Illustration: Allison + Cam
For the last couple of years, Toronto mom Salma Syed and her kids, Maarya, 12, Ibraheem, eight, and Sameeha, six, have been part of Spreading Salam, a group created to help kids volunteer and give back. The kid volunteers socialize a bit with their buddies in the group, make sandwiches and pack them up. Then the parents and some of the older children head to downtown Toronto to deliver the food and bottles of water to homeless people. The kid volunteers involved with Spreading Salam also make and help distribute food baskets to Syrian refugees who’ve made Canada their home. “We want to make sure that we’re instilling the values in our children to help others—that whole idea of charity and philanthropy and giving first, and not expecting in return,” says Syed. “I think they like doing it because they take ownership over something and they can see that they’re helping out. And we talk to them about how lucky we are that we don’t have to depend on others for simple things like food and water.”
The Syeds and their kids volunteer all year long, but ramp up their efforts during the month of Ramadan (charity is encouraged during Ramadan, and hunger is a cause that is often top of mind during the month-long daylight fast). Syed decided she wanted to make this active charity a family affair when her kids were young so that thinking of others would become second nature. It seems to be doing the trick. “They now will think about how they can help out, even if it’s small things like helping out around the house,” she says. “After our neighbours’ lawn mower broke down, they asked me to help them start mowing their lawn for them.” The Syed family is also involved in volunteer activities with Scouts Canada, and they sponsor a child through Plan International Canada’s Because I Am a Girl program with monthly donations.
For some parents, an urge to focus on community and charity becomes especially strong during the winter holiday season, as kids draft Santa lists and pine for the hottest new toys. To counteract the consumerism and tunnel vision many children have, you might be tempted to take a family field trip to your local soup kitchen. But parachuting in and volunteering once a year may not be ideal for the organization you choose to support. For one thing, says an anonymous non-profit worker interviewed for this story, training people for a longer commitment and then watching them fail to show up again after the holidays is a strain on their resources. Be honest with yourself about how much time your family has to give and the kind of commitment you want to make.
We all want to raise thoughtful and grateful kids, and donating time, goods or money to charities and non-profits is one way to encourage that. Developing this way of thinking in our young people, and exposing them to new perspectives, is important. But volunteering shouldn’t be treated as a quick fix for a kid who’s acting entitled, and community service isn’t just an extracurricular box parents should feel obligated to check off. Character enrichment and teaching your child how to be a better human is a wonderful by-product of community service; it shouldn’t be the primary goal. The key focus is helping your community—or the cause you’ve chosen—most effectively. Here’s how to go beyond good intentions and boost your kid volunteering game.
Choosing a cause that’s near and dear to your family is one of the easiest ways to get everyone on-board, says Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, a Toronto-based charity that produces research reports on the effectiveness of more than 700 organizations in its sector, and also advises donors. Giving should be personal and voluntary, she says, in order to create a lasting connection to the idea and so they don’t think of it as a chore. “Listen to your kids: What are the causes they feel passionately about?” she says. Their answers may surprise you. “This past year, it was amazing how many kids we had call us up and say, ‘I want to give to the animal shelter in Fort McMurray that rescued all of the dogs and cats,’” she says.
The best way to find out what’s needed—donations of goods, money or volunteering your time—is by asking. When Spreading Salam first started sharing food with those in need, they were politely told what they were offering wasn’t the right choice. “Initially we were giving granola bars, apples and a sandwich with some water,” says Syed. “But we found that a lot of the people downtown don’t have a full set of teeth, which makes it difficult to chew something hard like an apple or a granola bar. So they told us: ‘We won’t be able to take this.’” Now the group brings soft sandwiches like egg salad or tuna, and in the winter, soups and chili.
If you want to donate goods, it’s best to check with the agency to see what it needs—many have wish lists on their websites—since you don’t want to burden them with goods that take up space and aren’t a good fit. “Many charities are overwhelmed with dropped-off junk,” says Bahen. “Make sure your giving always comes with dignity, and remember the person on the receiving line.” Some of the items that no longer spark joy in you, as you’re doing a Marie Kondo–inspired declutter, might not be useful to shelter clients, either. (And some can actively hurt others—for instance, a crib that’s been recalled. Even a can of infant formula could cause harm if it’s donated to someone who doesn’t have access to clean water or a safe place to prepare a bottle.)
Asking (directly) what’s needed is the approach Calgary’s Michelle Lombardo takes with Spud Buds, a community group her family has belonged to for five years. Lombardo, her husband and their two kids, who are eight and 11, make baked potatoes (hence the name) with all of the fixings, set up outside of a local shelter, and serve them to the hungry and homeless a few times a year. “At Christmas we find out if the drop-in clients need socks or toques, and do a big drive,” she says. “One year we handed out over 400 blankets.”
In the early days of an emergency situation like the Fort McMurray wildfires last summer, donating money was a solid choice, says Susan Larkin, the senior director of philanthropy with the Canadian Red Cross. “In a disaster scenario, whether it’s domestic or international, there are stages of needs. During the Alberta wildfires, for example, those families fled without a lot, and each individual family had its own unique needs—clothing, food, diapers. Thanks to the generosity of Canadians, we were able to provide families with those cash transfers very, very quickly, straight into their bank accounts,” says Larkin. “This meant they could make their own purchasing decisions based on what they needed most of all.”
“Ask the charity what the impact of the program is, and how it will make a difference,” says Sarah Winterton, director of World Wildlife Fund’s nature-connected communities department. She’s a fan of kid volunteers having impactful experiences, like WWF’s shoreline cleanups. “Practical hands-on activities that you can do with your child are really important because they give a child the experience of stewardship and making a difference,” she explains.
Whether you’re giving time or money, involving your kids at as many stages as possible strengthens the idea of helping your community. Giving money alone with no physical effort (often referred to as “sweat equity”) or time commitment may not provide the “click” kids need to make that kind of connection. If giving money is your preferred mode of charity, plan a fundraiser as a family—something non-profits may even be able to help you with. “We have a fabulous community-engagement team that will work with families who decide they want to hold fundraising events for us,” says Larkin. “There’s something about having little kids see the money, put it all together, send it in to the charity, get that thank you letter back and becoming part of the process. It’s so much more tangible when they’ve been involved in all those steps.”
If you’re thinking of going on an international volunteering trip with your family, it’s worth taking a hard look at the impact and the cost. Donating that money may be more effective, notes Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco who studies the work of charitable organizations. There is value in showing your kids what life is like in other countries, but you need to be mindful of not falling into a poverty-tourism trap where you take them to see poor people, like you would a tourist site. “I’m not against short-term trips, but I think the best context is within a long-term relationship where a group of people connect themselves with a village,” he explains. Check out the documentary Poverty, Inc. (it’s on Netflix)—it’s a great starting point for learning about honouring a community’s needs, without making life worse for them. (For instance, you could undermine local businesses by donating goods their customers would otherwise buy from them.)
“Whether you define community as a few blocks from your house, your country or around the world, show your kids what they can do to make a difference, and that there is no too-small measure. What they do makes an impact, because it adds up,” says Larkin.
Lombardo, the Spud Buds mom in Calgary, agrees. “A little gesture goes a long way, whether it’s a potato, a smile or holding the door open for somebody. It can make their day, and I think we all need a little bit more of that.”
In addition to prioritizing charity and regular volunteering as a family, let your kids see you advocating for changes that make the world a better place. So get out there and let your voices be heard. Encourage children to write letters about issues they care about. Take your kids to a demonstration or a community meeting. There are families with young children at the resistance camps in North Dakota protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, but teachable moments could also be as simple as bringing your kids to a school-board meeting or local council debate. If there’s a social movement, like Black Lives Matter, that’s important to you, share that passion by participating in its events or meetings with your kids.
“Sometimes the presence of children can really help the elderly,” says Kate Bahen from Charity Intelligence Canada. Group visits at a retirement residence (for holiday carols, musical performances or showing off Halloween costumes) are a great idea, or try connecting with an elderly neighbour who might like companionship or need help with household tasks on an ongoing basis.
The Shoebox Project for Shelters facilitates holiday-time donations of gift-wrapped shoeboxes full of helpful items like gift cards, toiletries, notebooks and (nut-free) treats for women living in shelters in Canada and the US. Sign your family up to help decorate and fill a box. Kids love to gather things, and it’s a tangible way to talk about the realities and needs of people living on the street. Visit shoeboxproject.com to check if the Shoebox Project operates where you live or to find information on starting a local chapter.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2016 issue, titled "Give and take," pg. 72-74.