For your next family outing, ditch the arguments about “who wants to do what” by volunteering together and focusing your clan on the needs of others. Uniting as a team for good temporarily frees your family from isolating technology and other normal life demands. Helping out teaches stewardship to your children (who is the “someone else” that will deal with this problem?), and can immediately make them a part of the history of projects with lasting impact.

Volunteering can also give you a chance to make connections outside of your normal circles, see things through different eyes, and maybe get the perspective to attack your own struggles in a new way. Here are some quick resources and tips for getting involved.

Start with the Volunteer Center of Whatcom County

“We have around 100 partners in the community that we place volunteers to support,” says Summer Starr, the Volunteer Coordinator at The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County. A simple family activity could be a quick browse through the list of agencies to see all the different kinds of philanthropic work done by local community organizations. From public works to animal welfare, there are probably multiple causes on that list your kids already know about. Discussing how places they think of as “businesses” are actually run by people giving their time to support the community is a great place to start. Children’s art programs, parks, and museums are easy model topics.

Volunteering is a great way to make new friends and learn about other future outings! Photo courtesy: Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

Next, find the right fit. “While many non-profits are limited in the kind of work they have that is appropriate for children, we’ve made it really easy to find activities for families. Just go to the Volunteer Center’s website and click on kid-friendly activities,” says Starr. She adds, “It is important to think of these as family activities, not supervised events where you would drop off a child and leave. But some great choices are regularly posted.”

Three ongoing activities Starr mentions for families are Field Fridays, the Bellingham Community Meal Program, and Community Garden Support. Field Fridays are all-day outings with the staff of Whatcom Land Trust for property monitoring, restoration, and stewardship tasks. There are 3-6 spots available for each outing, and you must RSVP. While described as rugged work, this opportunity promises access to lands not normally available for exploration.

Have a kid that likes to pretend to be a chef or wait staff? The Bellingham Community Meal Program strives to feel like a restaurant while serving hot meals on the last Saturday of the month from January through October. Meals are free for anyone who is hungry. Volunteer shifts are usually 2-3 hours, once per month, and can be filled by anyone from age 8 up in food preparation, serving, dishwashing, and general set up.

Work parties provide kids fun experiences to do work with “grown-up” impacts. Photo courtesy: Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

If you want to be outside, Community to Community Development’s community garden project needs everything from planting to weeding and pruning to watering. The scalable nature of gardening work makes it accessible for all skills and attention spans.

Starr also mentioned to keep any eye out—or sign up for reminders—for local work parties. Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Whatcom Land Trust, and the City of Bellingham Parks Department all host group project work where you can find camaraderie and flexibility of work.

When you visit any agency’s listing on the Volunteer Center website, you can click “Become a Fan” to get regular updates about their work and opportunities to help. Her other tip was to be aware of special days that often have events. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a chance for folks that are off work to be “on” for their communities—and there are often several work gatherings. October brings “Make a Difference Day,” with nationwide opportunities.

Kid-Centered Educational Programs

Occasionally, when organizations don’t have specific tasks for youth they do have youth education programs on stewardship. According to Bellingham Food Bank Communications Coordinator Kristin Costanza, “We encourage volunteers aged 13 and up, but have tours and educational programs for families with younger kids.” Of course, any age of child can help gather and drop off food donations or work in your own Victory Garden.

Many areas where families can volunteer their time are public parks, planting native species that provide buffers for our waterways. Photo credit: Stacee Sledge

Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association is a great example of one of many organizations dedicated to making the community an active part of the solution, so its programs are always inclusive and many are aimed specifically at children.

Nathan Zabel, NSEA Education Program Coordinator explains, “Our community work parties in the fall and spring are the shining example of environmental stewardship that positively impacts salmon.” Appropriate for all ages, volunteers who come for the three-hour session on Saturday mornings are greeted and given a lay of the land, and then introduced to an intern who stays with their group.

“Participants are usually planting native species that will provide a buffer for the Nooksack Watershed, out-compete invasive species, and eventually provide shade and keep waters cooler for the salmon,” Zabel says. “The intern provides education throughout the work session about how the work that is being done helps salmon.”

Kids who volunteer through school programs can take parents and siblings on outings to share their work later. Photo courtesy: Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association

Zabel notes that many of these areas are public parks, and kids can return to check the environment, their plantings, and continue the education by telling others about their work. This element is also true of their flagship education program, Students for Salmon, which serves 90% of Whatcom County’s 4th grade students in public, private, and tribal schools. While this program focuses on students, the hands-on work is almost always within walking distance of the students’ school, providing a sense of place. That work site is then also accessible for a family outing later to have the youngster “lead” an information session on what they learned. The pride of seeing a planting grow can be a powerful lesson.

Girls enjoy photos of themselves helping over the past ten years at the same family philanthropic event. Photo credit: Amy Anderson Guerra

“Some other great outings would be salmon sightings during chum and coho season in the fall—this is a firsthand way to witness the struggle of salmon and what they go through to lay their eggs,” Zabel adds. “In the summer, we run the Nooksack River Stewards programs out of the Glacier public service center, including activities ranging from free river walks to campfire events in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.”

Make Your Own Volunteer Opportunity

From helping elderly neighbors to pet-sitting for friends, a family volunteer activity might be as easy as an offer to have a work party in a sick neighbor’s yard. Remember that birthday parties are a chance to celebrate the community as well as another year of life. My daughter regularly asked for donations to the charity of her choice instead of presents when she was little, and then discovered the joy of dropping off her “big” donation to the Marine Life Center (and getting to help feed an octopus as a thank you). Creating an annual family event with friends around an act of philanthropy teaches giving, but results in getting a lot of memories in return, as well.

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