(Courtesy of Meredith Hale)

“We’re here to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people who don’t have anything to eat.”

This is how my 5-year-old daughter greeted the cashier at Panera Bread in White Plains, NY, recently.

Smiling, the cashier directed us to a back room that had been reserved for our group. We were there to volunteer with 10,000 PB&Js, an organization founded in 2012 by P.J. Collins.

Originally a solo initiative, now a couple thousand have volunteered with the group, each week making 400 to 500 sandwiches for Manhattan’s homeless. When I read about the group on Facebook, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to introduce my daughter to volunteering.

Once upon a time, I had been actively involved in volunteer work. Then I had kids, moved to the suburbs, and volunteering took a back seat to nursing and racing to meet deadlines between the kids’ naps. Here, however, was a perfect opportunity for my daughter and myself to spend time together doing something meaningful, where she could make a difference.

Still, I was nervous. Clearly, from my daughter’s announcement upon entering the restaurant, she understood our mission. But would the task be too difficult for her? Would our presence be disruptive? Would she find satisfaction in helping someone less fortunate than herself?

(Meredith Hale)
(Meredith Hale)

As it turned out, my daughter made a great volunteer. She took pride in her work, making sure each sandwich had the optimal amount of jelly, carefully smearing the peanut butter. She even insisted on keeping her hairnet at the end of the night.

Yes, she had questions – such as why the homeless couldn’t drive over and get the sandwiches – but she thoughtfully listened to my answers, and was happy to have a job to do. And I was relieved to see other families there as well. As I discovered, volunteering is a great way for parents to teach social responsibility while having fun and connecting in the process.

Little Volunteers, Big Hearts
While volunteering with kids may sound great in theory, it can be intimidating in practice, especially if your children are young. However, kids can thrive as volunteers. According to Jeannie Fino, an early childhood consultant with The Guidance Center of Westchester, NY, kids have “a natural tendency to enjoy giving to others, which starts with empathy and compassion.” As parents, Fino says, it’s up to us to foster these feelings, to “provide opportunities for kids to give to others and to be grateful for what’s been given to them.”

Collins, the 10,000 PB&Js founder, agrees. He believes it’s important for kids to get involved with volunteering, which he describes as a “good way to frame the relative abundance that many of us appreciate.” According to Collins, service can be empowering for kids, giving them opportunities to be kind, articulate, and generous. And, as he says, “I’m hard-pressed to find people who don’t feel good about themselves after the experience.”

Getting Started
So how can your family get involved? If you’re looking for volunteer opportunities, chances are other families in your community are as well. Start by talking to the administration at your kids’ school or your place of worship. They’re likely to already sponsor coat drives, book collections, food pantries, and other efforts for those in need. And chances are they need help.

If you don’t find these types of activities at school, church, or synagogue, encourage your child to take the lead. For example, kids can organize gently used clothing drives at school, or collect cans of food to donate to local food pantries. To help get your child started, arrange a meeting with his teacher or religious institution to discuss possibilities. Help your child contact your local food bank or donation center to find out what specific or seasonal needs they may have. This type of hands-on organizing not only allows kids to make a difference, but boosts leadership skills and self-esteem as well – just some of the many benefits of volunteering.

Local Charities
If your kids are passionate about a specific cause, chances are there’s a charity that serves it. Some may have age restrictions for certain tasks, so your best bet is to call and ask how your family can participate.

For instance, if your local soup kitchen doesn’t allow children to prepare or serve food, they may allow kids to set tables or create festive centerpieces (especially for holiday meals). Charities also need help getting the word out. When I checked with our neighborhood food drive, my 5-year-old was a little young to sort cans, but they did need people to distribute flyers – an activity right up her alley.
Another great opportunity for kids is riding along on food deliveries. Families may wish to check with their local Meals on Wheels program to see if kids can accompany their parents delivering food to homebound seniors and others in need. For example, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland offers a “Moms for Meals” program, which encourages parents to volunteer with their kids during school breaks. According to Jenny Bertolette, communications director for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, each local program operates independently, so parents should inquire directly with their program to get involved. Volunteer opportunities can be found at mowaa.org/volunteer.

Daily Giving
Don’t have time to swing by a soup kitchen? Try incorporating giving into your daily life. When you’re grocery shopping, pick up extra canned goods to donate to your local food pantry. Have your child help make the shopping list, or even contribute a small portion of her allowance to the items’ purchase. During your child’s birthday, encourage her to make a “birthday box” for a child whose family can’t afford a party. The organization Family-to-Family (see “Online Resources,” below) can assist your child in preparing a birthday box containing everything from cake mix to streamers, and sending it to a birthday child in need. This Christmas, consider helping your child send a card of support to a soldier. Contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross to see if they participate in the Holiday Mail for Heroes program. Or, reach out to a military organization in your community and ask how your child can send a card.

Online Resources
If you’re still looking for ways to get started, try visiting one of these Web sites offering helpful resources for kids and families:
VolunteerMatch.org matches prospective volunteers with nonprofits in their communities. Volunteers of all ages can search causes ranging from animals to hunger to education and literacy.
Family-to-Family connects families who have “more” with those families in need, through hunger relief programs and other efforts. The Kids Helping Kids page lists a number of ways kids can help others, such as birthday boxes, book drives, and donations of dolls and toys.
GenerationOn describes itself as a “global youth service movement igniting the power of all kids and teens to make their mark on the world.” The site features ideas, projects, and resources addressing causes such as bullying, homelessness, and poverty. Kids can also start local generationOn clubs, performing hands-on service projects in their communities.

And, of course, you can search for local volunteer events on Meetup.com, or ask around on social media groups for parents in your area.

The night my daughter and I volunteered, we didn’t actually make 10,000 sandwiches, although it certainly felt like it. But I was able to tell her that with each sandwich we made, one more person would eat that night. Taking action made her proud. It helped her realize that she’s part of a community, something larger than just herself and her family. And it taught her that she’s important. That even though she’s young, she has the power – and responsibility – to do good in the world around her.

All that from some peanut butter and jelly on bread. Not bad for a night’s work.

Meredith Hale is the author of Mommy A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the Joys, Wonders, and Absurdities of Motherhood. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and the Mommy A to Z blog.

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