Children need to learn to value what they have and the lives their parents give them. Sadly, encouraging them to volunteer to help others is one of the best ways to teach them that they were lucky to grow up in a house with two parents and somewhat balanced meals.
When my children were little, I looked for volunteer efforts and charities that would illustrate for them — in a relatable way — not to take their lives for granted and that not all children are as fortunate as them.
- Shoes That Fit – One program we participated in annually for many years was Shoes That Fit. The charity helps children nationwide improve their self-esteem and go to school with dignity and comfort wearing new shoes instead of worn, ill-fitting hand-me-downs. At work, our department would sponsor a school in a poorer area, which would identify the children in need and their shoe sizes. Those of us participating either donated money or purchased a pair of new shoes for a particular child.
I deliberately would choose a boy and a girl the same age as my children. Then, I would take them to the store to choose the one pair of shoes that the child would have that fit, for a while at least. For a boy, the idea of one pair of athletic shoes was no big deal, as long as they looked cool. For my daughter, she would want to buy the girl we chose sneakers, party shoes, sandals and more – what little girl could only have one pair of shoes? Through our participation in Shoes That Fit, both children readily understood that the fact they got new shoes for Back to School, and whenever they needed them, is not a given for others.
- American Youth Soccer Organization’s Very Important Player (VIP) Program – My son played soccer for years and also volunteered for this AYSO program for those with physical or mental disabilities that preclude their participation on mainstream teams.
The VIP teams included children who are blind or visually impaired, have conditions that impair mobility, are mentally impaired, have down syndrome or have cerebral palsy. It was familiarity with the latter condition that inspired my son. A neighbor boy was born with cerebral palsy and my son volunteered to work with his team for years. He worked with our neighbor to learn to balance on one leg and tap the ball with the other. No one cheered louder than my son when his protégé kicked the ball into the goal a few weeks later.
- Using Your Purchases to Help Others – One further lesson I tried to instill was using money for economic good, whether purchasing yarmulkes for my daughter’s bat mitzvah from women in Guatemala doing crafts at home or taking a family vacation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help boost the economy and personally bring back tourist dollars when it was really needed.
We have participated in numerous other projects through the years. Volunteering can help children develop skills like cooperation, empathy, and empowerment. But, best of all, it can show them that they have the power to make positive change that will help others and be pretty satisfying for themselves, too.