I started volunteering summers when I was 11 years old. My dad worked at the Red Cross in Arkansas, and he brought me along to help.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mornings teaching adorable five and six year olds to swim set the foundation for my life philosophy and how I would approach people, other cultures and travel.
Since then, I’ve baked cupcakes to raise money for school supplies in Panama, cut fruit to feed monkeys and bears in Bolivia and taught art and photography classes to children in tiny villages in Argentina.
Because I travel with my 9-year-old daughter, Lila, she works right along beside me.
Why Volunteer With Your Child?
Recently, a woman named Pippa Biddle wrote an article outlining the problematic nature of volunteering. Her main point being that unless you have the experience to volunteer, it’s best to stay home.
Obviously, most children don’t have extensive international aid experience. They are more needy than the average adult and usually less able of controlling themselves, perhaps leading you to question whether volunteering with children is a good idea. Some may call it irresponsible to bring a child with you.
I do not believe that to be the case.
You will learn amazing things while volunteering
Children are capable of incredible things, and too often adults underestimate what they can do.
Volunteering requires a high degree of maturity, patience and kindness. All of which are qualities children possess and are more than able to further cultivate.
Lila has learned responsibility. She took on the job of feeding birds and not only made sure they ate on time every day but remembered to prepare a special dish for the toucan.
She gained skills and knowledge through her volunteer experiences.
Lila learned what monkeys and birds eat, not in a classroom or from a video, but because she fed and cared for animals at a natural habitat wildlife refuge. She also understands the importance of preserving their environment, because she has seen first hand what happens to those animals when their forests are destroyed.
Lila can handle herself in different cultures and in different languages. In truth, we learn language far more quickly before adolescence. What better way to learn than through real world communication?
Traveling and volunteering with Lila have deepened not only her independence but my confidence that Lila can handle herself.
6 Tips For Volunteering With Your Children
It’s important to remember that volunteering comes with guidelines. These tips will help ensure a safe and positive experience for you and your child.
1. Your child must be part of the decision making process.
Talk to your children before volunteering to make sure it’s what they want to do and that they understand exactly what is expected of them.
2. Ask the NGO or organization if they allow children.
Many places will automatically say no. That is their prerogative. The work they do may be dangerous or they don’t have the appropriate resources to support a child. Even if an organization has a no children policy, it never hurts to ask if they’ll make an exception. Don’t push if it’s not a good fit.
3. Find out what work you will be doing.
Not every volunteer group will have a clear outline of the work, so it is up to you to ask questions, contact past volunteers and talk to people at the organization to find out how you can be most helpful and what work you will be doing. You can also offer additional skills you may possess.
4. Pack well and carefully.
Many volunteer organizations will have a list of what you’ll need to pack and how to prepare for your trip. If you can’t find one, ask.
While many organizations provide for your basic needs, it’s best to be as self sufficient as possible so as not to be a drain on resources. Also, check to see if you can buy food, water, first aid and other items nearby should the need arise.
5. Prepare for the trip together.
There are many ways to build excitement and create clear expectations for your trip prior to your departure date. You can pack together, purchase whatever items you need, research the subject and even learn a language.
6. Work up to a long trip.
Don’t start by dragging your child from home where they’ll be surrounded by people who speak a different language and living without their usual amenities. Instead, start with something more simple. Find volunteer opportunities closer to home.
A little volunteering philosophy before I end
It is all about attitude.
It is indeed problematic if a volunteer walks into a community thinking of himself as someone who is there to bestow knowledge on a people who don’t know.
It is even worse when volunteers use resources that would be better left to the community. If, however, you enter the community with the desire to learn and a willingness to take instruction, you send a different message.
I’ve found that showing up with a child allows me to integrate more seamlessly into the local community, because the role of parent cuts through all cultural and language boundaries.
When Lila sits on the dirt floor of a one room church in a tiny village with no running water and no electricity and draws with a child her own age, she builds relationships based on common experience.
When you treat people with respect and are considerate of their time and culture, you teach your children that money, privilege and color of skin do not determine worth or friendship, and that is an incredibly powerful lesson for all.
Have you volunteered with your children? Share your experiences and tips in the comments below.