They’re not alone. According to Laura Plato, chief solutions officer at VolunteerMatch, a platform that connects volunteers with nonprofit organizations, traditional in-person volunteering has dropped off precipitously since the pandemic began, while need has only grown. “Our nation’s nonprofits are having to really get creative and reinvent what volunteering looks like,” she says.
A wide body of research on teens and adults links volunteering to a host of benefits, including reduced rates of depression and anxiety and meaningful improvements in life expectancy. “But for children,” says Akua Boateng, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia who works with families, “volunteering can also be a positive component of their developmental process — helping them understand their place in the social fabric — and is associated with a higher sense of self-esteem.” In the course of volunteering, children “develop the skills to think of the world outside of themselves,” she says, which lays the foundation for empathy, compassion and engagement. Parents, too, experience mental and physical health benefits from volunteering with their children, and they report closer family connection.
When so much is out of our control, the act of volunteering puts some control back in our hands. And with the normal rhythms of life still very much disrupted, it’s a good way to occupy and engage children who might otherwise feel stuck.
Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, cautions that how parents frame volunteering is important. “It’s crucial to talk about social inequity in the right way with children,” he says, “to avoid communicating a sense of superiority that leads to, ‘We have to help these people because there’s something wrong with them.’ ” Even for a 4-year-old, “you can make it clear that the people you give food to, that that could be us, and there’s nothing wrong with them. They’ve just had bad luck.”
For families who want to volunteer in this new landscape, what options are there? Quite a few, says Karen Daniel, vice president of programs at Youth Service America. “We have a project ideas database on our website, where people can search by the issue area that they care about and by their spark, which is what they love to do. We really believe in helping kids start with something they love so that the project is fun for them, too.”
Plato from VolunteerMatch says to “think about activities that you’ve traditionally done and organizations that you’ve traditionally done them with. A lot of these places — and new, smaller organizations, too — are embracing practices to make their programs more virtual, more safely distanced.”
Volunteering that addresses the immediate needs created by the pandemic and employs children’s natural creativity can often be done from home. For example, children can sew masks to donate to local hospitals and essential workers. Younger children, or those uncomfortable working with needles, can construct no-sew alternatives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tutorials and guidelines are a good place to start, but endless variations can also be found online.
A thoughtful note can go a long way toward cheering someone up. There are programs to help kids reach out to military personnel and their families, or write letters and cards to older people who are separated from their loved ones. But you don’t need formal avenues to contribute; sending letters to family, friends or members of your immediate community helps strengthen ties in your own backyard.
Hunger is a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Although churches and shelters have largely suspended big meal gatherings for now, grab-and-go meals and meal deliveries have filled some of the gap. Children can help prepare meals from home, decorate packages and tag along when parents deliver the food safely, adhering to social distancing regulations.
Virtual and asynchronous
Virtual volunteering, where activities are done using a computer or phone, and asynchronous volunteering, where they’re completed independently without following a rigid schedule, have transformed the traditional fundraiser.
“For Global Youth Service Day this year, instead of doing a physical fun run — where the kids would get pledges for the miles they run — they did it virtually,” Daniel says. In virtual run-walk events, participants run alone and then submit their results, often through social media platforms. But the shared experience of reaching mileage and fundraising goals together still fosters community building. In more team-driven events, family members and friends can buddy up to hit target distances collectively.
“Consider hosting a virtual toy or food drive and have your neighbors be a part of it,” Plato suggests. To incorporate a social component to the drive, you can host a virtual movie-watching party and ask for donations in return for a “seat.” Another popular mainstay of holiday volunteering is Adopt-a-Family, which can also be done virtually with friends and family.
The great outdoors
Right now, the safest place to congregate is outdoors, provided social distancing rules and mask-wearing are observed. Therefore, outings to the park or beach to pick up trash are great ways for kids to get the wiggles out with friends while also learning about the importance of environmental stewardship. Even a walk around the neighborhood with a garbage bag emphasizes how important it is that everyone does their part to keep our world safe and clean.
According to Katie Stagliano of Katie’s Krops, a nonprofit that helps children start gardens across the United States, community gardening can continue in the colder months with winter crops such as cabbage, carrots, kale, turnips and collard greens, which can then be distributed to families struggling with food insecurity. And other activities centered around garden hygiene and upkeep are good to tackle when it’s colder out: tending to your compost pile, pruning back perennials and building new garden beds for spring.
With about 80 percent of the approximately 1.5 million nonprofits in the country using volunteers, according to Plato, “the help is needed and wanted,” she says. “And the best way to get out there is to connect with folks and find out what they need, consider what you’re passionate about and match those two things up as a family.”
Lydia Elle, a writer in Los Angeles, and her 10-year-old daughter, London, have embraced this philosophy. Inspired by a love of reading and the realization that other kids may not have the same access to books, London started partnering up with organizations in 2019 to donate books to children in need. “During the summer, because we couldn’t get out and distribute books in person like we normally would have, we made a huge donation of books to our local food bank instead,” Elle says. The food bank matched books to packages they were assembling for the families they serve, and “it was just a nice way to ensure kids kept on reading during the summer months.”
Connie Chang writes about the second-generation immigrant experience, including the challenges of raising children at the intersection of multiple cultures and traditions. She lives in Silicon Valley, is a mother of three and knits in her spare time. Find Connie on Twitter @changcon.