Just before my 17th birthday, a drunk driver killed my mom. My dad, brother and I were in the car too, so the crash devastated us physically as well as emotionally. My body healed in a few months, but my mind plunged deeper into despair. Plagued by depression and even suicidal ambitions, I doubted I could ever recover from this tragedy.
Then a speech teacher asked if I'd be willing to visit elementary schools and tell my story. Though I hardly felt speaking was my forte, I desperately wanted to let everyone know the dangers of driving while intoxicated. I spoke in numerous classrooms my senior year, and was even invited to testify before the state legislature to plead for tougher drunk driving laws. So began a string of opportunities for me to talk to other teens, law makers, even DUI offenders. I'll never fully know how my words impacted others, but I'm sure of one thing: I was being changed.
Out of the wreckage of my life, God provided purpose and healing. He opened doors and invited me to look beyond myself. I've seen firsthand the truth in Ghandi's words: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
Benefits of Childhood Volunteerism
The Bible tells us God has prepared good works for each of us to do in His name (Ephesians 2:10). Researchers add this recommendation: empower kids to start that work sooner rather than later. Studies show that volunteer experiences during childhood and adolescence increase the likelihood of a young person developing a lifelong charitable ethic. Conversely, kids are less likely to retain the values and behavior of service if they're not exposed before their teenage years.Torres, Gabina. "The Future of Volunteering: Children Under the Age of 14 as Volunteers." Serviceleader.Org. Dec. 2003. RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service At the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin. 9 Apr. 2008.
When kids take time to put others first, they, too, will reap many benefits. In 2003, Serviceleader.org published a paper on volunteerism in children under 14.Ibid. Author Gabina Torres reviewed a number of studies, including one by the Search Institute that involved some 47,000 youth, and she discovered:
- Children who volunteer exhibit higher levels of self-esteem, motivation, interest in learning, and moral responsibility.
- Kids who served others just one hour or more per week were less likely to be involved in at-risk behavior than those not active in volunteering.
- Young volunteers often gain valuable social and career skills, including responsibility, punctuality, grooming and interpersonal communication.
- Kids who volunteer have unique opportunities to use their creativity, talents and ingenuity to improve their community.
- Volunteers often improve their own lives by meeting new friends interacting with mentors.
Raising a Valuable Volunteer
Sometimes, we all need a reminder that being an agent of change doesn't require a Superman costume, a Lone Ranger mask, or a Batmobile. One little boy proved that in John 6. He wasn't bold or mysterious. He didn't have super powers or fancy weapons. All he had was his lunch. All he did was freely give it away.
As we teach our children to serve, we must assure them that our efforts alone are never enough. Only God can turn our meager offerings into miracles.
We need to show our kids that, besides prayerfully partnering with God, a good volunteer:
- is a team player who realizes he can accomplish more with others than he can alone.
- is available, alert and ready to give God whatever "loaves and fish" he has.
- recognizes unique, specific needs of the person or group he's helping.
- is respectful and friendly even around those who may look or think differently.
- is humble enough to take on the least pleasant tasks – and doesn't expect a reward in return.
- takes his training seriously and shows up when he's expected.
- is enthusiastic about helping others and finds creative ways to do so.
- realizes that serving others is not about him, but about the ways he – like Christ – helps restore dignity, purpose and hope to the lives of others.
Ways Kids Can Serve
Kids can be particularly effective servants when they volunteer alongside friends or family members, or with service-oriented clubs or youth groups. Then there's no pressure to single-handedly save the world. They avoid the anxiety of facing an unfamiliar situation alone. Best of all, they can bond – and even have fun! – with their fellow workers while improving someone else's life.
Local and national volunteer websites can point you toward service opportunities for kids. You can also contact a favorite non-profit group, or find out about projects your church has undertaken. Here are just a few kid-friendly possibilities:
- Benefit a favorite cause by holding an auction, car wash, or yard sale, or participate in a 5K run or walk.
- Help the elderly by checking in on an older friend regularly, doing yardwork or helping write or record a memoir.
- Serve single moms by babysitting or helping with chores or transportation.
- Aid underprivileged kids by putting together holiday boxes, tutoring, or volunteering as a coach or mentor at an after-school program.
- Support the homeless by assembling food boxes of hygiene bags for a shelter.
- Empower the handicapped by training a service dog or cheering at the Special Olympics.
- Cheer the sick and home-bound by talking and reading to them.
- Assist internationally by playing with orphans or helping dig wells on a mission trip.
Take pictures when your kids participate in these activities, just as you would when they're playing a sport or goofing off at home. Photos will serve as a reminder of the positive feelings and fun they had in the midst of volunteering and will make them want to "lose themselves in the service of others" again and again!