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Generation Generous

The holidays bring together families of all ages and backgrounds. It’s during this bustling time of year – a period that brings joy, reflection and, we’ll admit it, stress – that families often seize the opportunity to brighten the lives of community members in need.

Yet, according to Kathy Blank, director of outreach and volunteer services at CITY House (a Plano-based shelter), “[CITY House] is fortunate to have many generous kids and families share their time, talents and gifts with us during the holidays. However, we are especially blessed by those that think of us all year long.” The holiday season is a great time to strike up a conversation with your kids about volunteerism and how it impacts people who need assistance, explains Blank. She adds, “It’s never too late to get involved.”

We tracked down seasoned volunteers (who just happen to be moms!) to get their tips on involving the whole family in a philanthropic cause and keeping the kids engaged and educated.

Planting the Seed
There are hundreds of charitable organizations across the Metroplex (and beyond), so how do parents determine which one is a good fit for their family, while sparking interest in the kids? When considering donating your family’s time to a charity or cause, there are several things to keep in mind, says Colleen Townsley Brinkmann, marketing director of the North Texas Food Bank (NTFB). “Parents need to first take into account their children’s age and what might motivate their kids to get involved,” she explains. Townsley Brinkmann encourages moms and dads to talk with their kids about what a charity organization is and why it’s needed.

“Bring it to the discussion level,” advises Townsley Brinkmann. “You might say to them, ‘What do you do when you’re hungry?’ Start from there and let them know that in some places – even in your own neighborhood, possibly – there’s a family who might be without the means to buy food.”

If parents can find a cause that’s easily understood and embraced by their children, it’s more likely that youngsters will feel compelled to lend a hand. “The key is to motivate them,” reiterates Townsley Brinkmann. Once they’re motivated, take a day trip to visit with members of a local charity. Take a tour, get your hands dirty, let your children explore and ask questions, she explains.

There’s no age limit to volunteerism. If your kids are too young to engage themselves in a tour or project, Jan Pruitt, CEO of NTFB, says it’s still easy to convey the importance of charity to a child. “Take your family to the store and fill a cart with food,” she details. “Then, go as a group to donate the food to a local food pantry. Let the kids put the food on the pantry’s shelves. It helps them understand what they’re doing.”

North Dallas Mom Kathy Wesley initiated her family’s volunteer work with NTFB when her son, who’s now 18, was a young Cub Scout. The mom of two encourages parents to “get your feet wet and see what works best for your family.”

What began as a badge project transformed into a lifetime of giving back for Wesley’s son Jake (and his younger sister, Mary). The family still spends time at the food bank’s warehouse, packing boxes with food for distribution to the various local food pantries.

Gift That Keeps Giving
Once you lay the groundwork for your young volunteer, it’s important to point out that charity is needed throughout the year – not just at the holidays. And, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to give up family time during the weekends to pack boxes or shuffle donations to various organizations. “Have a peanut-butter drive on your neighborhood street, or let your kids open their own makeshift lemonade stand,” recommends Townsley Brinkmann. “Monetary contributions are just as needed at local charities – not just volunteers. And, kids can do so much to contribute, no matter how small.”

Plano mom Kathy Light says her kids were so moved by the families and children they met while volunteering at CITY House, that her son decided to forgo presents at his 11th birthday party. Joe, who’s now 13, raised money for the organization at his bash and happily donated the funds to the group, explains Light.

“The biggest benefit of having your child volunteer at an early age is that they learn that it’s just a part of life,” says Pruitt. “If it’s expressed as an expectation and if parents set an example, we’ll have another generation of volunteers.” Besides, she adds, “It helps a child to think bigger than themselves.”