Soon after Ninna was born, I decided that I wanted my children to begin volunteering at a young age. For my first couple of years as a mother, my "volunteering" consisted of showing up at playgroup with a snack to share. Yeah...OK I did absolutely no volunteering for my first 2 1/2 years as a mother.
After Bojey was born and we were somewhat settled into Montreal, I decided to get more serious about it. I was thinking about this the other day and realized that we have actually spent a good bit of time volunteering. Since it's not always easy to figure out what kinds of volunteer activities are open to small children, I thought I'd offer some tips based on what worked for us:
1. Contact your city's volunteer bureau:
Montreal's volunteer bureau helped us set up one of our volunteer programs. Several of us moms decided we'd like to bring the kids into an assisted living home to interact with the residents. The volunteer bureau asked around and found a home who wanted to bring us in.
We took the kids (aged 1-6) into the home every two weeks to spend time with the seniors. It was a hugely popular activity, with the room usually packed to the brim. On many occasions, the staff told us that our kids were the only ones who ever came into the building. Unfortunately, winter in Montreal means frequently sick kids, and the slightest sneeze or sniffle prevented us from going into the assisted living home because of the fragile health of its residents. We had to put the program on hiatus after several months because too often we wouldn't have enough healthy kids. Ninna LOVED going to "the grandmas' and the grandpas'," as we called it, and she asks at least once or twice a week, I kid you not, when we are going back (we haven't been since February.)
Your volunteer bureau might already have a list of kid-friendly volunteer programs, like the one we did at the assisted living home, but if not, they should be able to do some of the leg-work for you as far as finding something.
2. Expand your definition of "volunteering":
The chicks and I participated in a community garden once a week this summer (which I wrote about here and here). I didn't initially think of this as volunteering since we got something in return (a free education in gardening as well as free, fresh-from-the-ground organic produce). As I thought about it more, however, I realized that it was, indeed, volunteering. For one thing, the extraneous produce from the system of gardens (of which our garden is a part) goes to help the hungry in our city.
A more subtle, but perhaps more powerful factor is our contribution to the greening of the city. By participating in the community garden, we are not only helping keep a small patch of the land healthy and productive, but also contributing to an ethos that values green space, organic food, and communal contribution.
Think about what bigger changes you'd like to see in your city. Are there small ways you can participate alongside your kids?
3. When all else fails, create your own volunteer project:
With the garden long done for the season, I'd started to feel like we weren't contributing much. I happened to be looking on craigslist in the "free" section (which I watch like hawk) when I noticed an ad asking for toy donations. Out of curiosity, I contacted the woman who posted it and learned that she worked for an inner city school that was in desperate need of toys for its preschool program. The school also operates a mission that donates toys and clothing to its students' families.
I immediately thought of Ninna's little preschool and how fortunate they are to have so much, and then my mind wandered to our little house and how over-stuffed we were with toys. I knew if I asked around, our friends would be willing to part with some toys too. So I wrote up an explanation letter requesting donations and sent it out via email and Facebook, and we were given an amazing number of really nice toys to donate to the school. This was a shockingly low-effort activity that yielded very great results--I highly recommend it.
Remember to discuss your volunteering with your kiddos:
I involved Ninna in this activity on every step of the way. We talked about how I was sending out the request; she helped choose the toys to donate from our own collection; she helped organize the toys brought over by other families. One morning, my chicks and I were joined by another family, and we made several giant batches of homemade playdough for the school.
Finally, after we had everything collected and organized, my chicks and I (along with another mom and her chicks) made the trip to the school to drop it off. Ninna was able to see the school and the kids who would be using the toys.
All of our volunteering has had a big impact on Ninna. Bojey, at 2 1/2, is still a little young to quite get it, but I'm sure she has benefited in some way as well. During and after every bit of volunteering we've done, I've talked to Ninna about why we were doing it, who would benefit, etc. A week after dropping the toys off at the school, she's still offering up ideas for things to donate. I can see that she has really made the contrast between her good fortune and the hardships of others.
What volunteer opportunities have you found for your kids?
I'm definitely not the Mother Theresa of volunteering with young kids (nor was I Mother Theresa before I had kids--not by a longshot), but I feel relatively satisfied with the amount of service we've been able to do so far. I know there are others who have done much more, and I'd love to hear more ideas for volunteering with toddlers and preschoolers. What are your suggestions?