Volunteering with Children

Juggling kids and community involvement

Before having children, I enjoyed doing volunteer work. I helped out with blood drives. I worked at soup kitchens. I served on committees and boards for various non-profit organizations. It was fun, and it made me feel good to be involved in helping others.

When I became pregnant, I knew that I'd have less time available to do volunteer work, but expected to be able to at least continue some of the projects that had previously been my way of giving back to others. Little did I know, the major obstacle that I would face was NOT going to be lack of time.

To my surprise and dismay, even when I did have time to help out, I was told that I could only do so if I left my daughter elsewhere. This was not an option I cared to entertain, but it seemed like the only way I'd be able to continue my community involvement. "If she were older, we'd feel differently" was the semi-apologetic comment I heard repeatedly.

But no kids were allowed at the blood drive. No one under twelve could help at the soup kitchen. And heaven forbid that I try to take an infant (even one that would simply sleep contentedly in my lap, as Maura would) to a committee meeting!

It seemed like there were two choices: Quit volunteering, or leave my daughter with a sitter. Since neither was an option I really liked, I started looking for other options. It took some work, but I did manage to find ways to offer my help AND spend time with my children at the same time.

Why volunteer? Why volunteer with kids?

Given all the hassle of finding a place that lets you volunteer with kids, why bother? For me, it's an important part of developing a sense of community, and a way of giving back. As my children grow, I want them to realize how lucky they are to have a good home and loving family. With these blessings, they have the ability to give to others who are not so lucky.

At an early age, children can be brought along when volunteering, and not feel they are being "forced" to help out. Seeing that they can make a difference to other people's lives, they will feel good about themselves, and about the way they're able to help out. As they grow, hopefully they will want to continue to do so.

So what can I do with my toddler along?

I've found that there are two types of volunteer work that can be done with kids: work from home, and work elsewhere where the child can "help." The type that is best depends on your child's personality. If you have an extroverted, anxious-to-participate-with-other-people child, projects outside the house with other people will go well. On the other hand, if your child prefers a known environment and fewer people, you will probably have more success working on projects from home.

Projects out in the world

One volunteer opportunity that many children adore is visiting nursing homes. Two of our local nursing homes have monthly "toddler days," where they ask people to bring their (healthy, of course) children to visit some of the residents. Usually, there is some sort of craft project to work on, a snack, and time to simply visit. This is a nice opportunity for children to interact with people of other generations. In our society, where children often live far away from their own grandparents, this is a wonderful way to experience that grandparently love and spoiling.

Another fun project is helping with community clean-up days. Each spring and fall, many parks and public areas have beautification days. Branches are picked up, leaves raked, picnic tables painted, flowers planted, and other tasks performed to make the area nicer for everyone who visits. Even the youngest of children love to pick up sticks or rocks, and can feel a sense of accomplishment. (NOTE: Be sure to check in advance, as some groups are NOT willing to let children help.)

There are other opportunities out in the community where children can go along, but not actually be "helping." Among these:

--helping in the church nursery during services
--becoming a La Leche League Leader or volunteer
--becoming a WIC volunteer counselor (again, check in advance; not all WIC groups will let you bring your child along when volunteering)
--becoming a troop leader for you older child's scouting group

With infants that will stay in a sling or on your lap, you can do many projects where you are sitting: answering phones for fund-raisers, stuffing envelopes, etc.

Volunteer work from home

One of my personal favorite projects to do from home is baking. We've baked for a local meal delivery service for AIDS patients, for a women's shelter, and for fund-raisers. My daughter loves to help me bake, and she loves to deliver the finished products with me. In addition to the feeling of accomplishment and helping, we get extra practice with basic mathematics and following directions!

If you have computer skills (even just the most basic word processing or data entry), there are many groups that would love to have someone take their information and enter it into databases. Also, many groups need people to create and maintain web pages for them. This sort of work can be done from any computer!

Some service groups have their phone numbers forwarded directly to volunteers' homes. If you know that you will be home (and your kids generally will let you answer and talk on the phone), this is another possibility.

Whatever you choose, find a way to help in the community. Show your children how to help others, and watch them grow as they come to understand the feelings of self-fulfillment that come from giving of themselves!

Noël-Marie Taylor is a freelance writer located in Columbia, Maryland. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including PC Magazine and The Mother Is Me. A stay-at-home mom to two children, she is also the designer of several cross-stitch kits for children.