stepfamily mythsOn Saturday mornings, Ramona and her husband Jay take their kids to the local animal shelter for a couple of hours. No, they aren’t crazy cat people who need to adopt a weekly kitty. They are there to help walk dogs, clean rabbit cages, pay attention to the cats and generally to help tidy up. It’s hard to know who benefits more — the animals or the kids. “Our kids get so much,” says Ramona. “It’s important to Jay and me to teach our kids to be givers, too.”

Jenny and Marci are best friends. So are their kids. They all help out at the church soup kitchen one Sunday a month. The older kids help chop veggies. The younger ones clean and set tables. The moms help make the main dish. “We were looking for something that makes a difference and that could involve all our kids. This has been perfect,” says Jenny with a grin. Feeding 50 people is no small feat, but they have their systems down. There’s laughter and chatting and, in the end, the good feeling that comes from a job well done.

Imagine my surprise when I ran into Seth in front of the mall with his three girls and boxes and boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Cookie sale time is usually a mom thing. But Seth has daughters in Scouts and he isn’t willing to be left out in his largely female household. He tells me that one of the many ways to get in the loop of the girls’ lives is to hang out with them for hours at the cookie table. They’ve had some of their best talks between sales. Once cookie season is over, he’ll pitch in on family day to help set up the local Girl Scout camp. “If I had sons, I’d probably be coaching Little League,” he said. “But I have girls and they’re into Scouting so we’ve made it a family thing to be involved.”

There are, of course, hundreds of ways to volunteer. These stories are only a few examples of how a family can work as a team to get an important job done. Most nonprofit organizations need help they can’t afford to pay for. Most communities have programs that count on volunteer effort to make them run.

Why get involved? Because when parents make volunteering a family affair, both the community and the family benefit.

Here are some ways volunteering enriches a family:

  • Working side by side provides opportunities for connection and talk. It sometimes seems that we live in a time that conspires against family togetherness. If everyone is on a different device, even while being in the same room, they aren’t enjoying and learning from each other.Whether repairing a wall, cleaning up a trail, or staffing a food booth (or a Girl Scout cookie table), there is something very satisfying about working together. The banter, laughter and problem-solving that go on strengthen and deepen family relationships.
  • The job goes better if people work as a team. Making a community meal, planting a garden or cleaning cages all go more smoothly with teamwork. Volunteering takes teamwork off the soccer field and into life. Working as a team on a task reinforces a family’s ability to work as a team at home.
  • Kids and parents get to see each other in a different light. When parents work outside the home, as most of us do, our work is a mystery to our children. They often have only the vaguest idea of what we do all day. What kids do in school all day is equally mysterious to many parents. When the whole family participates on a project, parents and children get to see and appreciate each other’s skills and competence.
  • Volunteer activities often require problem-solving. Volunteer jobs often require people to figure out where to put things, how to fix things, or how to be more efficient. Finding real solutions to real problems can be a source of enormous satisfaction for everyone involved.
  • Volunteering is an antidote to pessimism and hopelessness. The media bombards us with visions of war, famine, disease, wrecks and worries. News stories repeat and repeat and repeat the tragedy of the day. Social media adds yet another deluge of negativity. Feeling helpless to do anything about it can foster hopelessness and depression. Families who are actively involved in righting some wrongs, contributing to a community’s health, and doing good in the world are families who have reason to feel more optimistic.
  • Volunteering fosters empathy. It doesn’t teach children much to tell them to “think about the starving children in Armenia” when they won’t eat their vegetables. But working in a food pantry or soup kitchen certainly does. It moves the needs of others from remote abstraction to something very real and immediate. Being directly involved gives both parents and kids a deeper appreciation for what they have and what others need.
  • Volunteering increases the family’s social network and safety net. Volunteering is a low-pressure way to get to know new people and perhaps to make new friends. Some of those friends may become part of the inner circle who know and love our kids, just as we know and love theirs. Families who survive and thrive when they encounter challenges, even trauma, are families who have multiple people they trust to turn to.

Volunteering is at an all-time high. More and more youth are participating in community service projects and joining service organizations. Teens as well as adults are looking for ways to have impact and to give life meaning. Many parents find that working with their children on projects where their help is really needed strengthens family bonds and nurtures the whole family’s positive self-esteem. By doing some good in the world, everyone feels good about themselves and their family.