with young children are increasingly making volunteering a regular part of their routine, whether it's delivering meals to the homebound, planting flowers at a local park, or spending time with people with disabilities. For busy parents who want to spend time with their kids while still contributing to their community, volunteering as a family is an ideal activity.
The benefits are enormous. Volunteering teaches even toddlers and preschoolers about compassion, empathy, tolerance, gratitude, and community responsibility. And children who volunteer are more likely to continue doing so as adults. "It sounds cliched, but my kids realize that small things they do can make a big difference," says Tara Whalen, of Norwalk, Connecticut, who's volunteered at AmeriCares with her family since her oldest child, now 11, was a baby. "My four kids have become much more appreciative of what they have because they realize there are others who aren't as fortunate as they are."
When Marce and Steve Piller, of Minneapolis, realized that the families of other children at their kids' schools couldn't afford to pay for class pictures or field trips, they started their own "charity" called Little Bitz with their three children. They save all their loose change in a large jar and hold fund-raising events such as bake sales and garage sales.
Many volunteer jobs are perfect for families with little ones. First, decide whether you're interested in a one-time project (collecting children's books and donating them to a hospital, for instance) or a longer-term commitment, such as serving dinner at a homeless shelter once a month. Then call the appropriate organization to ask how you can help.
An easy way to find out about volunteer opportunities in your area is to call your local volunteer center (check the Yellow Pages) and describe your location, interests, and the ages of your children. The center will probably have a database and be able to match you with an appropriate volunteer project. You can also contact your church or temple about which charitable groups in your area have requested help. If you've decided on an ongoing volunteer job, talk to the agency's volunteer coordinator about training and orientation. Visit by yourself before making a commitment, and trust your instincts about whether you think it will be a comfortable environment for you and your children.
Once you've decided on a project, explain to your children exactly what to expect. Be enthusiastic about what you're doing and explain why the job is important ("When we pick up litter from the park, we make it more fun for everyone to come and play here"). Answer your child's questions about the work and the people you'll be interacting with.
Above all, have fun. You might consider teaming up with another family, inviting one of your child's friends to help out, or stopping for a picnic in the park or ice cream on the way home. What initially may seem like another task on your to-do list can become a wonderful bonding experience for your family.