We all want to pass on good values, such as the importance of volunteering and charitable giving, to our children. Whatever we think we have or do not have, there is always something we can give, when we choose to think of others, not just ourselves. In a busy and fast-moving world, time is becoming even more precious than money. People and organisations are often very grateful when people can offer any time or skills to help. I was encouraged to do regular volunteering at my local hospital as part of the process for applying to medical school years ago. I found out then that there is so much more for me to gain from volunteering. I learned a lot about myself and others during that time.
As we get older, a lot of us lose the will for volunteering, especially when we feel that our paid jobs take up too much of our time. We probably also feel underpaid for the amount of work and responsibility we have taken on. Fortunately or unfortunately, having children makes you re-evaluate your choices, because children learn from what they see - not just what we say. I have had to make more conscious decisions to volunteer, despite my tight schedule, just so that I can teach my children the importance of this. It has been amazing watching them grow in their attitude towards the elderly and disabled people at the care home we visit. They have so many questions, but derive so much satisfaction and confidence from being valued helpers when we go. We may not be able to go as often as I would like, but every little helps to shape their view of the world, and develop a grateful, compassionate heart.
There will always be many reasons to leave your children at home, when you decide to become a volunteer. It is true that you can probably get more done volunteering on your own, if your children are very young. We also worry about exposing our children to health and other risks. I have taken my children at ages 4 and 2 to remote places in Nigeria for charity work, and we still talk about those experiences today. My children do not just rely on the images on television or in books to tell them what to think of Africa. Yes, it was a bit more difficult travelling with children, but I believe it is important to seize opportunities when you can. I hope to be able to do more of my charity work with them, but even if they never travelled again, I am sure that the experience has been priceless - especially for the very inquisitive 4 year old. Volunteering does not have to be in risky or distant places. Here a few tips for volunteering with children, wherever you are.
Choose something they can relate to - Doing charity work in Africa was very relevant for my daughter at a time when she was beginning to notice her different/darker skin colour. It was good for her to be able to see a country where most people were black like her. Hopefully, that has helped build her sense of identity and community. Children can volunteer to help with fundraising activities at school, they can help with setting up chairs and welcoming guests at church, visit a care home to help and cheer up other elderly people ‘like Grandpa’, or even care for pets in a shelter (because you won’t/can’t let them have one at home!).
Choose something you/they can commit to - Depending on your child’s age, you may need to go with them for their voluntary work. Hopefully, as they grow older, they will maintain the interest and keep helping, even if it means giving less/more time or just money to the cause. Most charities will have a good cause we can all relate to, but not everyone is drawn to or compassionate about every issue. I personally feel more passionate about education (as a way out of poverty and oppression) than most, but there are many others who are more passionate about providing food and shelter to the poor. All are good causes, but we do not all feel the same way about them. When children are old enough to express their feelings and preferences, it is good to encourage them to volunteer and help with things they feel passionate about. Work is never too hard for someone with passion.
Choose something that can help develop their skills and interests - We do not always have to leave the comfort of our homes to volunteer. Children can help pack boxes and make things for charity. My five year old daughter has expressed a desire to become a ‘doctor like Mummy’, so I encourage her involvement in caring roles. My toddler son loves music, so we encourage him to sing-along at care home residents meetings - which really makes their day! I dream of a time when he can actually play the piano well, for example, to cheer them up. Older children can use their skills and time to help people with gardening, cooking, computing, cleaning etc. This gives them more opportunities to develop themselves, while helping others and contributing to something bigger.
Communicate and debrief - I find it helpful to talk with my children about their experiences every time we volunteer. You might be amazed that they saw something totally different from what you expected them to see. Reassure them that whatever ‘little’ contribution they are making is actually making a difference. Young people inspire me all the time! Find out if they want to do more or less of the activity. Interests and concerns may change, as they grow. Ensure your children know that their safety and wellbeing is your greatest priority. As much as we want them to develop their skills and empathy, we must first be making sure that they are in the right frame of mind to be volunteering. We know that, even as adults, we sometimes feel overwhelmed with our own issues and need a break, so we need to be understanding when children seem a bit disinterested in volunteering from time to time. Whatever you do, try to do it from a willing heart, not out of compulsion or any pressure. We all have something good to give, and there is no time like the present.