- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Miracle Kendall, 5, is no stranger to volunteering. The evening before Thanksgiving, she and her mother, Juliet McKenna, made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the city’s homeless, just as they did last year.

“She has a great time volunteering,” Ms. McKenna says. “She loves to be assigned a ‘job.’ It gives her a sense of importance and responsibility.”

Ms. McKenna and Miracle were among 200 people preparing meals Nov. 24 at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Northwest. Many of them were families.

The benefits to families who volunteer go well beyond giving a child a sense of importance and responsibility, says Siobhan Canty, chief executive officer of Greater DC Cares, which helped Ms. McKenna find the child-friendly JCC opportunity.

“I think volunteering is an enjoyable activity for families,”Ms. Canty says. “It’s also a really practical way to expose kids to some of the challenges that our communities are facing.”

Greater DC Cares, a nonprofit, connects volunteers to more than 300 charities in the Greater Washington area.

Ms. Canty says many volunteers show up only during the holiday season.

“We want people to understand that there is almost an overflow during the holidays,” she says. “We suggest that during the holidays, people make the commitment to volunteer later in the year.”

Ms. Canty suggests that the commitment could be in the form of a gift card from one family to another or from a family member to another.

“It could be a card with a message — ‘This gift card can be redeemed for one Saturday morning of volunteering together,’” she says.

That doesn’t mean Ms. Canty discourages families from volunteering during the holidays. In some ways, volunteering during December is extra meaningful, she says.

“I think volunteering is a great way to balance all the economic messages that come to us,” she says. “Volunteering reminds us what these holiday are all about.”

Ms. Canty also says volunteering helps children learn about values, such as empathy and sharing, as well as hone skills and interests.

Jenny Friedman, author of “The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering,” agrees.

“There are so many benefits to families volunteering, it’s hard to know where to start. … It’s a powerful way to impart some important values, such as good citizenship, compassion and kindness,” Ms. Friedman says. “It’s also a great way to spark conversations about those values and about our society.”

Finding opportunities

Part of achieving all these benefits, however, is finding a good volunteering opportunity — one that is age-appropriate, puts the right amount of demand on time and energy, and hopefully captures some interest of the child, Ms. Canty says.

A child who is interested in animals, for example, can enjoy a chance to volunteer at an animal shelter. A child or teenager interested in architecture or construction can find it interesting to help build low-income housing.

“There really is no interest that a child can have that you couldn’t connect a volunteering activity to,” Ms. Canty says.

Ms. Friedman agrees and adds that no one is too young to volunteer.

“You can volunteer with any age child — even with an infant,” she says. “You can deliver a meal, walk for charity. … Very young children can bring a lot of joy to seniors and others.”

But it’s important to prepare children for what they might experience while volunteering, Ms. Friedman says.

“I recommend that the parent visit first so they know how to prepare their kids,” she says.

If the place of volunteering is a seniors home, for example, where the residents might drool while eating, sit in wheelchairs and wear catheters, it’s important to explain to children why the residents are in this condition, she says.

“You say, ‘Here’s the reason they are doing this,’ and, ‘How would you feel if you couldn’t eat properly?’” Ms. Friedman says.

But she also says she thinks the fear of exposing children to something inappropriate often is exaggerated.

“There is a lot of graphic stuff on television that these kids see all the time, and they can’t do anything about it,” Ms. Friedman says. “In this case, they see something that might be difficult, but they’re doing something about it, and I think that’s very empowering.”

Ms. Canty, whose group helps find volunteer opportunities for about 240 families each year, recommends that families work with the charity’s volunteer coordinator, who can help identify child-friendly volunteer opportunities.

The volunteer coordinator can make sure the activity is age-appropriate and prevents children from getting bored, she says.

Another important aspect of volunteering is the time commitment a family wants to make, she says.

Ms. McKenna says she and Miracle started out strong in 2004, volunteering monthly in the beginning of the year but then dropped off a bit during the summer months.

“I hope this will inspire us to get active again,” she says of the peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich evening.

Many families shy away from volunteering because they think it’s going to swallow too much of their time, Ms. Friedman says. It doesn’t have to be that way.

“There are a lot of easy ways to do this,” she says. “If time is an issue, just find one small thing you can do. Maybe you just pick up something extra at the grocery story and deliver it to a food pantry. It might take an extra 15 minutes a month.”

Learning values, skills

Many parents say they take their children to volunteering opportunities because it teaches them values such as compassion and kindness, Ms. Canty says.

Those are the reasons that motivated Cherry Maxwell of Upper Marlboro to bring along her teenage daughters the day before Thanksgiving to the Convention Center in Northwest, where they helped feed more than 4,000 people.

“I think it teaches them to appreciate what they have, that not everyone has the same opportunities they do,” Ms. Maxwell says. “It also teaches them to engage in community service, to give back to the community.”

Her 15-year-old daughter, Mikaela, dressed in a white apron, says she likes volunteering.

“It feels important because it touches so many people,” Mikaela says. “You feel like you’re making a difference.”

The Convention Center holiday meal sponsors included Safeway, the Salvation Army and the Metropolitan Baptist Church, where Ms. Maxwell and her daughters are members.

The Rev. Georgia Davis, volunteer director at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest, says volunteering also helps children, particularly teens.

“They learn how to communicate with people from all walks of life,”Mr. Davis says. “They learn not to be afraid of people because they look a little different.”

Children also learn how to be part of a team and relate and communicate with adults who are not their parents or teachers, she says.

Ms. Canty says being part of a team that includes other children also can be a way to entice children, particularly teens, to volunteer.

“We see a lot of families who make monthly commitments together with other families,” she says. “They use that peer-to-peer approach to make their kids interested.”

Ms. Friedman says other benefits to children include building self-esteem.

“Particularly in our culture, kids don’t have a way to do meaningful work,” she says. “A volunteer job is a kind of job. It can give a sense of accomplishment.”

Volunteering also can drive home points that otherwise might be difficult for parents to impart to their children and teens, Ms. Friedman says. It can help make them more tangible and direct.

“If you’re delivering meals to someone with emphysema who is still smoking, that has a lot more meaning than just saying, ‘Don’t smoke,’” she says.

Gift of volunteering

Volunteering, however, is not just about lessons, skills and values; it’s also about having a good time.

“It can be really fun. In fact, you want it to be fun because you want your kids to keep coming back for more,” says Denita Ramirez, who coordinates volunteering for the Salvation Army in the Greater Washington area.

“You want to make a habit of it so it becomes natural,” Mrs. Ramirez says.

This is one of the reasons Ms. McKenna takes Miracle to make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and draw greeting cards for children in homeless shelters as often as once a month.

“I hope that starting young and helping often, she will feel that helping other people is part of what you do,” she says. “I hope that even when she’s a teenager she’ll be motivated to volunteer, because it’s part of who she is.”

Arlene Brockman, 64, one of the Salvation Army’s many volunteers at the Convention Center Nov. 24, has made it a lifelong habit. She remembers wrapping Christmas gifts for less fortunate children when she was about 10 year old.

“We used to do it as a family,” Ms. Brockman says of her seven siblings — and her parents, who are now deceased. “We just got a lot of joy of doing for other people. … It’s the right thing to do. It’s just part of who we are.”

Places to volunteer

The following list is a sample of places in the metropolitan area that need volunteers:

• Greater DC Cares, 1725 I St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202/777-4440. Web site: www.dc-cares.org. This nonprofit helps connect people with volunteer opportunities at area charities.

• The Salvation Army National Capital and Virginia Divisional Headquarters, 2626 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202/756-2600. Web site: www.salvationarmysouth.org/DC.htm. This national Christian organization provides many volunteer opportunities. Some local opportunities are listed on the group’s Web site.

• D.C. Habitat for Humanity, 843 Upshur St. NW, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202/882-4600. Web site: www.dchabitat.org. This national nonprofit organization builds homes for low-income families and provides volunteer opportunities year-round. For information about other local branches, call 703/521-9890 for opportunities in Northern Virginia, 301/962-3720 for Montgomery County and 301/779-1912 for Prince George’s County.

• American Red Cross of the National Capital Area, 8550 Arlington Blvd., Fairfax, Va. Phone: 202/728-6400. Web site: www.redcrossnca.org. This national humanitarian organization provides volunteering opportunities in many fields, including youth services, disaster relief and blood drives. The National Capital Area chapter provides volunteer opportunities in most local jurisdictions. The Web site lists these opportunities.

• Capital Area Food Bank, 645 Taylor St. NE, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202/526-5355. Web site: www.capitalareafoodbank.org. Information for the Northern Virginia branch: 6833 Hill Park Drive, Lorton, Va. Phone: 703/541-3063. The Capital Area Food Bank is a nonprofit food and nutrition education resource that helps distribute millions of pounds of food to the community each year. Volunteer projects, featured on the Web site, include sorting and repackaging food, leading education programs, staffing special events and preparing mailings.

• Points of Light Foundation, 1400 I St. NW, Suite 800, Washington, D.C. Phone: 202/729-8000. Web site: www.pointsof light.org. This national nonprofit organization aims to engage people nationwide in volunteer community service. Its Web site lists local volunteer opportunities in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

More info:

Books —

• “The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering: Doing Good Together,” by Jenny Friedman, Gryphon House Inc., 2003. This book makes the case that volunteering is an important way to cultivate compassion, gratitude and empathy in children and to bring families together in meaningful ways. It offers ideas on long-term and one-time volunteer opportunities. The book also discusses age-appropriate volunteering and provides resource lists.

• “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Volunteering for Teens,” by Preston Galla, Alpha, 2001. This book provides tips on finding the right volunteer position that suits a person’s interests, skills and experience. It also explores why helping others is rewarding.

• “Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference: Helping Your Family Live With Integrity, Value Simplicity, and Care for Others,” by Susan V. Vogt, Loyola Press, 2002. This book offers a guide to parents on how to help their children develop strong values and make positive contributions to the world.

• “The Giving Box: Create a Tradition of Giving With Your Children,” by Fred Rogers, Running Press Book Publishers, 2000. This book teaches the lessons of generosity and charity and describes how good it feels to give to those less fortunate. It also includes a gift box in which children can save coins for a charity.

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