Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Family Volunteering

All our married lives, my husband and I have volunteered. It's been an important part of our experience as individuals and a family. Sometimes, we simply volunteered through work - I tutored a little girl while working on the education beat, he volunteered to help organize office parties at his current job and help an emergency agency sort donations after the Oklahoma City bombing. Sometimes, we volunteered individually.

But my favorite experiences are when we volunteer together. I particularly loved when we were foster parents with the Humane Society. We'd take various puppies and dogs into our home and help raise or socialize them. We have lots of photos with every dog we brought home and while it was always heartbreaking to return them, that was a small price for the experience.

After we had the Little One, we took some time off for volunteering. Raising a baby is plenty of work on its own. we did small things here and there - donating to Goodwill or other charities, for instance. But she was too small to join in a family effort and we were too busy managing our lives.

That changed this year. Two events made me realize we need to start volunteering:
1. My father, a plumber, went to Mexico with an organization to help set up houses with running water for children in a poverty-stricken border town.
2. Our church organized a volunteer project for the preschool set. It was simple enough - they went to a nursing home and sang Christmas carols. She was a bit afraid of the the older people, but she wanted to go back the next day because one lady promised she'd have candy then - so Little One couldn't have been very afraid. Plus, it's normal to be a bit nervous around people who are different than your daily experience. I feel that just means you need more experience around those people.

Since then, I've spent a lot of time researching possible family volunteering projects for those with young children. Obviously, the older your child, the more the child can do. Here's what I've come up with:

  • Foster puppies or kittens. I used to do this, but hadn't thought of it again until I read an article in Wondertime. This wouldn't be a good idea for some little ones, but since Little One is always around dogs, we could safely foster puppies. Kittens are out because she's allergic, unfortunately. There are lots of shelters that need foster parents, particularly during the spring, when all the new litters are born. Often, the babies won't have mothers and you really need to do a lot of work to care for them. The commitment time is generally six to eight weeks, depending on their age. Basically, you keep them until their old enough to be neutered. The only question is how Little One would handle returning the pups. I think it'd be okay if she knew there would be more in the future.
  • The Box Project. This is a simple idea born when the founder,New Hampshire native Virginia Naeve met Coretta Scott King on an airplane. Volunteers are matched with a family from poor areas of the U.S. - Appalachia or the Delta, for instance - and commit to send the family a care box for once a month for a year. There's a $50 fee to join, which goes to support the organization. You're also encouraged to mentor the family, exchanging letters to learn more about their lives and better target your aid. Lots of people seem to form life-long relationships from this simple project. This is a fantastic way to give throughout the year and teach your child about caring for other people. In return, you'd be teaching your child empathy, geography and a bit about culture in the U.S. outside your neighborhood. You could form a friendship with someone you'd otherwise never meet. Plus, you'd know your efforts made a real impact.
  • If a yearlong commitment seems too much, there are lots of variations on the box idea. For instance, you can send one-time boxes to U.S. troops, create a half-dozen comfort kits or school kits for Heart-to-Heart, or put together kits for Church World Services. For more, just google boxes+charity.
  • Adopt a Grandparent. Your family agrees to serve as a surrogate family for someone in a nursing home. I'm having a hard time actually finding an organization that oversees this. There's an Adopt-A-Grandparent in Atlanta, if you happen to live in that region. I'm sure you could call any nursing home and set this up individually, however. Here are some tips for how to be a surrogate family.
  • Be a Big Sister/Big Brother. I think it'd be important to ask for a child whose age is roughly the same as your own child. I'm very protective and safety-conscious, so I'd be a bit shy of bringing my child around an older child I didn't know.
  • Go with your preschooler to a bookstore and buy books to donate to a pediatric hospital

If you have a child who's past the Preschool years, the possibilities expand. For more ideas, check out The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering, which offers thousands of ideas for long-term, short-term, even on-the-spot volunteering and giving.

If you already volunteer with your family, you might want to enter Wondertime's Littlest Volunteer Contest.

Please share any ideas or experiences you've had with volunteering with me!

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