When our children were quite young (not toddlers), we made a concerted effort to provide them with multiple opportunities for volunteering. Originally our intent was to make it a family-oriented activity and to instill a sense of caring and sharing. But somewhere along the way to raising our boys into adulthood, we discovered that we gained much more than we gave. Let me show you some of the hidden benefits of volunteering….
We began with the usual holiday focused themes. We took the boys through these various activities:
- Salvation Army Kettle / Bell Ringers
- Angel Tree Christmas Gifts
- Adopt-a-Family for the Holidays
- Christmas Caroling at the Mall / Retirement homes
- $100 Charity Budgets (each boy had $100 to “spend” helping others)
As they grew older, we progressed on to a variety of other endeavors, like:
- Sponsoring a Refugee family
- Habitat for Humanity
- Youth Camp trips to Tornado damaged areas
- Boy Scout Projects
- Food Drives; Paper Drives; Blood Drives;
- Meals on Wheels / Working at a local Community Center / Soup Kitchen
- Tutoring and mentoring At-Risk students
So we did a bunch of stuff with them. We really tried to get them to understand how privileged they were compared to many other people here in our own little town. We also wanted them to grasp that giving is not always about material things, but about giving of yourself; sharing your time and your talents with others. Reaching out and truly becoming a part of the community where we live. Taking ownership.
What we did not recognize at the time is the full breadth of what we all gained from these volunteer or community service activities.
NEW FRIENDS – One unintended outcome of volunteering is developing new friends along the way. Families who you are serving or serving with can become some of the longest and strongest relationships for you or your kids. Volunteering is a great way to meet new people, from all walks of life. It also expands your network of contacts, giving you access to people with which to grow your interests and knowledge. Some of these folks actually ended up helping our boys get Summer jobs and wrote letters of recommendation for their college applications.
SOCIAL SKILLS – It is quite remarkable how volunteering can stretch your social comfort zone beyond what you usually would manage if left alone. These activities have allowed our boys to develop social and communication skills that enable them to interact with nearly anyone at any level. They can talk with the President of a bank or with a plumber. Chat with homeless people and college professors alike. Volunteering has helped them to practice and develop their social skills, which is helping them as they move into the world of independence and being self-supporting. It also helps them develop a sense of teamwork and leadership most useful in their professional work related roles. It develops self esteem and confidence.
LIFE SKILLS – There is absolutely no way possible for me to have taught my boys everything they have learned through volunteering. Every person they have met or worked with has added something to what we affectionately call their “tool box of life”. They have built homes; painted; put on roofs; done electrical work; plumbing; drywall; automobile repairs; gardening; built wheel chair ramps; learned how to plan activities; time management; resource management; leadership skills; communication skills; how to take direction; how to listen; and so on. All of these experiences have helped our boys to gain skills they otherwise would have never learned (properly) from me. They have also had the opportunity to touch and feel a number of career choices; to experience the real world choices and decisions required to pick a path in life. They have also learned “how things work”, and not simply mechanical stuff but how organizations work; how local government and social services operate; what aspects of our community outreach services are working or failing. This type of education is priceless, don’t overlook these opportunities to learn and grow.
PHYSICAL IMPACTS – We found that volunteering is sometimes hard work – physically. Spend a week or a month on a house building work crew and you will be in pretty good shape. And as a result of some online research, I discovered that there are mental benefits too, such as:
- Reduces stress – Experts report that when you focus on someone other than yourself, it interrupts usual tension-producing patterns.
- Makes you healthier – Moods and emotions, like optimism, joy, and control over one’s fate, strengthen the immune system.
- Increases self-confidence – Volunteering can provide a healthy boost to your self-confidence, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. Doing good for someone else provides a sense of accomplishment; pride and self satisfaction. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to have a positive view of your life and future goals.
- Combats depression – Reducing the risk of depression is another benefit. A key risk factor for depression is social isolation which is next to impossible when volunteering.
So there you have it, volunteering can actually benefit you and your family much more than you would ever expect. Take your time to find those types of volunteer or community activities that you enjoy – making sure everyone is having a positive experience – both for you and the organization you’re helping. Don’t worry about making a mistake because you’re working for free right? What’s the worst that could happen – you might find that volunteering is a great family activity with unlimited potential – yours!