The family of four took more than a week to fashion turkey centerpieces out of cinnamon-scented pine cones and colorful construction paper, to make cardboard-cutout pumpkins and paint them with inspirational words: “Compassion, sharing, community.”
The family took one weekend afternoon to bring their homemade decorations to a nonprofit organization in the District and transform a large dining room into an autumnal wonderland, creating a feeling of home for those who do not have one.
For Jodi O’Hern, ex-husband Kyle Beckman and their two teenage children, few experiences mean more than volunteering as a family at So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith organization that provides food, clothing and social services to the District’s homeless. The four family members have been devoted volunteers since they moved to Fairfax County four years ago.
“It’s been such a blessing,” O’Hern, 49, said. “Not just for the people SOME helps, but even more so for us as a family. It’s such an important way to teach compassion.”
As the approaching holiday season encourages thoughts of charitable giving, nonprofit groups across the Washington region field many calls from local families looking for opportunities to volunteer together. Although the need for help exists year-round, volunteer coordinators said they welcome the chance to introduce new families to community service — and maybe to cultivate a long-term commitment to volunteering.
O’Hern said that is what happened to her family.
“We were doing it to feed the homeless, and because I thought it was a good way to teach my kids about homelessness and compassion,” she said. “Then we all just fell in love with the place. . . . SOME is part of who we are.”
O’Hern’s children, 17-year-old Kyra Beckman and 14-year-old John Beckman, started out by making bagged lunches and working behind the scenes because they were not old enough to volunteer in SOME’s dining room. But volunteer coordinators across the region point out that there are many other opportunities appropriate for younger children, too.
They can help their parents deliver meals and gifts to families in need, or assist with organizing donated clothing and toys.
Many animal-rescue organizations offer programs that allow younger children to volunteer alongside a parent or work on service projects at home. Even kindergartners can help sort groceries at a food pantry.
“At 5 years old, with a parent’s help, they can put green beans in a vegetable container and know it’s a vegetable,” said Carla Fortenberry, volunteer coordinator at Loudoun Interfaith Relief, the county’s largest food pantry. “And the earlier you can get kids involved, the better, because it becomes natural for them to volunteer.”
Fortenberry said the organization has a small stable of families who volunteer regularly, and the nonprofit group is experiencing the usual uptick in inquiries from families as the holidays approach.
“We try to encourage them to volunteer throughout the year and not just around the holidays,” she said. “People are hungry every day.”
The experience of giving to another child can be particularly formative for young kids, said Anne Thompson, deputy director of A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring nonprofit organization that provides clothing, furniture and toys to families in need. She recalled an instance several years ago, when a 7-year-old boy volunteered with his family. He took a container of donated Lego blocks and meticulously transformed them into an elaborate structure.
He wanted the toy to look as appealing as possible, so that another child who came in would feel excited to take it home, Thompson said. And that is exactly what happened. Almost as soon as the Lego house was displayed, another child picked it up and carried it away.
“Part of him wished that he was taking the toy home himself,” she said. “But then he was so proud that he made it and displayed it in a way that made another child want it. . . . It taught him such an empathetic way to think about it.”
Getting kids hooked on volunteerism seems particularly important in light of a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks national volunteer data. The report showed that the overall rate of volunteerism in the nation dropped by 1.1 percent for the year ending in September 2013. That might not seem a massive shift, but it is one worth noting, said Nathan Dietz, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.
“I always look for signs that this is nothing more than just a large-but-regular fluctuation, where you might expect a bounce back the following year,” he said. “But when I noticed there was a significant drop in the rate among college-educated adults, that got me a little worried.”
The percentage of volunteers who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher has fallen from 42.8 percent of all documented volunteers in 2009 to 39.8 percent in 2013, the report showed. The decline is alarming, Dietz said, because education is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of volunteerism.
He also noted that national volunteer rates among teens declined in 2013 — dropping to 21.8 percent from 22.6 percent the year before.
“When it comes to volunteering, you always worry about who is going to replace the old mainstays among the adult volunteer workforce,” he said. “And if you start to see a pattern that the younger generations are not going to be contributing as much, then that is grounds for concern.”
Despite the national trend, the philanthropic spirit remains strong in the Washington area, where 32 percent of the region’s residents volunteer through a formal organization — well above the national average of about 26 percent, said Wendy Spencer, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs AmeriCorps and other national volunteer programs.
And the rate for teen volunteers in the District is even higher — 37 percent, 10 percentage points above the national rate, Spencer said.
“That’s a really good number there, and I think that says a lot about parents in the area,” she said. “Clearly, they’re offering support for volunteering.”
It’s a hopeful sign in terms of replenishing the volunteer workforce, she added.
“Youth from a family where at least one parent volunteers are twice as likely to volunteer . . . and they’re three times as likely to volunteer on a regular basis instead of just a one-off,” Spencer said. “So they’re observing that action, they understand what the parent is doing, it makes an impression.”
O’Hern said it saddens her that volunteerism is declining nationally instead of growing. Families can do many activities together, she said, but few are as meaningful as giving to others.
“We teach our children that you learn something from everyone you meet,” she said.
The lesson is lasting. O’Hern’s daughter, Kyra, said her years of volunteering at SOME with her family have convinced her that community service will always be a significant part of her life.
“There’s this satisfaction of doing something without being asked, and without receiving any compensation for it, just helping people because you should,” she said. “The joy that it brings them brings me so much more joy than anything else. It’s my favorite thing that I could do.”
Washington-area places to volunteer
Many volunteers are connected to community service through schools, nonprofit groups and religious institutions. If you are interested in volunteering, you can contact an organization directly to ask about available opportunities, or consult with a statewide agency that helps match volunteers to agencies in need of support.
● Maryland Community Services Locator
● Maryland Volunteer Centers
● Virginia Volunteer Centers
Phone: 800-638-3839; 804-726-7065
● Serve DC