Volunteerism, family-style

A Facebook friend asked me this question the other day: “Just looking for a bit of advice. Do you have a book you can recommend or a blog post about balancing getting involved with causes and balancing family?”


Great question, eh? I think that especially when parenting little ones, it’s important to be sure not to over-commit. Parenting is our main ’cause’, after all, and I think we really have to be wary of things that deprive our kids of our attention and energy. Ann Voscamp wrote a great post along those lines here.

I occasionally feel a pang of guilt that I do almost nothing volunteer-ish at our church, with the exception of supervising church camp cooking every June. Granted, that is a HUGE undertaking.  But it only takes a couple weeks a year, and I didn’t begin it til my kids were past the toddler stage. I may have time to fill other positions at church later in life, but for now I’m at my limit in that department.

Other families have had good luck doing volunteer projects with their kids, especially once they’ve reached elementary age. A few years ago my oldest daughters and I and some friends sewed dresses to bring to kids in the orphanage where our younger daughters lived.  It was a really fun project that let us get together with friends for a couple hours a week for a couple of months.

I’ve heard of families who arrange to sing and visit at nursing home a time or two a month.  Some work together with their kids in soup kitchens or community gardens.  Others fill boxes for Operation Christmas Child.  There are many ways to help in the world.  I think the answer for each family is unique, and needs to be evaluated often and prayerfully.

What about you?  Is there a particular activity that has worked well for your family?  Something that didn’t work?  How did you balance volunteerism and your family’s needs? Please chime in and share your wisdom, friends.

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  1. Angela Mayer says:

    There are two opportunities that blessed our socks off because they included our little children. A local ministry that brings groceries to the poor and homeless in our community lets our little ones help pack the grocery bags. Even my kindergartener was made to feel like a man: he got to cut open the boxes with his piece of quartz. 🙂 On a bigger scale, there is a YWAM ministry in CA called Gleanings for the Hungry. They’ve always let us bring our young children along and help with packaging food items that are distributed to ministries worldwide. I appreciate when those in charge of ministries value children and make them feel valuable to the Lord’s church. I think it helps them feel connected and important to the Body, and to stick around when they are grown. Our church work days are another time when our kids feel like the church is “theirs”, not just the grown-ups’.

  2. When I had my first little babies I focused on them, maybe not so much out of conscious choice but out of new mom this is all I can do survival. But as I added more children and was a more seasoned/surrendered Mom I was able to add ONE ministry. I must insert here that I was adding this to only family life. We were not involved in kids sports, music or anything of that nature. I think for a lot of people one outside thing is enough and you have to choose. When I did add the ministry it was leading a Mom’s group for the other Mothers around me. It was fruitful as well as feeding my need. I am now in a new stage, and excited to see what others respond here. Homeschooling my first year has become my one ministry. Looking forward to seeing how others add outside ministry to that. Blessings for your family first response – always.

  3. I’m training to become a leader for BVN, which a Dutch equivalent of La Leche League. So many moms are poorly informed about breastfeeding, and this organization helped me a lot when I first started to nurse. I’d like to pay that forward.

  4. We love all of the things that we are involved in because we feel like they are an extension of our family time. We help teach in the preschool Wednesday night program at our church. This gives us special time with our older daughter and her friends. We also work in the toddler nursery which gives us time with our younger daughter and her little friends. Both also allow us to get to know the parents, allowing for a great community outside of church settings. We were foster parents for the state for a year – not something that I would recommend with such little bio kids (They were 4 and 1 at the time). However, we really felt called to that ministry and have found the perfect niche – fostering new born babies who are being adopted. It allows us to give back to our community, it doesn’t change our lifestyle very much because we already have little ones, and our kids get to learn all about unconditional love. We also do things like Angel Tree, Operation Christmas Child, etc. They don’t require a ton of our time and attention, but they have a lasting affect on our community, and again, provide very teachable moments for our children.

  5. Such good advice, Mary. 🙂 Our level of commitment outside the home has changed as the seasons in our life have changed.

    Some things we’ve done (as a family with little ones) to serve without taking away from home:

    + Donating our things to a “closet” ministry operated by another family in our church.

    + Filling zip bags with food, water, and toiletries to be handed out when we meet homeless people in our community.

    + Contributing to church-provided meals at our local women’s shelter. (Families without young children serve the meal. We just drop off the food.)

    + Writing notes and drawing pictures for missionaries and soldiers.

    I’m eager to read what other ideas are mentioned! 🙂

  6. I’m not a mom, just the blessed recipient of lots of serving :-).

    I just want to encourage you moms how much of a blessing you can be by including people in your family! I had a lot of family stress throughout high school- parents getting a divorce, etc, and I was majorly hurting for stable adults in my life. I babysat for a family at my church with young kids, and they made a HUGE impact on me just by including me in their family life. I laugh with the mom still, ten years later, about it- she worried so much that she didn’t have more time to serve “outside the home.” But just by including a somewhat driftless teenager in their family dinners and celebrations, letting me see a stable family life, and investing in me through casual conversation and encouaragement over dishes or driving to soccer practices, I was soooo ministered to.

    • What a wonderful testimony, Emily. You are right, just including someone else can be a blessing to them. I hadn’t thought about that. Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. When kids were smaller, volunteering was very difficult but I really made the effort and when I started to remember to list here was surprised at how many places a person can help in their community even if you have small children. We would help with food pantries, have kids pick donation monthly from Heifer International, once a month food giveaway at church, church nursery, food for elderly or someone who just had baby, students with reading in the middle school and high school, and neighbors and family with painting houses to snow shoveling. We have also walked the Relay for Life the last 12 years (13 year old daughter is a 12 year survivor). For years I traveled three hours one way to clean grandmother’s house twice a month with one or more of the kids. Then there are the times we borrowed our vehicle to the visiting missionaries to use and the untold times I babysat for someone at church. Oh and the many fundraisers we have worked for Operation Smile and that I am a certified Hospice Volunteer for five years now. We have also volunteered rooms in our house to host students from overseas for weeks at a time to just a couple of nights when a singing group is in the community.

    As kids have gotten older volunteering has taken on a whole new face for our family. Kids volunteer for one year’s time in between the time they graduate high school and then go to college and/or work or military. This has given them a perspective of cultures they would not have had otherwise and an experience of a lifetime. All but one of my children volunteered during this year’s time overseas in Africa or South Africa. My last child decided to stay in our community and has volunteered the entire year at the high school daily with special education students.

    Volunteering is a way of life for our family whether it be in our community or with our family or on the other side of the world.

  8. I don’t have kids yet, but you made me think about what my family did. My family was very focused on school and not very outward focused, but there were two things my parents involved us in that I think made a difference. At Christmas time, my school created boxes for the Navajo children that lived near us (like Operation Christmas Child). We LOVED filling those boxes and thinking about what kids our age would need. One way to extend that could have been to work on it throughout the year or have us raise some of our own funds to fill the boxes… they were probably expensive to my parents to fill.

    My mom also always volunteered in the preschool at church, and I was there alongside her. She started in my sister’s 3s class, when I was 7, and I was expected to help and care for the kids from that age. I worked with her in nurseries and Sunday School classes until I left for college, and I’m sure that experience contributed to the fact that I am a teacher today.

    My friends always took their three little girls and a group of high schoolers downtown to spend time with people living on the streets and pass out little essential items. They really focused on teaching all the kids to interact with these people in a way that honored them as God’s creation. The kids loved it so much, that their 7 year old daughter requested to do this as her birthday party!

  9. Sandwich in Wi says:

    Reading these reminded me of a bunch of things I’d forgotten. My husband and I volunteered in our children’s Sunday School rooms at whatever age they were, from nursery through high school. Our local food pantry allowed my husband to bring our preschool+ aged children along and they got to stock shelves (both my older girls now volunteer on their own at the food pantry). I made meals for our church’s meal ministry. I babysat at very low cost for certain families as a blessing.

    And one thing I didn’t see mentioned here was delivering Meals on Wheels. It took one hour a month and I’d strap in the kids and go. We had about 20 meals to deliver in an hour’s time and I knew the one or two individuals who enjoyed having the kids stop in and say hi (there isn’t time to visit with everyone and still deliver the food hot) They always came in to the apartment buildings with me, too and at least waved to the residents.

    Great post, Mary!


  10. Amazing idea’s. I just recently volunteered at a local food pantry and was touched deeply by what I saw. A local family opens their home every week and runs the pantry out of their garage, amazing. The day I helped out they ran out of dry beans. My family has and is going thru some struggles financialy and if the good lord hadn’t set certain things in motion to help us we in the not so distant past would have ended up at their home for help. I knew when my church donated I had to volunteer, and when they ran out of beans I ached. I had a little money saved and after a couple of days of prayer I knew what I had to do. I took my daughter down and purchased 25lbs of beans for the pantry. The struggle I had was with using the small amount I had saved to purchase the beans.I am going to volunteer again tomorrow and now everyone wants to join in hubby and the kids it’s great to see how one action can ripple.

  11. Our situation may be a little unusual, but I think with a little tweaking it could work for anyone. My husband and I work with Iraqi refugees, and we involve our kids as much as possible in natural ways. We go for meals, hang out, help with homework, etc. I think if service can be viewed as part of who a family is, that’s a healthy way for kids to grow up.
    And I loved the person earlier who mentioned how involving someone in your family can help. I have seen the benefits of that! If you involve a teen or single adult in your family life, everyone benefits!

  12. I am still in the baby and toddler stage, being pregnant with baby #5. I also have two children with special needs. I have to limit myself to only a small amount as otherwise I burn myself out. This year is a year of rest for me after some burnout.

    For this season, I’m finding that the best thing for me is a multitude of “one off” ways to serve is what I can manage. Sometimes I can offer to take a meal to a family with a new baby, other times I am struggling to get meals on the table for my family and can’t possibly add another meal to my week. Sometimes I can offer to babysit other people’s children as needed and other times I’m the one who desperately needs their children cared for.

    I think each person and each family has its own limitations. In this season, my family (little ones + special needs) HAS to be my focus. It’s a season, and although this season might last longer for some than others, it will eventually pass.

  13. Paul and I teach CCD at our parish. Ever since completing our fourth adoption, finances have been tight so we aren’t able to be as generous with those extra needs a parish might have. However, teaching First Communion class is one thing we can do and we do it together. We don’t do much else by way of volunteerism, except when the parish has an outreach day, we get the whole family involved. This last September, we filled baggies with trail mix to be handed out at our local homeless daycenter, and we walked the neighborhood around the church and picked up garbage that had been thrown around. The homeless project was an especially good conversation starter with our children.

    I hope that as our children get older (like in their tweens and teens) and their immediate medical/emotional needs are not as time consuming, we’ll be able to do more projects together.

  14. I’ve never done much at church aside from VBS week and being an occasional nursery worker. My three oldest children are very involved in sports and we have found that volunteering to assist their teams, manage their teams and improve the fields where they play is an amazing way to connect and support many non-Christian youth and their families… hopefully modeling for them a better way to live. It may not sound like the ultimate in Christian volunteerism but at this point in our lives, it’s become a huge way to serve both our children and their peers.

  15. I have two young children. For my oldest’s 3rd birthday, i am hosting a play date party with my mom’s group and instead of gifts, asking everyone to bring three canned food items to donate to a food bank. Simple and hopefully a good way to start teaching my son how to give to others.

    • Shannon that is an amazing idea. I recently volunteered at a local foodbank and this is a great way to get the word out and get people donating year around. I think I just might borrow the idea for my daughters 5th b-day. I was thinking of having a neighborhood bbq since we don’t know many people this would be a great way to give back as well.

  16. For several years our family ran a bus route. With all our children(7) we were able to work together to love on the kids. We moved and have found that for now our family does best doing random acts of kindness (Christmas boxes for elderly people, the Parachute Project through Voice of the Martyrs, Ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, etc.). We also support a Compassion Child and the kids love to write to him.
    I try to involve my kids when I serve….my oldest daughter is my assistant for me at Kid’s Church once a month. I want my kids to realize that the world is about more than themselves it’s about Jesus and others:)

  17. Last summer I volunteered to teach a VBS class. I live an hour from church, and my oldest was 4, with a 3 and 2 year old besides, and it was just too much. It was really stressful for us as a family to drive 2 hours a day and be crazy busy during VBS hours. My kids got sick, and I had migraines that I’d been free of for years. Plus, I did not feel like I was making an impact, at all.

    But what is working is nursery volunteering, which from personal experience, I know is a great blessing to parents. We also have a huge plot in the church garden, which we will harvest for donations to a soup kitchen. We make meals occasionally to take to new mommas. Service that is one-time, no extended commitment, is what has been working for us.

  18. We have very small children right now, and one with special needs, so volunteering has to be carefully balanced with family life. For now, what works is letting the kids help shop for food for the food pantry or a family in need. We also try to make sure that families who are traveling for mission work or adoptions come home to a house that is stocked with food…it’s a little thing that means a lot to them and my kids can all help with it. And since one of our kids is adopted we make a special effort to help support families around us who are going through adoptions by helping with their fundraisers, providing meals and offering to babysit.