Ethan Jabowski can barely walk, and he didn't say a single word during the visit. But an angelic smile and a willingness to be held was enough for this volunteer project.
The eyes of the elderly men and women living at the Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center in Arlington lighted up when they saw 1-year-old Ethan. Their arms reached for him. Ethan, happy as long as he had his blankie, snuggled in the arms of one after another.
Ethan is a regular at volunteer projects created for families by Greater D.C. Cares. His 6-year-old sister, Nicole, and 3-year-old brother, Alex, are often more adept at the tasks assigned, which have included making sandwiches for the homeless and harvesting vegetables for the poor. But to thrive on this assignment, all Ethan had to do was be himself.
"Well, aren't you cute," said an elderly woman as she bent over in her wheelchair to stroke his soft blond hair. Joseph Lester Williams, 83, took Ethan on his lap. As the Jabowski family moved on to another floor, Williams waved and said, "Thank you for letting me hold your baby."
The visit was part of an expanding effort charities are making to attract volunteers by including families. The Points of Light Foundation, a leader in the trend, coordinates family volunteering projects at 28 sites around the country, including one through the Volunteer Center of Fairfax County Inc. The foundation plans to open 25 more sites within the next year.
The demise of the traditional volunteer--the stay-at-home mom--has forced nonprofits to get creative. The hours given by families have turned out, as intended, to be a valuable asset to the charities and the people they serve. But the projects are also valuable to the families who participate.
"We get a lot out of it," said Mija Jabowski, of Olney, mother of Ethan, Nicole and Alex. "My children learn that life is not just about me, me, me. They learn to feel compassion."
Volunteering also broadens children's horizons, teaches them teamwork and lets them see their parents in action as role models, added Susan Linsky, executive director of Greater D.C. Cares, which organizes monthly projects appropriate for families.
One of Linsky's regulars now is Paige Leverett, of Herndon. Leverett, a management consultant with PriceWaterhouseCooper, had been wanting to do some community service. Besides, her company encourages it--and even makes volunteering on her own time part of employee evaluations.
But as a busy working mother, she hated sacrificing precious time with her 6-year-old son, Evan. Now she doesn't have to.
Since discovering family volunteering in May, she and Evan have watered vegetables for the poor on a Maryland farm, cleaned stalls and fed animals at a sanctuary for abused animals, worked in a community garden in Anacostia, sorted cans at a food bank and attended a holiday party for low-income children in Northeast Washington.
"Before that, we always talked about charity. We gave money, and last Christmas, we bought presents for homeless children," Leverett said. "But at his age, it's hard to understand what it's about without seeing it."
In contrast, she said, active volunteering "is expanding his world, teaching him empathy."
The recent visit to Cherrydale added another element to Evan's immediate world, which does not include elderly, sick people. Leverett said Evan was afraid of them. He knows his grandmother in California is seriously ill and always seemed reluctant to even get on the phone with her.
His visit to Cherrydale got off to a good start when he and other children gathered in the lobby to make holiday cards for patients. But as he went to deliver them, he seemed tentative.
A woman sitting in the corner of a solarium was crying. She had been given a card in an envelope and apparently didn't understand why she wasn't receiving one of the brightly colored cards other people were getting.
Tears came to Evan's eyes, too. But biting his bottom lip, he gingerly approached and handed her a card. The woman smiled.
"By the end of the morning, he seemed comfortable," Leverett said. "He talked a lot later about how their hands were old, and some of them couldn't walk or talk. But he seemed more interested than afraid of it anymore."
Leverett said she reminded Evan of how the old woman smiled when he gave her his card. She told him that just because people are old, they shouldn't be ignored.
"Yes," Evan responded. "That just wouldn't be fair."
Upcoming family projects are listed at www.dc-cares.org and at www.volunteerfairfax.org. Or call the Points of Light Foundation at 1-800-Volunteer.
CAPTION: Miles Meadows, 5, reads a holiday card to Margaret Francis, as part of the effort to include children in volunteer projects.
CAPTION: Volunteer Janine Wilkin visits Francis at the Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center.