I drove to the zoo to drop off my oldest daughter, Rachel, on her first day of volunteering. She was assigned to the petting zoo where goats and sheep awaited the eager eyes and hands of preschoolers. Rachel would feed the animals, clean up their waste, and supervise the children as they observed the animals. As a twelve-year-old, Rachel was ready and willing to assume the responsibility of a volunteer position, one of three she would hold before graduating from high school. I was thrilled, but apprehensive about her newfound challenge. Time would reveal that my concern was unfounded, for the benefit of volunteering far outweighed any liability. I believe every parent should strongly consider offering his child the opportunity to participate in community volunteer work. Here’s why.
Volunteering Matures a Child
As I watched Rachel tend to her four-hour a week summer zoo position, I noticed she was developing more maturity. No longer was she merely looking out for herself or her little sisters, but she was also looking out for a host of preschool children who were left in her charge. Furthermore, the discipline of caring for the goats and sheep caused her to care for her room at home more efficiently. Once she proved herself in the petting area, the zookeepers awarded her more responsibility by placing her in the gift shop for two hours a week.
Volunteering Builds on Academic Skills
Not only does volunteering mature a child, but it also builds on her academic skills. Rachel’s gift shop service afforded her experience using a cash register and counting out change, which enhanced her math skills. Others have reported volunteer experiences where their child read to younger children in the library, thus enhancing reading and verbal skills. Still others have participated in peer tutoring through the refugee department, as Rachel did for two years. This experience gave opportunity to actually tutor a foreign student in reading, grammar, and math.
Volunteering Develops Social Skills
Equally important as academic skills are social skills. While most children are immersed in peer relationships for the majority of the day, the child who volunteers is exposed to people of all ages. He learns to relate well, not only to his peer group, but also to multiple personalities of varying ages and backgrounds. When Rachel volunteered with the SPCA, she bumped shoulders with moms, teens, the elderly, and younger children. She would “check out” a puppy or kitten from the SPCA and take the animal to the veteran’s center or hospital to make rounds. In this way she aided both the animal’s and the patient’s emotional health, as well as learned to communicate with people from all walks of life by answering questions about the animal. In addition, work with peer tutoring exposed her to the culture and customs of Vietnamese people. As she tutored the twelve-year-old girl once a week, she got to know the entire family. None of them spoke English very well, so she was stretched to discover ways to communicate with them. They invited us over to their modest home for a generous spread of spicy Vietnamese food and we invited them over to our house for pizza and cookouts. Later, we invited them to a Christmas program at our church.
Volunteering Can Clarify Future Goals
While volunteering can breed responsibility, build academic and social skills, it can also help clarify future goals. Rachel enjoyed the zoo and pet therapy programs because she was used to pets of her own. Three cats, a dog, hamster, and a variety of fish kept her busy as pet caretaker and offered her a glimpse of what it might be like to be a veterinarian, which was her goal for several years. However, during her peer tutoring experience she committed her life to career missions in India. Her tutoring opportunity, more than any other, led to more open doors to teach English as a second language. The summer after her junior year of college, she attended community classes to observe English being taught to a mix of foreign families from Croatia, Peru, Vietnam, and Brazil. Later that summer, she spent six weeks in China teaching teens English. Her experience overseas came in handy when she finally left for India in 2004.
Make Room for Volunteer Work
So, volunteer work can supplement a child’s education, but how do you find time for one more activity? Building volunteer work into your child’s already packed schedule can be a daunting task, but well worth the effort. Sit down with your child and make a list of all the activities and responsibilities your child already has. Pray over the list, then begin to number each item according to its importance in the child’s life. When deciding which activities to add or delete, encourage your child to think about what he wants to accomplish this year in his life and to also consider future goals. Point out how volunteering might clarify goals for him. You and your child may find that one or several items no longer play a significant role and can be dropped. Call or visit your local library and request a pamphlet on volunteer opportunities in your area. We were surprised to discover that our city offered over thirty different volunteer activities for young teens and teenagers. Always allow your child to choose which position he would like to try. That is how he will learn what best suits his interests and personality.
Once you and your child have sampled some volunteer options, you, too, will discover that community work is a vital part of your child’s education. He will mature in his ability to handle responsibility, grow in his academic and social skills, and experiment with options for fulfilling future goals. Volunteering is a great way to round out your child’s education.
Volunteer activities can include:
Hospital candy striper
Pet therapy with the SPCA
Clerical assistant at medical facilities
Rescue mission work—sorting clothing, stuffing envelopes, serving in the soup kitchen
Crisis pregnancy organizations
For a complete listing of opportunities in your area, call or visit your local library.