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pennyDear Nadine,
I want my kids to have a spirited summer. Any ideas? — Spirited Mom, Hopkins

Add some soul to the swimming, sunshine and summer camp fun this summer and sign your kids up to volunteer!

Volunteering is a wonderful way through which kids develop caring, compassion and a can-do, will-do spirit, while making a heart-filled difference in another’s life. Dr. Mary Zurn, vice president of education for Primrose Schools, agrees: “Volunteering plays an important role in the development of character. It teaches children that they can do things that positively impact the world around them.”

Jane Allyn Piliavin, a retired University of Wisconsin sociologist notes, “Even at-risk children who volunteer reap big benefits!” Research shows that kids who volunteer have improved grades, self-concept and a positive attitude toward education. Volunteerism also led to reduced drug use and huge declines in dropout rates and teen pregnancies in at-risk kids. Volunteerism simply tunes kids into their spirit and turns them on to life!

And that’s why last summer, I decided to balance out the theater, soccer and art camps with a heart, mind and soul camp of my own. So, I signed my kids up to volunteer with me at a residential home for people with Alzheimer’s disease!

We didn’t know too much about the “memory disease,” as my son Leo called it, when we started out. Neither had my kids ever spent time with elderly and incapacitated people before. But what I soon realized is that my kids (like all spirited kids) have big hearts, and that’s all that was needed to bridge those gaps.

And so we spent summertime afternoons sitting with seniors who had lost their ability to speak, but could lift a hand to wave their thanks. We chatted to people who maintained marvelous memories of childhood, but had no notion of their own age. We answered questions that were repeated time and again.

Yasmin painted mottled nails hot pink. Scarlett tucked warm blankets around bowed shoulders and useless legs. And Leo held hands with elderly ladies who had once cooked and cleaned and loved and lost and worked tough jobs and raised large families, and who now sat silently in front of television sets that were always on, but never watched. Together we sang, we joked, we listened, we asked, we cared — and we were appreciated.

As we volunteered together as a family, I noticed how much we looked forward to our visits to the care home. We’d think of new books to take in, new jokes to share and new questions to ask. And while our visits weren’t always easy — we saw anger and tears, saw boredom and dependency — our visits were always meaningful. And sometimes, when I watched my kids reach out to bring a smile to creased lips, they were absolutely magical!

The Kids Helping The Elderly organization notes, “Research has shown many benefits of interaction between older adults and young people. Benefits to the elderly include reduction of depression, relief from boredom and generally improved activity and quality of life.” Moreover, psychiatrist Sharon Arkin found that for Alzheimer’s patients especially, visits by young people enhanced the “stabilization to their cognitive decline and improved their mood.” I saw those improvements first-hand and they were wonderful to see.

And what did my kids gain from their volunteering experience? Yasmin said it all. “We hadn’t spent time with elderly people who are unwell before, so it was eye-opening to see how difficult simple tasks — like getting up — were for them. As we got to know the residents, we changed our expectations for our visits. We learned that it was little things that made them smile, like singing songs or asking about their family. I’ll never forget how happy Paula was when she talked about her sisters, or how Richard enjoyed looking at art books with us. Those moments made it feel like we made a difference and that felt good. Volunteering is a special thing to do. It puts a smile into the hearts of the people you help and it puts a smile in your own heart, too!”

Of course, volunteering takes time and effort to organize and implement. Parents should also participate in the volunteering effort (at least until kids are well into their teens) to ensure safety and supervision, but it’s worth it. As Women’s Rights Activist Carrie Chapman Catt says, “Service to a just cause, rewards the worker with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture in life.”

So make volunteering a part of your kids’ summer — and winter, spring and fall, too! And whether your kids serve the elderly or volunteer in another capacity, know that they’re learning about the world around them, they’re growing in courage and conviction and they’re making a difference in the life of another — heart, mind and soul!

Tips to help your kids volunteer successfully
With parental supervision your spirited kids can put some soul into the world. Here are a few volunteering ideas that have worked for my family and might work for you and your kids, too:

  • Visit a senior center: Kids can read picture books to seniors, play card games like 21, Snap or Matching, or even do fun art projects like collage together. The Rakhma homes in Minnesota are one organization that invites family volunteers.
  • Volunteer at a food bank: Work together as a family. Kids can help stack tins and organize. Click for more information
  • Help the community together: Take your kids to pick up trash, pull weeds or offer to pick up the groceries for your neighbor in need.
  • Collect donations for an animal shelter: You and your kids can collect donations from friends and family members and drop them off at your nearest shelter. The Humane Society is one shelter that accepts donations.
  • Make sandwiches for the homeless: Kids can feed the homeless from the comfort of your kitchen, with some simple sandwich-making. Click to learn more

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Nadine Penny attained her M.A. from the University of Denver in Counseling Psychology. Nadine lives in Minnetonka where she works as a medium, life issues reader and Reiki master. Contact her at nadine.penny@gmail.com and visit www.nadinepenny.com.

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