Spring break is upon us. We could head to a beach somewhere. We could hide out in our home binge-watching shows. We could create our own staycation at places in Austin that have kid-friendly activities right now.
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Or we could take this spring break and start a new family tradition: giving back to our community.
Author Natalie Silverstein has written a guidebook to show us just how to start in small ways and build up to a family culture of doing just that. Her "Simple Acts: The Busy Family's Guide to Giving Back" ($19.95, Gryphon House) doesn't require you to jump into a weekly or even monthly commitment. It just wants you to start and gives you age-appropriate suggestions on how to do that.
Silverstein, who lives in New York City, talks about her own struggle to find activities she and her children, who are now 18, 15 and 11, could all do. A lot of nonprofit organizations have age restrictions, and what is appropriate for one child isn't always for another child. When her kids were 13, 11 and 6, she decided one Martin Luther King Jr. Day to visit a soup kitchen. The 13-year-old and her friends sorted toiletries for kits as they were assigned. The 11-year-old got bored early and ended up playing piano for the crowd. The 6-year-old served as a greeter with Silverstein.
It wasn't how it was originally planned, but it worked.
As Silverstein wanted to do more, she kept looking for an organization that would be a clearinghouse for family volunteering and couldn't find one in New York City. Austin is lucky in that we have Generation Serve, generationserve.org, which keeps a monthly calendar of volunteer opportunities for families, though often slots fill up quickly.
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Silverstein did find a clearinghouse in Minneapolis called Doing Good Together, doinggoodtogether.org, and began to work with them on spreading that concept to more cities.
That work spawned the book, which gives parents many ideas on projects they can do from anywhere. "Simple Acts" gives ideas for play dates, birthday parties and vacations and around themes. It also talks about how to create a family tradition of services.
Silverstein suggests that with small children, you should start by reading a story about the activity you are about to do or the group you are going to help.
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One of the barriers is the organizations themselves. Often, they will list age restrictions, but when Silverstein calls, they often will tell her that if a 12-year-old volunteers side by side with a parent, it's fine. She is challenging what organizations put on their websites. "No one is going to drop their kid off," she says. "That's not the expectation. This is not baby-sitting. ... Families want to come and volunteer together," she says.
She suggests that families have a meeting and discuss what they're interested in. Is it animals? Is it homelessness? "What is our family mission? What are the things we care about?"
The age of a child is also important. Think about their attention span.
Volunteering can't be all about you and your family's needs, either. It's important to consider the people you are helping. This is an opportunity to educate, but also to do good.
"What you want is work that is fulfilling and meaningful to them and has some benefit and outcome for the agency or person," Silverstein says.
She's big on what she calls "kitchen table kindness." That means drawing pictures for soldiers or cards for people in the hospital or nursing home, building sandwiches or care packages, or making no-sew blankets. These are all things that can be done on your schedule, with one kid or a group of kids.
Then you can go drop off the care packages.
"It's a very low-key, low-stress, nice way of spreading some sunshine," she says.
Her family often does this for the assisted living community next door.
It also can be as simple as bringing a trash bag with you the next time you go to the park and cleaning up the playground and pathways before you play.
"It doesn't have to be, 'Find an organization, sign up and go through the training,'" she says. Instead, you are modeling a behavior. "If you make it habit, it becomes something that is a consistent way of doing business."
That means that maybe your Thanksgiving tradition is to do a canned food drive or to serve meals at a soup kitchen that week. Maybe you buy extra supplies to donate during back-to-school shopping. Maybe several times a year you clean out their clothing and their toys and donate them.
For the parent who feels stretched thin enough already, who feels like this would be adding one more thing, Silverstein challenges that. "We are all so busy, and we prioritize so many things: soccer and ballet and martial arts. This is just as important. Saying yes to this may mean saying no to something else, but it is infinitely worth it," she says.
"It's like drops in the bucket that accumulate over time," she says. "Kids who volunteer are much more likely to do it as adults."