Volunteering as a family makes a wonderful holiday tradition, but finding the best experience for your family might take some planning. Susan Norris, vice president of the volunteer center at chicagovolunteer.net, offers these tips:
Start early. Most places no longer need volunteers right before the holidays, so you may have difficulty finding a site if you start late.
Do some sleuthing. Parents who are unsure about bringing their kids into a new environment, such as a soup kitchen, may want to visit alone first. "They can understand who the people are, what their situations are, so they can understand why they need the assistance," Norris says.
Be flexible. If you find a great fit for your family but the site’s already full, consider returning during the spring or summer. "The need is greater then," Norris says.
Kids aren’t kid-friendly. Norris discourages introducing your kids to new friends by volunteering at a site that benefits other kids. "Those children need to have a relationship with an adult," Norris says. Norris’ best pick for family volunteering is visiting seniors and helping the elderly. "It can be a wonderful way to have a surrogate grandparent and it can provide some companionship to someone who has no one."
Spreading cheer and good will
Janeen and Ron Feldman have always believed in giving back. Since their two kids were toddlers, they’ve been offering their helping hands.
"I wanted them to see all parts of the world, not just here’s a home and we have a roof, but to have service become part of their lives," says Janeen. "And it just brings you closer as a family when you work together to help others."
Her son Ronald, 12, was trained to serve food at a local homeless shelter two years ago. "You get to talk to people and learn where they’re from, hear their stories," Ronald says. Nicole, 9, likes volunteering at carnivals and festivals best, where she can make sno-cones and help paint faces.
During the holidays, the Feldmans often carol at nursing homes. Ronald enjoys the festive parties at St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly. "It’s their Christmas, too, and it’s important they have a good time also."
"If you see them crack a smile or sing ‘Silent Night,’ it’s worth it, it’s totally worth it," Feldman says. "You can see it pulling up those memories for them, and that’s just beautiful."
• Chicagovolunteer.net includes a section for those who want to volunteer as a family. (312) 491-7820
• Chicago Cares leads more than 170 group projects each month, many of them family-friendly. (312) 780-0800 ext. 122, www.chicagocares.org.
• Little Brothers–Friends of the Elderly matches people with seniors. (312) 455-1000,
• The Volunteer Center of Northwest Suburban Chicago includes a weekly list of volunteer activities kids 10 and up can do with parents. (847) 228-1320, www.volunteerinfo.net.