Summer Fun: Family Volunteerism

With summer upon us, perhaps our families are looking for meaningful ways to spend our time together. Why not commit some time to volunteering as a family? I addressed this topic recently on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, which is produced by Ave Maria Radio.  You can listen to the program here:

My segment begins twenty minutes into the show, but the whole show was terrific.  The topic of the show was “The Joyful Heart”; the Popcaks emphasized the true nature of joy and how we can become more joyful.  Let me review what the Popcaks and I talked about:  why I think family volunteerism is so important, how to decide on a service project, and what you can do to serve when you have small kids.

News Flash: Need Exists Year-Round

As a Catholic mom, I have focused with my kids on charity work during Advent and Lent, but the fact is, there are people and communities which need our mercy all year round.  Duh, right?  But I think many of us forget to make giving and serving others beyond our own doors a family habit — part of who we are as a family.  I wonder what it says about giving when I emphasize giving and serving the needy only at times of the year when the Church requires it.

The intentional Catholic parent holds close to her heart God’s purpose for her children: we are raising our children for the glory of his Kingdom; we are raising Christ’s disciples.  Christ’s disciples minister to the suffering, the hungry, the lonely, and the lost wherever they are, whenever they are encountered, whether it’s convenient or not, whether it’s emphasized in our Church bulletin or not.

We Want Mercy to Form Our Child’s Core Identity

As our children grow and mature, they are driven to define themselves apart from us, to discover their personal mission and unique way of serving the Church. Well that path begins at home, with us in the lead. Mercy is a duty to all Christians, but I don’t want it remain a mere duty to my children; I want mercy and kindness to form their core identity so that they act not out of a sense of duty, but because it’s just who they are.

I find it quite alarming that today’s teenagers often only encounter the topic of volunteerism when a career counselor informs them that in order to get into x-college they should rack up x-number of hours in service or volunteer activities. These teenagers usually serve out of a sense of fear (of not getting what they want), not out of sense of care or love. Dr. Greg mentioned during our segment that today’s teenagers are more narcissistic and more depressed than at any time since measures of well-being have been studied. This tragic epidemic is clearly the result of a loss of connection to family and community, which is every person’s birthright.  Human beings are made for love and communionI think without opportunities to show care for others, our kids never experience true joy.

I think early lessons in caring and concern help our kids exercise their empathy muscles: they learn to recognize the experience and suffering of others, and that their efforts can really make difference in relieving that suffering. Imagine if every child entered adulthood with that mindset. Revolutionary!

Finding Family Volunteer Opportunities

The first step in discerning how you can volunteer your family’s time is to consider the resources you already bring to the table. What are you interests, skills, and talents? Does your family sing? Do you love to cook or hike together? Do your children spend hours doing crafts? Consider what your family likes to do, and how these interests might translate into volunteering.  Talk as a family about what causes or issues concern you most, and how you can work as a family on those issues.

But don’t expect a “perfect fit” for volunteering – sometimes we have to just have a willing heart. My friend Stephanie Schwarz, who is very passionate about family volunteerism, urges families just to “raise their hand” when an opportunity arises.  When God places the opportunity in your paths, just say YES and worry about details later.  Just pay attention to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

Lady, Are You Kidding?

Does family volunteerism seem like a completely ridiculous proposition, because you have a whole bunch of little children or you’re raising your kids in a two-earner home? I get it, seriously. When you have young children, your primary service “project” is raising compassionate, empathic children.  You do this by living with them in a loving, responsive relationship. When you live in this compassionate way with these little ones, you are doing the Big Work, which makes later works in family volunteerism so much more natural and worthwhile.

Many volunteer organizations have age requirements that would preclude young kids, and often our littles would be miserable or disruptive anyway, and that’s not what we want.  It would be hard to work in a soup kitchen with a two year old.  Even when you have small kids, though, you can find ways to give that fit right into your lifestyle and the lessons can be very powerful. When a new neighbor moves in, you can bake cookies for them with your children and talk about why it’s important to make them feel welcome. Then take the children with your to welcome your neighbor. Let your child make a card or drawing to include in any packages you are putting together for a new mom or a sick relative. Having conversations about the experiences of others – their struggles, feelings, hopes, and fears – helps your child become more empathic and caring as she matures.

If you want to learn more family volunteer opportunities, check out the wonderful website Big Hearted Families and the book The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering.  You’ll find tons of inspiration and ideas for volunteering together as a family, no matter your budget or interests.  Have a fun summer!

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