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Raising Kids Who Care

How volunteer work can help your child learn compassion

If you wander down to the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank on the third Saturday of every month, you'll find the warehouse bustling with people sorting jugs of juices, canned soups and vegetables, and huge boxes of bulk pasta. Many of these dedicated volunteers are under 10 years old.

It's not surprising that their parents involve them in this kind of community outreach. According to the Points of Light Foundation, more and more people are realizing that volunteering is the only viable solution to many of this nation's problems. And, as those at this Philadelphia food bank know, volunteering is not just for grown-ups!

Why Volunteer?

As Christians, we want our children to show compassion. Volunteering is an effective way to nurture this trait, for it opens our children's eyes to the needs around them, and helps them learn how to demonstrate Christ's love in practical ways.

Kim Hokkanen was worried that her three children had little empathy for those less fortunate, so she decided to do something about it. Two years ago, she took Kelsey, 8, Jordan, 9, and Kyle, 11, shopping for a Christmas basket for a needy family. Realizing that these people would otherwise have had nothing for Christmas was eye opening for the kids. Now they appreciate their own toys more, and want to help those who have very little.

Ironically, Kim worries that such opportunities are sometimes missed because families are so heavily involved in church activities. She's probably right. Sunday school, youth group, choirs, home groups, and committee work can easily consume all of our time. Building up the body of Christ is vital, but this will do little to influence our culture unless we are also involved outside the church. Whether we like it or not, our churches are becoming increasingly irrelevant to our neighbors. But when we serve our neighbors with love, Christians can help make our communities safe, welcoming places. Not only do we show Christ's love through our actions, our children will then learn that Christianity is not confined to a building with a steeple.

Elizabeth Prinzen was confronted with her own lopsided volunteer habits after hearing the testimony of a missionary serving on an Indian reserve near the town where Elizabeth grew up. Though she had attended a "missionary" denomination church as a child, she had never reached out to the needy people in her own back yard. So in August 2000, she and her husband, Bernie, bundled their eight children, aged 18 months to 16 years, into the van and set out to help run a week-long children's day camp at a native reserve. "Though our kids have always been involved in our church's children's ministries, this was our first time serving outside the church like this," Elizabeth says. "It was a wonderful experience. Even seeing how other people lived was valuable, giving our children a perspective on what God's given us." The chance to pray and serve as a family also drew them closer together.

The Time Crunch

For some of us, the thought of using our one week of vacation time to volunteer seems overwhelming. The problem isn't too many church commitments; it's not enough time, period. If you feel overwhelmed by "busy-ness," be realistic about your time constraints, but don't give up. The answer isn't to not volunteer; it's to incorporate service into activities you already do. Just as Deuteronomy 6 instructed the Israelites to talk about God's laws at the dinner table, as they were going to bed, and as they were getting up, so we should share Jesus' love at all times. Are you making dinner? Invite the harried, single mom you work with to join you for a meal. Are you taking your family bowling? Invite the lonely child next door. The more you open your heart to the needs around you, the more natural it will become.

A Smorgasbord of Volunteering Ideas

1. Lend a hand. Rake leaves, mow the grass, or shovel snow for seniors living near you. Bake cookies or make a meal to welcome a new family, a new baby, or to help a family through a difficult time. Let your kids choose the recipes, measure the ingredients, and help deliver the food. Often all it takes is one family reaching out to transform a whole neighborhood.

2. Host a summer day camp in your backyard for neighborhood kids. Child Evangelism Fellowship has developed a one-week program you can adapt. Sometimes they'll even send someone to help you! Get more information at www.gospelcom.net/cef/, or call 1-800-300-4033.

3. "Adopt" a refugee or immigrant family. To be matched up with people in need, call your local Salvation Army's Immigrant Services, or call the United Way. These families need help learning the language, the culture, or even simple things like where to buy groceries or how to register children for school. Your children will hear about life in another country, and they will learn that all children like to play, regardless of where they come from or how they look.

4. Babysit at a community outreach center. English as a Second Language classes, parenting classes, job search classes, and all sorts of other programs benefit from having childcare available on site. Some centers have more stringent rules than others on whether you can bring your own kids along, but if you call around, you're bound to find someone who could use your help.

5. Haul out the garbage bags and rubber gloves and clean up a local park. Last summer families from my church arrived in droves to pick up candy wrappers, discarded fast food containers, and other trash after a waterfront festival. (This had an unexpected benefit for me. After finding her 20th moldy cigarette package, my 5-year-old remarked to me, "Smoking sure is gross, Mommy!") Afterwards, you can share a picnic, confident that the area is clean.

6. Run, bike, or push a stroller in one of the many fund-raising drives in your area. Where I live we have the walk for cancer, the pregnancy crisis center, and multiple sclerosis every fall. In the spring we have walks for heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer. My girls love the exciting atmosphere at these events, with balloons, singing, and loads of fun. We have a great time doing something to help cure terrible diseases.

7. Volunteer at your children's school. Help with fundraisers, the PTA, tutoring, or anything else you can think of, and encourage your children to do the same. Focus on the Family points out that if we show school officials we are genuinely committed to the school, they are more inclined to listen to us when we have suggestions about how to handle sensitive topics.

8. Shepherd someone who needs you. Contact your local crisis pregnancy center and see if there's a teenage mother you can help support. Visit her regularly, and bring your children along so she can see how you interact with them. If you're really ambitious, consider opening up your home to her or to an abandoned child. Governments are crying out for loving foster homes, and Christians can make an eternal impact by modeling a family built on God's love.

9. Encourage your older children to record books on tape for blind children. Many books that your children love are not available in Braille, and children in poorer countries may not even learn Braille at all. As part of the International Youth Millennium Project, four 6th and 7th grade girls from Vancouver recorded part of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series for blind children in Guyana. Contact missionaries you know who may have a need in their country, or call your local Institute for the Blind.

10. Raise money for World Vision, Save the Children, or other international compassion organizations through car washes, bake sales, saving your pennies, or other activities children can organize and participate in. Children often get more excited if the money will benefit something specific, like a new school or a well-drilling program.

When you make helping people part of your everyday life, it becomes natural for your children, too. They will begin to take responsibility for their own communities and find real joy in sharing the love of Christ with their neighbors. Just imagine the results!

Sheila Wray Gregoire lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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