Timeout New York Kids

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Volunteering as a family

This holiday season, give your kids to charity.

Kids paint a banner with nonprofit group Children for Children.

Children for Children

Giving back to the community, forever on the to-do list, is hard to fit into hectic schedules. But making volunteer work a family activity benefits more than strangers in need. “Kids who volunteer perform better across the board in school and life—that’s research-proven,” says Maggie Jones, executive director of Children for Children (childrenforchildren.org), a nonprofit dedicated to teaching tots the value of community service.

Jones ticks off the stats: Kids who volunteer one hour a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol; they’re 50 percent more likely to vote as adults. Two thirds of adults who volunteer did so as children. Volunteering can help improve test scores, and it promotes tolerance. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Now for the reality check. Due to liability concerns, many charities require volunteers to meet minimum age requirements, even when chaperoned by an adult. And then, good intentions are no match for such vicissitudes of childhood as boredom and low blood sugar. “The aspiration is not always easy to fulfill,” allows Nancy McDermott, chair of the advisory board for Park Slope Parents (parkslopeparents.com). “You have this idea of ‘We’re going to take the kids, and we’re all going to volunteer!’ And then you have these very small children who don’t get it, and they’re hard to manage.”

As Time Out Kids discovered, however, such stumbling blocks are not insurmountable. First off, plenty of charitable organizations welcome families. Citymeals-on-Wheels (citymeals.org) is one such group. “We love it when kids accompany their parents to our homebound seniors,” says Vivienne O’Neill, director of volunteer programs. “And the holiday season is a great time to introduce them to that.” O’Neill estimates that during the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, some 20 to 30 percent of all the volunteers making deliveries are parents with their kids. Children are also accepted at Citymeals’ many meal centers throughout the five boroughs, where they can serve food or just hang out with the seniors and brighten their day. “It’s good for kids who don’t have grandparents—or that do but are unable to see them during the holidays,” notes O’Neill, adding that the beneficiaries of Citymeals “absolutely” get a kick out of having youngsters around.

Children for Children, which partners with organizations like the ASPCA and Homes for the Homeless, offers informational meetings for parents and young ones to learn about places to volunteer—and how to handle the responsibilities of doing so. “Our model is to create opportunities that are developmentally appropriate,” says Jones. The group encourages involvement for kids as young as three, but, Jones adds, only at “events that are structured and where the children are well supervised.” As an example, she mentions Children for Children’s monthly public-service projects, which are usually held at libraries or community centers. At its annual holiday event, kids make fleece scarves for homeless people and assemble toiletry kits for use in shelters.

The most important aspect for children is what Jones calls the “reflection component.” “That’s where we ask a kid to think about what it meant to do a project.”

Jones suggests that families make volunteering or giving an annual tradition, especially around holidays or special occasions. She recalls a recent birthday party for a four-year-old where the kids made “Adopt Me” bandannas for dogs at the ASPCA. Families can take other initiatives as well. “Walk around your community,” Jones says, “and talk about what you see. If your child says, ‘Mommy, we saw a man on the street,’ well, here’s what we can do about it: Let’s have a coat drive, let’s pack up sandwiches and take them to a shelter.”

Elaine Gil, a Staten Island mom, grew frustrated in her search for service opportunities for herself and her son Mateo, 9. “When I went online, everything was, the kid had to be 13 and up, 18 and up,” she says. “You want to help, but they don’t let you.” Then Mateo, who’d never liked school much, spoke of a new teacher who had galvanized his interest in studying. “He asked me, ‘Mom, can we do something to surprise her?’ ” Gil explains.

The idea at first was simply to get the kids in Mateo’s class to make cards for the teacher, but things snowballed. Gil eventually managed to get four computers donated to the classroom, along with other school supplies. And so the grassroots organization Kids Gone Giving was born. “All these other people wanted to get involved. So now we’re taking it to the next level,” Gil says. Her goal is to organize one good deed a month for “anyone who needs help” citywide. (To learn more, e-mail Gil at bubblesplayhouse@mac.com.)

Children for Children hopes to expand opportunities for families by encouraging more organizations to incorporate youth volunteers in their programs. Jones explains to companies why it’s well worth any extra effort. “Young people want to give, which is what makes them incredible volunteers.” And for all the aforementioned hassles in finding the right avenues for them to do so, the situation, according to Jones, boils down to this: “The number one reason that young people don’t volunteer,” she says, “is simply that they are not asked.”

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