With their children excited to tear into presents this time of year, many parents are wondering how to get kids engaged in the giving part of the season as well.
Massachusetts ranks 32nd in the country for volunteerism, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, and just 26 percent of teenagers volunteered in 2015. Local organizations are working to raise those numbers not just during the holidays, but all year long, and they know that one way to do that is to inspire volunteerism in children.
“If you start young, you can create a lifelong volunteer, and that’s what our communities need,” said Sara Hamilton, deputy director of the volunteer agency Boston Cares, which sees a drop in volunteers at the start of each new year.
Project Giving Kids founder Molly Yuska said starting conversations with your children about issues that resonate with you is the best way to open the door.
“It really starts just with education and awareness,” Yuska said. “I think that just even exposing our children to the needs of other people is something that will start to naturally shift their perception.”
Maxwell Surprenant, 15, the cofounder and creative director of Catching Joy, knows those conversations all too well. He said he was 5 when he saw a homeless man for the first time while holiday shopping in Boston.
“It was a new experience for me, so I was very curious and I had a lot of questions,” he said. “It was right around then that [my parents and I] started Catching Joy as a way for me to get involved, and it has since become a way that we’ve been able to provide this experience of volunteering for so many youth.”
“Kids have so much to give,” Surprenant said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Here’s some advice from the experts on how to inspire the next generation of volunteers.
Read books and tell stories to explain the circumstances of those in need.
“It can be a lot to take in, but I think it’s important that parents show their kids how they can help,” Surprenant said. “We teach that message through stories. We read books about kindness and giving, and I think that’s a great way to convey that message to kids.”
Hamilton agreed. “A simple story helps a lot,” she said. “We definitely see children who come in with their parents and really enjoy what they’re doing, they seem to grasp it.”
Seek out age-appropriate service opportunities.
Volunteering in a soup kitchen might not be practical for small children, but that shouldn’t be a barrier. There are plenty of things little ones can do for others.
Hamilton recommended arts and crafts projects for small children, such as making holiday cards for patients at a local hospital or making holiday decorations for a local senior center. Surprenant said young children who volunteer with Catching Joy make personalized bookmarks to go with donated books. Kids can also help clean up at a park, take part in charity walks, visit animal shelters, and pick out cans of vegetables to donate.
As children grow up and develop their own interests, Surprenant said they should find activities where they can do what they love for the greater good. “Find what you’re good at and use that to help others,” he said.
Know where to go.
VolunteerMatch is one international agency that pairs volunteers with nonprofits based on the cause, location, and availability.
Project Giving Kids has a similar model on its website and app, geared toward families with young children in the Boston, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco Bay areas.
For Boston-specific service opportunities, Catching Joy promotes child and teenage volunteerism with events ranging from basketball shootouts to kids’ comedy nights. Boston Cares works with more than 165 schools and nonprofits to provide more than 200 service opportunities each month. The calendar for December is packed with activities, including everything from distributing food at the Red Cross food pantry to tutoring to serving meals to veterans and women in need.
Reflect on the experience.
Surprenant thinks it’s really important to talk with young volunteers after each event about how their acts of kindness just helped someone.
“It’s important for kids to know that they’re making that impact,” he said. “If they learn that at a young age, they continue to do that throughout their lives.”
Yuska said it is never too early to reinforce why volunteerism is important. “Speaking from a child development perspective, they are open mentally, physically, emotionally at those early ages, so those experiences can really take hold and germinate in a way that is very transformative,” she said.
Make sure it’s not a onetime thing.
“Start early and continue to do it often,” Yuska said. “It’s in that repetition of both the conversation and the action that it really can take hold. That’s ultimately what we want, for this to just be a part of who our children are.”
Abigail Freeman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.