ENCOURAGE THEIR PASSION
Phil and Anne Holland-McCowan
John, 16; Harrison, 13
John Holland-McCowan was sitting on a beach in Hawaii with his parents and his baby brother, Harrison, happily playing with coconuts and driftwood. “I’m so lucky,” the almost-five-year-old suddenly announced. “I have all these toys to play with and all my toys at home.”
His startled parents replied that he was indeed lucky, since a lot of kids didn’t have any toys at all. “That’s when he started to cry,” recalls his mother, Anne.
“How can that be?” John asked. “We have to get toys for those children.”
His parents naturally wondered if it was just some kind of phase, but as soon as they returned home, John began hoarding his small allowance to buy toys for other kids and urging his friends to do the same. His parents responded by organizing pizza suppers for other families interested in helping underprivileged children. “We just want to cheer kids up,” John explained.
“It was so great and so simple,” says Anne, who set out to find a place that would allow children as young as six and seven to volunteer. “It took a lot of phone calls,” admits the longtime volunteer. “We finally got Scribbles and Giggles [scribblesandgiggles.com], a day-care center for medically fragile children, to let John and his friend Jane visit. They went and just played with these kids, zipping around the room as if they belonged there. And these were children with tubes in their throats and all kinds of medical problems.”
John and his friends named their enterprise Kids Cheering Kids (kidscheeringkids.com), and today there are 19 chapters in the greater San Jose/South Bay area; another in Metairie, Louisiana; and still another in Portland, Oregon. John is 16 now, a six-one sophomore and a water polo star at Menlo High School. He still visits kids at the San Jose Family Center, helping out with a carnival they’re putting on. He’s also working with Angels on Stage (angelsonstage.org) in the South Bay to prepare a performance of The Wizard of Oz starring children with disabilities.
The spirit of helping is as fresh as it was that day in Hawaii. “The whole purpose,” he says, “is to make the kids feel better.”
START THEM YOUNG
Kathy and Andy Saulitis
John, 20; Peter, 19; Kathryn, 16
Twelve years ago, when her three children were small, Kathy Saulitis heard a high school student speaking at a PTA meeting about a community service project he’d organized. “I thought, I want my children to grow up to be just like him,” says Kathy. “I want them to learn how to give, develop compassion and empathy, and be around kids of diverse backgrounds.”
Kathy contacted Kids Care Clubs (kidscare.org), a clearinghouse that matches people in need with kids who want to volunteer, and started a chapter in her town. Her efforts jump-started her children’s interest in service-though each took a slightly different path.
Ten-year-old John didn’t immediately see why people needed help at all. “His initial reaction at one food drive was ‘They just need to go get a job,'” his mother recalls. In simple language, she explained about income versus expenses. With time, she says, “he understood.” John carried that lesson throughout adolescence as he tutored underprivileged kids, something he still does as a college student.
John’s brother, Peter, took to volunteer work more easily. He helped out at a nursing home and in the Little League Challenger Division program (littleleague.org), which pairs young athletes with children who have mental and physical challenges but long to play baseball.
Kathryn “wasn’t that comfortable going into soup kitchens,” her mother says, but is participating in book drives and activities for residents at a local nursing home. She has also started a global awareness club at her high school.
“It’s important for parents to be models,” Kathy says. “If someone can’t reach a shelf in the store, help out. Or give someone a meal. You need to give that charitable muscle a workout whenever you can.”
INVOLVE THE WHOLE FAMILY
Susan and Mike Overton
Emily Myers, 19
“When you have an only child, you always worry about her never having to share,” says Susan Overton. “We wanted our daughter to connect with other people and to understand what community means.”
Susan and Mike had always encouraged doing good deeds as a family, from buying Christmas presents for the needy to working with youth groups. By the time their daughter, Emily, was in high school, she was helping to mentor younger girls in a program called the Ophelia Project. When Catholic Charities (catholiccharitiesusa.org) was looking for volunteers to help settle refugee families, however, Emily and her parents were in for some fresh challenges.
“The first time we met them, it was a huge shock,” says Emily of the family of six from Burundi who became their responsibility. The father was widowed—his wife had died in a camp in Tanzania—and there were five children, ages 1 to 13.
“They barely spoke English, so we used sign language,” Emily remembers. Susan and Emily visited three times a week. Susan helped the father enroll the older children in school and arranged for the younger ones to attend day care so he could look for work. Mike helped the family hang shelves and stabilize the rickety bunk beds. “We were helping them adjust to life in America,” says Emily, “but they also gave so much back to us. They appreciated everything. I’d like my own children to have experiences like that.”
INVOLVE THEIR FRIENDS
Emily, 23, and Elizabeth Lieberman, 21
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Virginia Hensen recalls dragging her older daughter “kicking and screaming” to her first meeting of the National Charity League (nationalcharityleague.org), a mother-daughter service organization. Emily was in seventh grade, a time when “kids are beginning to not want you around,” says her mother. “But I wanted to have quality time with my kids beyond going to the mall to look for the latest pair of jeans.”
One of the places the mothers had selected for their daughters to volunteer was a shelter for homeless teenagers called the Street Light Youth Shelter. Before their first stints, the girls were invited to tour the center during the day when no one was there. “Walking through, we saw these dreary wooden bunks where the kids came to sleep when it was raining,” says Virginia. “My younger daughter, Elizabeth, was with us, and she saw a teddy bear on one of the bunks that was exactly the same as one she had at home. It hit her like a brick: I could be that child sleeping in this shelter. It was a ‘there but for the grace of God’ moment.”
Emily, now in her second year with Teach for America (teachforamerica.org) on Chicago’s South Side, remembers volunteering with friends at another shelter. “My friends and I would bake cookies the night before and bring bagels for kids the next morning. Peer involvement was what made it fun and cool.”
Emily also remembers when she and her friends volunteered at a roller skating event during the Special Olympics (specialolympics.org). “That was my first encounter with people with disabilities,” says Emily, who admits she’d have been uncomfortable going alone but was fine with friends.
TAKE VOLUNTEERING ON THE ROAD
Jeffrey and Linda Church
Nina, 15; Josh, 14; Rachel, 11; Jacob, 10
San Diego, California
“Ever since our kids were little,” says Jeff Church, a San Diego businessman, “they’ve been dropping their extra coins into an aluminum tzedakah box [tzedakah is Hebrew for “charity”] that my wife keeps in the kitchen. Once a year, they empty it out and decide what organizations they want to donate to that year.”
The tzedakah tradition mirrors in miniature the focused approach to philanthropy that the Churches have practiced for years, combining giving with discussion and reflection. “They’re all wonderful kids,” says their father, “but as they were getting older, I wanted them to understand that there is more to charity than writing checks. I wanted them to develop a passion of their own.”
Jeff’s own passion is alleviating poverty in Africa, a cause he and his wife have long supported through the nonprofit organizations Millennium Promise (millenniumpromise.org) and Free the Children (freethechildren.com). This year, the Churches decided their kids should see some of the projects up close. It was no trip to Disneyland. First stop was southern Ethiopia, where they visited a microdam project designed to capture the runoff of seasonal rains in order to irrigate crops and provide drinking water.
The second stop was a village in rural Kenya, where the Churches accompanied local girls on their daily rounds to collect water for their families, a task that was preventing them from attending school. “Imagine a three-mile, two-hour walk carrying something as big and heavy as a piece of luggage on your back,” says Jeff. Free the Children is building a series of one-room schoolhouses with tin roofs that capture rainwater and allow the girls to study—at least while it rains.
“For my kids to see how micro-development works up close was a beautiful thing,” says Jeff. “I’d never seen smiles as large and deep on my children’s faces as I saw that week. To see them experiencing that satisfaction was like nothing else.”
How to Reach Out
Do parents make a difference when it comes to their kids’ volunteering? According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, a public-private partnership, nearly nine out of ten young people who give their time have parents and siblings who volunteer. On the other hand, six out of ten whose parents do not volunteer end up not volunteering either.
Almost any kid can help. Young children can collect for charity. Preteens might participate in fund-raising walks or put in time at an animal shelter. Teenagers can volunteer in a local Habitat for Humanity project. Below are a few websites to get your family started.
- 1-800-volunteer.org – Enter your zip code and the number of miles you’re willing to travel. Narrow your search based on programs that interest you.
- Volunteerabroad.com – Choose a country and limit your search based on the type of work and length of job. Some projects require registration fees that can range from $200 to over $2,000.
- Seniorcorps.gov – Grandparents set examples too. Seniorcorps.gov offers volunteer opportunities for people 55 and over.
- Americorps.org – This organization will connect you to long-term service projects, from disaster relief to homelessness. Create a user profile and apply for opportunities that interest you.