On any given weekend day, and some weekdays, too, families and teens across Central Texas are logging into a Zoom meeting and volunteering. First they learn about that day’s chosen nonprofit organization, and then they do things like designing cards for kids in hospitals or seniors in nursing homes, putting together snack bags for refugees or homeless people, or making toys and blankets for animals.
Generation Serve, which started 11 years ago and was called Little Helping Hands, has pivoted what it does in its three core programs to offer virtual volunteering during social distancing because of the coronavirus while providing the context for why doing the activity matters.
The goal is to create community-minded leaders, says executive director Amy Loar. "We’re showing them how they can help no matter how old you are," she says.
During the pandemic, Generation Serve is also showing families that they can continue to help even if they can’t visit an organization in person.
The program staff reached out to its nonprofit partner organizations and asked how could families help right now. A lot of those groups are not back in their offices but are continuing to serve the community remotely. "As they’ve been able to shift, we’ve moved along with them," Loar says. "We really have to react to what the situation is."
The program has posted suggestions on the Generation Serve website and has continued to host volunteering activities.
When families sign up for a volunteer activity now, they pick up kits in Generation Serve’s parking lot, usually the Thursday before. Then, at a set time, they log in and learn about the organization and how this activity will help that organization. Families then do the project.
The following week, they drop off the finished project at a designated time in the Generation Serve parking lot. It’s all done without physical contact.
"It is a little more work on the families," Loar says, because they are driving twice to Generation Serve and back, instead of just showing up on one day to the nonprofit organization and having all the supplies there and then going home after the project is completed.
Even with the extra steps, "they make it so easy to volunteer with your family," says Liz Bronson, whose children Lexie, 13, and Zachary, 11, have done about 60 projects with Generation Serve since they were 5 and 3. This month, they made snack bags for Caritas of Austin’s clients.
"It’s not the same," she says. "It’s so different to go to Caritas and make the meals and see the people outside the building who are going to benefit," she says. "But I’ve been so impressed with how they have been able to pivot this summer."
Generation Serve has had to scale down some of its programs from offering 80 to 90 activities a month to 30 or 40.
For fall, it’s planning to continue the Service Learning program for kids ages 8-12. The in-depth semesterlong program would typically have kids visiting different organizations and volunteering and then doing their own project based on what they’ve learned. This year, they will visit virtually and continue doing a personal project.
This fall, there are three themes to choose from: Serving Animals, Serving Nature and Serving Peers. Many of the activities and organizations chosen are outdoors, with the hope that if the coronavirus situation improves locally they can do some in-person volunteering in a small, socially distanced group, but all of them can remain virtual depending on the current COVID-19 infection rates.
The application for Service Learning is available at generationserve.org/servicelearningprogram.html and is $160, though there is fee assistance. The family volunteering events are free but have a suggested $30 donation.
Part of what kids take away from Service Learning is how to work with a nonprofit organization and do a manageable project from start to finish in two months.
"The creativity that they have about some things is amazing," Loar says. One year they had a 10-year-old who was really into "Harry Potter" and created a tall cutout tree on which you could donate socks for the homeless after he learned that, like with the house elf in "Harry Potter," socks are a precious commodity for people who are experiencing homelessness.
Two years ago, a girl went around after Halloween and collected everyone’s pumpkins to give to the animals at the Austin Zoo. That then became a Girl Scout project the following year.
Bronson’s kids have done the Service Learning program in addition to family volunteering. Zachary’s Service Learning linked him with Safe in Austin animal rescue ranch, where he continues to volunteer.
The ranch connects animals who have been abused or neglected to kids with special needs or a background of abuse or neglect. For his project, he collected towels and dog food from friends. The next year, he raised money to support the ranch and was able to help pay some of their veterinary bills.
Service Learning runs in the fall and spring, and kids can sign up more than once because the focus changes.
Bronson says volunteering has empowered her children. "It helps them think about things in a bigger way. They have seen their own impact," she says.
It’s also allowed herself and her husband to model what it means to be community-minded. "They see how I treat people at a Micah 6 food pantry," she says, and that includes making eye contact.
"For my children, they are growing up in a privileged environment," she says. "I wanted to burst the bubble in the safest way."
It’s not just the activity; it’s the conversation and the awareness that follow it.
Generation Serve also has a teen program. Each Saturday, it offers a different virtual teen service day event. This month, the teen program has focused on Black Lives Matter with the Black Bodies Project, pets with Central Texas SPCA and mental health with National Alliance on Mental Illness.
For teens who want a deeper dive, Generation Serve runs a teen leadership program, which is an intensive one-week program in summer with a $200 fee, and has a teen advisory board.
Some of the activities tend to fill up fast, especially when they were in person, but Bronson’s trick is to become a supporter of Generation Serve to get early access. "Just like we pay for baseball, we pay for this," she says. It’s about the convenience of volunteering and having it organized for you as well as the educational component, she says.
Bronson’s other trick is to look at the calendar on the website generationserve.org a few days before and even the day of events because sometimes people cancel and a spot opens up. Generation Serve also posts openings on its Facebook page.
For Loar, the research on why kids should volunteer is clear. It helps them be more well-rounded adults and more community-minded.
"We need community more in any way we can get it now," she says.