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."
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.1
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 14.2 Author Gabina Torres reviewed a number of studies, including one by the Search Institute that involved some 47,000 youth, and she discovered:
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:
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:
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!