When Jamie Resnik was seeking a volunteer activity to do with her two young children, ages six and four, Nancy Benyamin, JFS Volunteer Services director, suggested they fill bags for the Weinberg Food Pantry with the ingredients for a tuna casserole. The project, done in assembly line fashion on the coffee table, was easy and fun, attests Jamie, and it also provided quality family time. “By giving my kids the opportunity to feed and care for others,” she continues, “I’m also feeding their hearts and teaching them to be generous, giving people.” Discussions have continued since, and the Resniks are planning to volunteer again for the pantry.
The young people who participate in these meaningful projects represent a new breed called “philanthro-kids” and “philanthro-teens,” and we need more of them! However, not every child can, like Ari, initiate a charitable act on his or her own. Good role models—parents and grandparents who themselves volunteer and donate, and who talk positively about helping others—are essential. When volunteering becomes an important family activity, the influence is lasting. My daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Friedman, for example, has volunteering in her genes. She grew up seeing her parents and grandparents donating their time and resources. To her that’s just what people do. Adds Nancy Benyamin, “And since children learn by example, it’s vital to ‘live the action.’”
Raising charitable children is an art. Below, you’ll find many tried-and-true ways to instill the values of giving and volunteering in children of every age group.
Ideas for Young Children
Even three- and four-year-olds can understand the concepts of giving and concern for others. So bring your young children along to help when you serve a holiday dinner to the homeless, pass out cookies at a hospital, or prepare boxes of food and clothing in response to an emergency. (It’s always a good idea to check to be sure young children are welcome.) Volunteering together as a family teaches important values, develops new skills, provides satisfaction, and strengthens family bonds. Hence, it is a unifying force.
Ideas for Elementary School Children
When children begin to receive an allowance, encourage them to donate 10 percent each week to a worthy cause—an organization that collects toys for needy children at holiday time or a charity such as Heifer International through which donors underwrite animals to sustain families in developing countries.
Always involve the children in choosing an organization or a cause that appeals to them. For example, if a child loves animals, help find organizations and projects that match this interest. Then set up a schedule to volunteer regularly as a family. Children who volunteer are twice as likely to volunteer as adults. Whatever the task, enjoy it, and when your children tire of a project, move on to a new one. But always celebrate the conclusion and talk about its impact.
Give children this age a small sum on their birthdays to donate to their charity of choice. Arrange for them to make the donation in person, and accompany them when they go. Take a picture, make a video, or create a scrapbook and add to it each year.
At birthday parties, recommend that children ask guests to bring a book or a toy for an underprivileged child instead of—or even along with—a present. Betsy Teutsch, a Philadelphia artist and writer, and her husband, David, also make a donation each year in honor of the birthday child, the amount corresponding to the child’s age.
Elementary school youngsters can also stuff envelopes at their synagogue or church, make sandwiches for a homeless shelter, plant little pots and take them to homebound people, bring toys to Children’s Hospital, or send letters thanking firefighters for what they do for the community.
Ideas for Middle and High School Students
Teenagers are caring and capable, and ripe to become philanthropists. Take them along when you help build a house for Habitat for Humanity or visit residents at an assisted living facility. Help them organize a car wash for a worthwhile cause or wrap gifts at holiday time. Walk together to raise money for breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Dawn Richard, JFS development director, suggests entering their outstanding project for a 2015 Prudential Spirit of Community Award. Teach them, too, how to evaluate charities, and enroll them in a course at Denver’s Young Americans Bank to learn money management.
When they begin to babysit and earn money, suggest they donate 10 percent of their earnings. Perhaps your charitable teenager is a good candidate for the Rose Youth Foundation. After studying applications and making site visits, this year’s cohort of students in grades 10 to 12 allocated $60,000 to Jewish and non-Jewish causes. In fact, Jewish Family Service received a $5,500 grant to provide school-based mental health services for refugee adolescents experiencing depression.
Charity is an important tenet of Jewish tradition. Philanthropy is a duty for Jews—and not just for the wealthy. Even those who receive tzedakah must give whatever they can. We are taught not to avert our eyes from someone in need, and that help must always be given in a way that preserves the dignity of the recipient. It’s not optional to perform mitzvot; we are commanded to do them. And Tikkun Olam—repairing or perfecting the world—is also our sacred obligation. As you discuss philanthropy, model charitable behavior, and volunteer as a family, make these values a central part of the conversation.
Helpful Resources on Raising Charitable Children:
- Friedman, Jenny. The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering. Beltsville, MD: Robins Lane Press, 2003.
- Friedman, Jenny, and Jolene Roehlkepartain. Doing Good Together: 101 Easy, Meaningful Projects for Families, Schools and Communities. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2010.
- Lewis, Barbara A. The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2009.
- Perry, Susan K. Catch the Spirit: Teen Volunteers Tell How They Made a Difference. New York: Children’s Press/Scholastic, 2000.
- Price, Susan Crites. The Giving Family: Raising Our Children to Help Others. Washington, DC: Council on Foundations, 2003.
- Weisman, Carol. Raising Charitable Children. St. Louis, MO: F.E. Robbins & Sons Press, 2008.
- Silverstein, Jodi. “Meet the Next Generation of Power Girls.” Seventeen.
- Souccar, Miriam Kreinin. “Philanthro-teens Delving into the Nonprofit World.”
- Doing Good Together: www.doinggoodtogether.org. Nonprofit organization that provides tools to families and organizations to help them raise compassionate and engaged children; free e-newsletter.
- Grandparents for Social Action: grandgrandparentsforsocialaction.org. This nonprofit provides information on social action projects for grandparents and grandchildren; online monthly e-newsletter is on the website.
Audrey Friedman Marcus is a volunteer writer for JFS. She was founder and executive vice president of A.R.E. Publishing, Inc., for 30 years before retiring in 2001. She also founded the annual Fred Marcus Memorial Holocaust Lecture and authored the book Survival in Shanghai: The Journals of Fred Marcus 1939 to 1949 (Pacific View Press).