As unfortunate as it sounds, when my kindergartener volunteers to help me with small tasks like dusting the coffee table or cleaning the windows, I know not to get too excited. More likely than not, my daughter’s attention will quickly get diverted to finding a snack or fighting with her younger brother. And in the off chance that she remains on task for a solid period of time, I anticipate finding an oily mess smeared on the coffee table from the overuse of product.
It comes as no surprise then, that it can be difficult to find ways for younger children (approximately 4-6) to be involved in volunteering in a meaningful way that contributes to creating a better world. But that doesn’t make it any less important. No matter how much product my daughter uses or how easily distracted she is, what doesn’t change is the fact that my daughter feels good about her efforts. And when it comes to volunteering outside of the house, her contributions not only help the community around her, they also help her understand her role as a global citizen.
With volunteering opportunities for young children minimal, how can a child of this age participate?
Because of liability issues (and, frankly, ability issues), it can often be difficult to find locations or organizations that are willing to accept children of such a young age (always with a parent or guardian of course). And often those opportunities are not ongoing but single time occurrances (think holidays or back to school events). That being said, if there is a favorite organization, it’s important to continually check the event calendar or check in with the volunteer coordinator to see what may be coming up. Some local organizations with programs for young children on an ongoing basis are:
- Ronald McDonald House of Greater Hudson Valley (www.rmh-ghv.org): The Ronald McDonald House has one program suited for ages four and up where children actually get to volunteer their time outside of their own home. The program is called Meals that Heal, where groups and families (up to 10 participants) can volunteer to donate food and time to come to one of the kitchens at the Ronald McDonald House and cook food for those families staying there (typically 25 people).
- The Town of Greenburgh (www.greenburghny.com): This volunteer opportunity takes a bit of musical skill, but honestly, what young child doesn’t have a beautiful voice for belting out a tune or two? For children aged five and up, the town of Greenburgh is looking for musically talented volunteers to provide concerts to homebound residents and seniors. (If interested, sign up through www.volunteernewyork.org.)
- Groundwork Hudson Valley (www.groundworkhv.org): Check the events schedule here for opportunities to help with keeping the environment clean and healthy such as clean ups and invasive vine cutting that happens throughout the year.
- The Foodbank for Westchester (www.foodbankforwestchester.org): The Foodbank for Westchester invites children to its facilities to help organize, create bags, box, etc. They welcome children on weekdays only for short periods of time with prior approval and arrangement as not all activities at the organization are appropriate for young children.
- I Love My Park Day-throughout the county: While this is not exactly Earth Day, it does fall closely behind. On May 6, 2017 there will be opportunities throughout the county for children to get outside and show their local parks a little love through cleaning them up and getting them ready for summer. Times and locations, as well as registration, can be found through Volunteer New York.
Beyond just our local places to volunteer, there are national organizations as well that offer some opportunities that you can shape and mold into your own special experiences at home.
- Operation Gratitude (www.operationgratitude.com): This organization collects cards to deliver to deployed service members. They also send out care packages that kids can take part in putting together through organizing drives (they have specific wish lists that apply year round, but also have seasonal lists-think Halloween Candy). Beyond just showing gratitude to troops, they’ve also begun to create First Responder Care Kits.
- Holidays for Heroes (www.redcross.org): This program is run through the Red Cross. The program was formerly known as Holiday Mail for Heroes, but was recently changed to reflect the changing needs of each individual community. To see how young children can get involved with this program, contact the local red cross office.
- Cards for Hospitalized Kids (www.cardsforhospitalizedkids.com): If you’re having difficulty finding a local hospital to accept cards your children have made, consider this organization. They can help you find a card making event, create a card making event, or just give you the information needed to make them on your own and submit them.
- National Disease Organizations: Search for a local office of the cause you are most interested in and search their events page. There are a number of ways children can help these larger charities through raising money and awareness or participating in walks.
There are plenty of ways in which children can get involved beyond finding local organizations to volunteer time with. Often these opportunities can be designed in such a way that a solid foundation and love of volunteering can be established through centering activities around children’s own interests. Below are a few ideas to get started (or started thinking of your own)!
- Drives: Drives are a great way children can actually get connected to an organization that doesn’t allow them to actually come to the facility. There are a variety of local organizations, as well as national organizations, that children can collect items for. Some ideas are food, blankets, toys, and litter for animal shelters. Children can collect clothing for homeless shelters or toys and food for women’s shelters. They can collect food for food banks. The Ronald McDonald House of Greater Hudson Valley has a Pull Tab Program where children collect pull tabs and donate them to the organization, which, in turn, recycles the aluminum for money to run their programs. There is no limit to what types of drives children can do. They can be timely, in response to a national or international disaster for instance, or they can be for small local organizations that distribute medical supplies. There are endless organizations in need of items. Just reach out and they will help you get started.
- Donations: In addition to sponsoring a drive, kids can find out what is needed by particular organizations and donate on their own. For example, during the holidays children can adopt a family and shop for food and gifts for them. They can help create birthdays for other children by donating party supplies to organizations such as The Birthday Box. Children can also create activity boxes, filled with arts and craft supplies, games, reading materials etc, for children at local hospitals. Another great way for children to collect donations is to create Everything Bags filled with essential items (think granola bars, grocery gift cards, water, warm socks, scarves, mittens, hats, travel-sized toiletries, toothbrush, tampons/pads, quarters for vending machines, etc) that they can then distribute to people in need.
- Donate a birthday: There are so many ways for children to donate a birthday. They can directly donate their birthday to national and local causes by setting up a donation page and having partygoers donate to the organization in lieu of gifts. Many organizations have their own direct way to donate birthdays (like the Children’s National Health System) or you can simply use Share Your Wish , which will connect your little one to charities (they also even send invitations out for you). Beyond asking for monetary donations, kids can ask that items be brought to their parties instead of presents. They can basically turn their birthdays into mini-drives for whatever cause they choose. Additionally, children can donate their birthdays through the activities they choose to do. They can have a card making party where all their cards are then donated to troops or to children in hospitals. They can spend the party creating Everything Bags or performing a service like cleaning a park or singing to the elderly.
- Surprise packages: One aspect of volunteering that I like to emphasis with my children is that we try to share whatever it is we have to give, whether it’s time, food, or just gratitude. A simple way for children to share their gratitude is to spend time drawing pictures and handing them out to those people they encounter throughout the day who help them or seem to need some acknowledgment of their own value. Beyond just handing a picture out and running, I like to explain to my kids the importance in expressing gratitude towards those people by actually saying, “Thank you.” “Thank you for bagging my groceries.” “Thank you for giving me a pretzel.” “I hope you have a good day.” While the impact is small, sometimes it’s these small lessons of helping and appreciating other people that go the farthest.
- Taking care of those who take care of them: Along the same vein of expressing gratitude, children can handout water on hot days to those people who help their community run smoothly: sanitation workers, construction workers, mailmen and women, and crossing guards are just a few.
- Treats: My kids love to bake. Oddly, they don’t actually love to eat all that they bake (well, one does). But a great way for kids to volunteer in their community is to make treats and deliver them to local Fire and Police Stations.
- Walks: Kids love to get outside and spend some time running around. Why not sign them up for a walk that actually raises money to fight disease, especially if there is one that is near and dear to them. There are always a number of them throughout the area that are sponsored by national organizations, and it’s a great way to get some exercise and volunteer some time.
- Be neighborly: Children can help their community by taking in the mail, shoveling snow, weeding gardens, and raking leaves of the elderly, the sick, or new parents in the neighborhood.
Living in such close proximity to NYC provides us with so many opportunities to reach out and help, and it can be difficult to navigate those opportunities, especially when dealing with the youngest of volunteers. Hopefully the information above can make it a bit easier to get out and get involved.