In a year that has seemed to drag on endlessly—thanks to the coronavirus!—the holidays have managed to sneak up on us once again. In the midst of all the decorating, shopping, wrapping presents and other holiday activities, many families may be thinking about ways to give back. While the idea is to help others, research has shown that community service offers an array of benefits for the young volunteers themselves.
“When kids start volunteering early, it can often lead to a lifelong passion for making the world a better place,” says Laura Plato, chief solutions officer of VolunteerMatch, an organization that connects people with volunteer opportunities. “It also instills a sense of empathy, interconnectedness and understanding that we are not alone out there.” In fact, AmeriCorps has found that children who volunteer are three times more likely to volunteer as adults.
Volunteering can also help kids build critical skills that will help them later in the workforce. “It helps to increase communication skills, teamwork, and leadership skills,” says Genisha Metcalf, head of campaigns for Do Something, the largest nonprofit that helps youth individuals to volunteer.
Young people who volunteer are also half as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, smoke cigarettes or engage in destructive behavior, according to AmeriCorps.
Experts say that volunteerism is even more important for children during the pandemic. “Volunteering can give kids a real sense of control and responsibility and help them feel empowered,” says Plato. “It’s active, and it’s something they can feel in charge of.”
If you’re worried about volunteering during COVID-19, you can find plenty of opportunities to do so safely. More and more nonprofits have developed virtual volunteering opportunities and adapted their programs, such as offering drive-through donation drop-offs.
“Many organizations have done a great job of adhering to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) health guidelines,” says Plato. “They’re following mask-wearing and handwashing guidelines. They’re safely distancing inside their facilities.” Be sure to ask an organization about their safety measures before volunteering.
With so much taking kids’ attention—school, activities, friends and screens—how can parents get them excited and motivated to volunteer?
Make It Age Appropriate.
Although some organizations require children to be a specific age to volunteer—13 or older, for example—even the youngest of kids can give back. “Kids are never too young to start,” says Plato. “The key is putting them into the right activity for their age.”
Very young kids can make cards to mail to troops or to nursing home residents. Older kids can rake leaves or shovel snow for older adults in their neighborhood. Teens can mentor younger children or help them with homework.
Model Benevolent Behavior.
Kids love to copy their parents and older siblings. If they see you volunteering, they’ll be more likely to want to do so as well. According to AmeriCorps, a child whose family volunteers is nearly two times more likely to volunteer. Make volunteering a family affair. “Show your kids how excited you are to give back,” says Plato.
Pick a Cause They Care About.
Talk to your kids about who or what they are most interested in helping. Then find opportunities that focus on these causes. Is your child concerned about the environment? Pick up trash at a local beach. Is your son or daughter an animal lover? Make dog biscuits or blankets for a local shelter. Kids will be more enthusiastic about giving back if they’re contributing to a cause they care about.
Tap Into Their Talents and Interests.
Crafty kids can make cards or fleece blankets for children in hospitals. Teens who are athletic can teach sports skills to underprivileged youth.
Incorporate Giving Back into Your Family’s Routine.
Figure out how much time your family can commit to volunteering, whether it’s once a week or every year on Thanksgiving. Then add it to your family’s calendar like you would other appointments. “Get your kids thinking about volunteerism as a part of their regular lives the same way they think about school, sports and other activities,” Metcalf says.
If it seems impossible to fit volunteering into your family’s already packed schedule, Plato suggests working it in around activities that you’re already doing. If you and your child are at the grocery store, pick up some additional items for your local food pantry. If your child is using birthday money to buy a toy online, have your son or daughter pick an additional toy to donate to a needy child.
Reinvent the Playdate.
Volunteering together is a great way for kids to have fun with their friends while also keeping a safe distance. Meet up with a few other families at a local park to pick up trash, then let the kids run around afterward. Invite your kids’ friends over to help pack backpacks with school supply donations and order pizza as a reward. The kids will have so much fun that they’ll likely ask when they can do it again!
Let Them See Their Impact.
Activities where kids can see the difference they are making are always motivating.
Through Dec. 7, you can sign up to adopt a military family for the holidays at soldiersangels.org. Your child can help shop for and wrap presents for the family’s children and maybe meet them in person. Foster a pet at home for a few weeks or months. Contact your local animal shelter or pet rescue to see how you can sign up.
Whatever you decide to do, Plato says, the key is to make it fun. “Just like with anything you want to teach your kids to do, do something. Instilling fun, joy and play into it is a way to get them excited,” she says. “Don’t make it feel like work—none of us needs any more work to do!”
Safe Ways to Volunteer During COVID-19
Need more ideas on how your family can volunteer and stay safe during the pandemic? Try one of the following:
MAKE MASKS: Making cloth face masks is a great way to volunteer safely from home and help stop the spread of coronavirus. The CDC provides instructions for making both sewn and no-sew masks. You can either donate the masks or sell them and donate the proceeds to charity.
CREATE CARDS: Kids can write letters or make cards for troops through A Million Thanks, the elderly through Love for Our Elders or sick children through Cards for Hospitalized Kids. You can also contact local hospitals and nursing homes to see if they’ll accept cards or have your kids send thank-you cards to firefighters, health-care workers or other community helpers.
HEAD OUTDOORS: Search Keep America Beautiful (kab.org) to find a local community cleanup day, or you can head outside as a family to pick up trash. Start a garden to grow vegetables to donate to a local food pantry. Have your child write sidewalk chalk messages to offer encouragement to neighbors during the pandemic. Take part in a virtual walk or run—find one at roadracerunner.com—to raise money for charity.
GO VIRTUAL: On volunteermatch.org, you can search specifically for virtual opportunities and filter the ones that are great for kids or teens. You can also contact your local chamber of commerce to find local organizations that need volunteers. Or simply contact an organization you’d like to support and ask how your family can help.