In anticipation of MLK National Day of Service on January 16th, we are excited to share this guest post from the co-founder of TOAM — Toddlers and Kids on a Mission — that encourages parents to seek out an opportunity to invest in the community with their kids as part of the experience.
It was 8 am on a Saturday. We were waiting for directions from the volunteer coordinator to start work and I was already sweaty and giving my antsy son “the look.” We were at the Riverwest Food Pantry for the first time and I wanted to be helpful, not a distraction! After hundreds of hours volunteering, many of those with my kids, I can still get nervous and frustrated.
A packed calendar, uncertainty about where to volunteer, and some fear of the unknown could make any parent throw in the towel before even signing up for a community service event. However, if you keep a few things in mind, you’ll find that it is 100% worth it and 100% doable.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Kids will be kids no matter what, so embrace it! Puddle stomping, uncontrollable giggles, or a one-year-old testing out their sprinting skills provides ample comic relief and entertainment. Most importantly, remember that if children are welcome at the event, then the volunteer leaders know what to expect.
Don’t let age stop you.
We’ve welcomed newborn-wearing parents at our service projects. True, that baby won’t remember the event but those parents are getting in the habit of volunteering. For them, it’s practice for the future.
Mom and Dad: America’s Next Top (Role) Model
When our kids see us acting selflessly towards others, they receive the message that this is a family value! When we volunteer at an organization, our children get to meet even more heroes working hard to better our world and future.
Don’t give up!
Did your toddler throw a temper tantrum? Did you feel awkward because you didn’t know any of the other parents? Try it again. Volunteering is a skill and it takes practice for you and your child!
Find the right fit.
Creepy-crawlies make my daughter run for the hills so river clean-up projects are unlikely to be her cause. However, sit her in front of a craft project to be donated and she’s all in. Take some time to think about what you and your child love, search out opportunities that suit you. Our world has so much need and there are projects waiting for people who hold the passion and knowledge to complete them.
You will meet new friends.
Volunteering in a field you love means you’ll come into contact with similarly-minded people. Friends are a powerful motivator for our kids. When my kids know they will see their friends at a service project, they’re doubly motivated to attend.
There is more than one way to donate.
There are more ways to serve your community than money or item donations. Giving is important, but sometimes that just doesn’t fit in the family budget. Don’t underestimate the gift of your time: Bring your kids to help out in a community clean up, approach a senior center and ask to participate in their exercise class, or read to dogs at a humane shelter.
Respect your schedule
Don’t beat yourself up if your calendar only allows you a handful of volunteer opportunities a year. There are a million ways to serve, and you’re probably already doing it. Drying off the wet slide at the playground with your child is service. Don’t underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.
Can’t find it? Create it.
If your community doesn’t have many places to volunteer with your kids, do it yourself! At our organization, we constantly cold-call agencies and work with them to create projects. When you call, be prepared to clearly state your intent and above all else, ask them how you can help. Last year, we contacted an agency about a project, assuming they would need donations of Christmas toys. Turns out they were inundated with them. Trust me, a service agency will know what kind of help they need and won’t be afraid to tell you!
It’s always worth it.
It can be tricky to navigate the waters of volunteering with small children but I promise you, it can be done and it is worth it. Your family might learn about an amazing organization, meet some everyday heroes, or discover that your child has a gift for encouraging others.
One of the greatest gifts that volunteering with my children has given us is the conviction that there is more light than dark in this world and that we are, all of us, capable and responsible to make that positive change.
About the Author
Jean is the co-director and co-founder of Toddlers and Kids on a Mission, a Milwaukee based non-profit that provides service opportunities to families and their children. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband, son, and daughter.