Other Feature Writing
The Family that Volunteers Together...
A Boston Globe Calendar Magazine cover story
Toby Bonnell-Bradley may be only seven-and-a-half, but he already knows a thing or two about volunteering.
He’s stood with his mother on a street corner, holding a sign to support a favored political candidate. He’s made and sold jewelry to benefit a Cambodian orphanage. He’s baked brownies for his school’s PTA, and he’s tagged along when his family delivered casseroles to the Rosie’s Place shelter.
Toby’s mom, Sharon Bonnell of Lexington, recently took her son to a gathering for the town’s Habitat for Humanity chapter, which builds houses for families in need. Not only did Toby help his mother prepare food for the event, but Bonnell says, “We showed him the different stages of the house and talked about why it’s being built.”
Even at age 7, Bonnell explains, Toby “understands that people don’t all have the advantages that he does.”
Toby may be a more active volunteer than most kids his age, but a growing number of Boston-area families are contributing their time to a wide variety of causes – as a family.
According to Melissa Wright, Coordinator of Special Initiatives for the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, “Since September 11, there’s been a stronger emphasis on volunteering in general and giving back to the community.” One result, she notes, is “there has been a higher level of interest” from families who want to get involved in volunteer projects.
Young school-age children, such as Toby, may have an unquestioning “let’s do it” attitude toward community service; if their parents are involved, they’ll join in. For families with older children, however, particularly with sometimes-skeptical teenagers, getting started volunteering may be more of a challenge.
From Doubters to Doers
Four years ago, Maureen Howlett of Wakefield joined her brother’s family, including her two nephews, to help out at a holiday party at a Chelsea homeless shelter. She says that at first, the boys, then ages 12 and 15, grumbled, “Why do we have to do this? It’s Saturday!”
But the kids went along, helping to serve food and give out gifts. When the family returned home, Howlett explains, “All of us were so moved by this, we just kept talking about it. One of my nephews, who’s a big strapping football player, was really humbled. He was so touched by how touched these people were with such little gifts.”
“On Christmas Day, when we opened our own things, we were, like, ‘Wow, we’re so fortunate!’” Howlett says that volunteering at this holiday event has become an annual tradition for her family.
Similarly, when Newton resident Wendy Wheeler suggested last year to her daughter Emily, now 14, that their family volunteer at a downtown soup kitchen, Emily wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She wondered, “What’s this going to be like? Are there going to be any other kids besides me?”
Despite these initial reservations, however, the Wheeler family has become regular volunteers at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston, which, Wendy Wheeler says, “provides a sit-down dinner for the hungry every Thursday evening.”
“For a teenager, working in a place like that is a good experience,” according to Wheeler. Some children and their families help with food preparation, rather than serving, but Emily enjoys the interaction with the people who come in for a meal.
The volunteer work has triggered discussions in the Wheeler household about homelessness. “We all have our ups and downs,” Wheeler says, and her daughter now understands that the people they see at the soup kitchen “may have been in our situation not too long ago.”
Why Volunteer With Your Kids?
Like many other parents, Wheeler says she wrestled with the question of “How do you explain to kids how fortunate they are?” Just talking about it at home without any action behind it, she notes, “becomes kind of a lecture-y thing.”
Besides, “everybody likes to be useful,” Wheeler asserts, and kids, in particular, “don’t always get a chance to do things that are useful.”
Sometimes, volunteering can be a small thing that touches a family in a big way. Leslie Bliss, a Cambridge mother of three daughters – Emily (age 11), Abigail (age 9), and Rachel (age 7) – asked her children for ideas of small welcome gifts that their church could provide to a refugee family from Africa.
“As I was explaining that this family of five would be arriving in the U.S. with one duffel bag of belongings,” Bliss recounts, “the girls were aghast. They gathered up toys that they had never opened, stuffed animals that they had never adopted, backpacks that they had just thrown into the closet, and put together a big bag of gifts for the three kids.”
“It was a very powerful moment for them,” Bliss says, “to consider how much we have and how little many others have.”
Trudy Regan, another Cambridge parent, says, “As a child, we always were around aunts, uncles, and other older people.” Even though she no longer lives near her extended family, Regan wanted her kids to have a similar multigenerational experience. She and her children, Eleanor, Henry, and Mary Caroline, who are now 11, 9, and 7 respectively, spent about a year volunteering at a local assisted living facility.
During their once-a-month visits, they made cookies, did art projects, and just chatted with elderly residents. Regan says that one woman was a talented artist who – “even with crayons” – drew pictures that fascinated the children.
Although many parents are motivated to volunteer by the experience they think it will provide for their children, adults clearly benefit from their contributions, too. Wendy Wheeler explains, “My husband and I are both in the high tech industry” and with the recent downturn in the business climate, volunteering “helps us keep some perspective and see that things really aren’t so bad” in our own lives.
For families who want more tangible paybacks, there’s Serve New England. “If you do two hours of community service per month, we’re your reward for volunteering,” says Ann Adams, CFO of this Canton-based non-profit organization. Serve New England runs a food cooperative that provides significantly discounted grocery packages to anyone who meets the monthly volunteer requirement. For example, the Family Meal Package for November includes enough food to prepare four meals for a family of four – all for $18.
Although Adams says that their volunteer base draws from a cross-section of area communities, the agency’s food coop is particularly valuable for families who might otherwise not have the resources to volunteer.
If you’re thinking about volunteering with family members but don’t know how to get started, several organizations in the Boston area can help.
In September, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, in conjunction with local PBS affiliate WGBH, published Zoom into Action: A Family Guide to Volunteering. The United Way’s Melissa Wright explains that the guide lists “close to 100 non-profit agencies that welcome families as volunteers,” from helping with production at Salem Access TV, to volunteering at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, to assisting with Saturday brunch at the Pine Street Inn. According to Wright, the guide is “designed for families to look at together” to help them choose ways to volunteer.
Although the events of September 11 may have spurred a greater public dialogue about volunteerism, interest in family volunteering has been building for some time, according to a 2001 report on America’s Family Volunteers from Independent Sector, a coalition of non-profits, foundations, and corporations whose goal is to strengthen philanthropy and citizen action. This report concluded that in 1998, roughly half of all volunteers served with a family member; in 1991, the number had been 43%.
Matt Lebovic, Director of Volunteers at Boston Cares, says that his organization also has informally noted an increase in family volunteers. Boston Cares sends out a monthly calendar that lists more than 100 volunteer projects in about a dozen areas, ranging from environmental causes to working with the elderly.
Lebovic explains that Boston Cares “gets people in the door,” attracting many first time volunteers, since “no ongoing commitment is required.” You can simply check the volunteer calendar and sign up for an activity that fits into your schedule.
When Boston Cares was established in 1991, their core demographic target was young professionals ages 25-35, but Lebovic says they’ve found that many families have the same sort of time constraints as single professionals. Families, too, are frequently interested in short-term or one-time volunteer options. The Boston Cares calendar flags projects as “Kid and Teen Friendly” if young volunteers are welcome.
Boston Cares Project Leader Julie Raphel took her 10-year-old niece Cassidy Fechtor of Natick with her recently to help out at a downtown Boston soup kitchen. As Cassidy described the experience, “I served lunch to ladies who are homeless. We made sloppy joes and talked to the ladies.”
“It’s nice to help people,” Cassidy concluded, “and it’s fun, too.”
Just Do It
No matter what you think you’d like to do as a volunteer, “just choose something,” Sharon Bonnell advises. “We can’t all do everything. Choose something that in some way relates to you.”
After Bonnell and her partner Meg Bradley adopted their daughter Laura Elizabeth from Cambodia 18 months ago, Bonnell says, “I joined the parent advisory committee for the Sharing Foundation,” an organization that supports the orphanage and other projects in Roteang village, where Laura Elizabeth was born.
“My involvement with the Sharing Foundation is obviously one that’s near and dear to me,” Bonnell says. When you choose something that resonates with you personally, she adds, “You have more energy. There’s more of a devotion.”
The Wheeler family opted to help out in their own town, when they volunteered for Newton’s Community Service Day last spring. Wendy Wheeler, her husband, and her daughter worked with another family to build a garden for an elementary school, digging, weeding, and clearing the land. “It rained all day,” Wheeler recalls, but “the kids got to gripe together and get muddy together.”
For the Bliss family, much of their volunteer work is done through their church. In December, for example, the whole family will help out at a church fair that raises money for community outreach programs. “The older girls sing in the choir during the fair,” Leslie Bliss says, and “Rachel and I volunteered to make cookies.” Dad Dave gets into the act as “Mr. Sandwich Board Man, advertising the fair” in Harvard Square throughout the event.
By getting Mom, Dad, and the kids working together, Bliss explains, “We try to cultivate the culture in our family that we are expected to give back to the community.”
To some, like Maureen Howlett, volunteering can be “a bittersweet experience.” She regrets that her small time commitment seems like such a drop in the bucket. “It doesn’t seem like enough,” she says, wondering, “If I’m only one person, how can I do more?”
Still, by involving family members, Howlett and others can multiply their contributions. Even young volunteers like Toby Bonnell-Bradley see strength in numbers.
“Maybe I’ll have other kids be in a play with me,” he says, “And then I’ll give the money to all the poor people in the world.”