Service is the thread that binds us

When we involve our families in community service, we reap what we sow.

It is time to flip the old adage, “What goes around comes around.” More often than not we hear this familiar expression either as a way to dissuade someone from potentially acting against another or to caution how negative experiences are impacted by karma. I prefer to interpret this through the lens of good karma. Yes, we reap what we sow; but if we sow selflessness, generosity and kindness, we’ll be justly rewarded. It is the natural order of how we humans help each other and in turn trust that others – even complete strangers – will have our back when times get tough. It is a pattern that has repeated itself since the beginning of time, each generation educating the next about the importance of giving of one’s self through their own time and resources.

As parents, we owe it to our kids to introduce them to the joy of giving. Children who volunteer are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, and far more likely to act altruistically as adults. Volunteerism in childhood creates a healthy habit that will benefit kids for life; in adults it appears to lower stress levels, improve mood, increase a sense of purpose, and help people connect with the world around them. Community service gives children opportunities for independent work which can strengthen independence and leadership skills, build self-esteem, and provide valuable initial work experience. Community service has even been shown to be an effective tool in school dropout prevention. A study in the Journal of Early Adolescence concluded that serving the community helps kids make a connection between school and the real world that in turn boosts self-esteem, reduces problem behaviors, and reduces depressive mood.

So, how do we teach our children to want to give of themselves? It starts at home as we model selfless acts for our kids – and most of us already are doing this. Taking a meal to an ailing friend, helping an elderly neighbor carry in groceries, or even picking up a piece of litter as it cartwheels across our path. Every day we do little things that help our communities. Being mindful of these acts and recruiting our kids to take part in them is a start. In fact, it is sometimes the only way to involve busy older children who can’t devote the time for a Saturday beach cleanup but can spare a few minutes to deliver a casserole next door.

We are all more likely to volunteer, and to enjoy the experience if we work with someone – and community service presents a perfect opportunity for meaningful family time. Most facilities that care for the elderly encourage volunteers of all ages to visit with residents, deliver flowers, or stroll with those in wheelchairs. Parks departments always welcome organized litter-pickup initiatives, and schools might be happy to take your family’s landscaping help. Train together and run or walk in a charity 5K event, or serve a meal in a soup kitchen.

There are many service activities that can easily include even young children. With a little assistance, they can assemble care bags with fruit and granola bars for the homeless and deliver them in person or to a local outreach organization. Kids can help plan a neighborhood canned good drive for a food bank, create greeting cards for hospital patients or veterans, or make rope pet toys to deliver to a local shelter. The CEngagorporation for National and Community Service showcases service opportunities broken down by age group (nationalservice.gov).

On April 22 thousands of people across the country will work in local initiatives to recognize Earth Day, which has galvanized and educated millions of volunteers since the inaugural celebration 47 years ago. This year Earth Day will focus on environmental education and climate literacy in “March for Science” gatherings throughout America (earthday.org). A broader initiative that weekend is Youth Service America’s Global Youth Service Day (April 21-23), which celebrates the selfless achievements of children and teens working to improve communities in more than 100 countries (ysa.org). On its website, YSA gives dozens of service ideas organized by categories to match kids with their interests: health, environment, poverty and hunger, education, human rights, and community building. Youth can register their service projects to gain local support and possibly international recognition.

We all have different priorities, but a common thread that weaves together our global society is the desire to make a difference. This time-honored ritual of lending a hand is passed down from parents to kids and builds on our instinctive needs to be useful and have a sense of purpose. Parents that work side-by-side with their kids to better the community realize their role in perpetuating the natural cycle of helping others, paying forward good deeds. After all, what goes around comes around.

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